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Concourse 2

Aspect

aspect

There is a basic guide to tense and aspect in the initial plus section of the site.  If you aren't quite sure how aspect and tense are different, do that guide first.  It's quite short.

Aspect refers not to the time itself but to how the event or state is perceived.


aspects

Types of aspect in English and other languages

Because English language teachers are only concerned with the aspect structure of one language, we tend to over-simplify the area.  In fact, there are lots and lots of different aspects in languages.
English has a range but uses only a few ways to distinguish between them.  Worse, there is no one-to-one equivalence between form and aspect in English (or most other languages for that matter).
For example, take the following sentences:

  1. I know.
  2. I have eaten.
  3. I walked to school as a child.
  4. I used to play football.
  5. He is still eating.
  6. I broke the window.
  7. I was playing football.
  8. Fish swim.
  9. It's going to rain.
  10. I dreamed all night.
  11. He called the help line every hour all day.
  12. He was banging on the door for hours.

All these sentences can be referred to as different aspects of the verb.  Traditional English grammars, especially those written for learners, will only identify two aspects in these 10 sentences.  In fact, there are more than that and in many languages they would be distinguished grammatically using distinct verb forms, particles or auxiliary constructions.
One at a time:

1 I know. This looks like a simple present tense but in fact, it's in the continuous aspect because it describes a current state of affairs, not an event or action.  In that respect, it is in the same aspect as She is wearing a hat.
2 I have eaten. Most people will spot this as the perfect aspect in English and that is what it is.  It draws attention to the fact that the eating has a present relevance in some way.  Perfect aspect forms are always relative, showing the connection between two times.
3 I walked to school as a child. Both of these can be referred to as the habitual aspect and we can add something like
    I would read for hours as a child
in the same category.
Both of these can be referred to as imperfect (see below).
4 I used to play football.
5 He is still eating. In some languages, this, the continuative aspect, is distinguished by having its own form.  In English we mark this with adverbials such as still, yet, continually, over and over etc.
6 I broke the window. This is usually, in English, called the simple aspect but a better term (not to be confused with perfect, see below) is perfective.  It refers to an event viewed in its entirety.
7 I was playing football. This, on the other hand is an imperfect, i.e., ongoing or repeated.  It is also, in English, referred to as the progressive.
8 Fish swim. English uses the present tense for this but some languages have a tense form for generic aspect.  This is also called a gnostic aspect because it relates to knowledge of the world.
9 It's going to rain. This and other structures such as It's about to rain can be called the prospective aspect, referring to something imminent but from the present.
10 I dreamed all night. You may think this is the same aspect as I broke the window but it is clearly different in terms of duration of the event.  It can be called a durative aspect.
11 He called the helpline every hour all day. In English, these similar concepts may be expressed in the simple form (sentence 11) or in the progressive form (sentence 12).
However, it's clear that the actions are not instantaneous or continuous in the sense expressed in sentence 7, but repeated short events.
The term for this is iterative and some languages will have a different verb form to express this notion.
English uses adverbials to signal the repeated nature of the event.
12 He was banging on the door for hours.

That's not the end of the story and there are probably as many different aspects again as are listed here.  The point to understand is that which aspects we analyse and consider significant will depend on the structure of the language we are considering.

In summary, we may identify eight aspects which can be signalled either by tense forms or by adverbials in English.  Here's a summary:

summary

English, as we saw above, distinguishes in the form of the verb, the use of auxiliaries and adverbials to show perfect, continuous, habitual, prospective, iterative, durative, progressive and simple aspects.  That is, however, not the end of the story and there are many types of aspect which can be distinguished by forms in other languages.
It is also clear from the examples above that, with the exception of perfect and progressive aspects, there is no one-to-one relationship in English between verb form and aspect.  This can confuse learners whose languages are stricter in this regard, although many languages exhibit the same kind of inconsistent marking and much is often left for the reader / hearer to infer from context.

For example:

The habitual aspect:
In a sentence such as
    I worked hard when I was at university
the verb is a simple past form but the hearer can infer:
    a) that the speaker is no longer at university
    b) that the speaker habitually worked hard
so the use of a form such as would or used to is not necessary.  The habitual aspect is signalled by co-text and contextual clues.
Equally, English has no way to express a current habit by marking the verb form so present routines and habits are expressed in the present simple aspect.  For example:
    I take the train
refers to a present habit.
The perfect aspect:
The perfect aspect is always signalled in British English with the use of a form of have.  US usage, on the other hand, often uses the simple form and requires the reader / hearer to make the connection between relative events.  So, for example, BrE will prefer
    Has he left yet?
to relate a possible past event to now, but AmE often prefers:
    Did he leave yet?
for the same notion.
However, the situation is not so clear with the use of the past perfect aspect and, providing the ordering of events is clear, neither variety will use a perfect form of the tense so we can have either:
    I lost my keys and had to walk home
or
    I had lost my keys and had to walk home
But, when the speaker wishes to signal causality or the ordering of events is not otherwise clear, the perfect form will often be preferred so we have, e.g.:
    I had lost my keys so had to walk home
and
    I had lost my keys and walked home
The progressive aspect:
In English, the progressive is usually signalled by the use of be and the -ing participle as in:
    She is working in the garden so won't be in for lunch
but the same form is also used to signal a prospective aspect as in, for example:
    She is doing the driving tomorrow
which is progressive but calling it the present continuous for the future is misleading.  It simply shares the form, not the notion.
The issue is that, confusingly for some, English uses the same structure for multiple ideas (including, incidentally, the verbal noun or gerund).
The continuous, on the other hand, is often expressed using a simple aspect as in, e.g.:
    She believes in ghosts
    She likes Mozart

    She works in London
which are continuous but not progressive in any sense.  For more, see the guide to stative and dynamic verb uses linked in the list of related guides at the end.
The continuous aspect:
English can use both the simple and the progressive form of tenses to signal that an event or state is continuous (rather than progressive) and this often denotes a background relative to another action.  For example:
    The professor over there is writing another book
probably does not refer to what the professor is currently doing but refers to a background event.
We can also have, for example:
    The engine makes a lot of noise
which does not refer to the present but to a background event that has caused the owner to take it to a mechanic.  If we want to suggest that the event is progressive rather than a continuous background state, the form would usually be:
    The engine is making a lot of noise
but that, too, can be interpreted as a background event causing the visit to the mechanic.
The prospective aspect:
English uses a variety of forms to refer to a prospective event seen from the standpoint of now.  This is the reason it is sometimes averred that English has no future tense at all.  It is true that English cannot alter the inflection on a verb to signal futurity as, for example, is possible in French, Spanish and a number of other languages.  However, the will + bare infinitive form certainly does act as a future tense for all intents and purposes in expressions such as:
    She will be 35 tomorrow
The issue becomes blurred because the modal auxiliary will performs a variety of other functions in English that have little to do with the future per se and refer to present willingness so, for example:
    Will you marry me?
or
    Will you have another drink?
are not asking for speculation about the future in the same sense as, e.g.:
    Will it rain, do you think?
but refer, instead to current willingness
The iterative aspect:
Some languages reserve a particular tense form or set of inflections to express repeated events or actions.  English usually uses a perfect and/or a progressive form to do the same thing.  For example:
    Someone has been stealing my apples
    They have had problems
    She is working late these days

etc.
all of which express the sense of repetitive events rather than being perfect or progressive aspects.

See below for consideration of the durative aspect in English.

Other languages, it bears repeating, do things differently.

Moral 1: the aspects of verbs that we choose to analyse and teach in English are simply those which are marked in English.  In other languages, other aspects are more important and will be analysed and taught differently.
Moral 2: the aspects we focus on in English are not universals.  Languages differ dramatically in how they represent the nature of events.

Examples may help.

Italian distinguishes actions which are recent, remote and perfect or imperfect.  The language does not, however, distinguish between
    I was walking
and
    I usually walked.
German does not distinguish between
    I have eaten
and
    I ate
nor, in non-dialect standard, between
    I write
and
    I am writing
.
It is arguable that German does not exhibit aspect at all except through the addition of other markers such as adverbs and time expressions.
In Cantonese, and other Chinese languages, there are particles which may be added after the verb, one to signal the progressive aspect
    She is putting on her sandals
and one the continuous (state) aspect
    She is wearing sandals
English does not distinguish grammatically between these two aspects.

For much more on other languages and the variety of aspects which may be signalled grammatical in them, go to the guide to teaching tense and aspect.


running

Perfective, imperfective and perfect

She ran (perfectly)
He's still running
(imperfectly)

ELT is littered with terms which look almost the same but mean very different things.  This is one of those cases.
perfective
is the term used to indicate that an event or state is completed.  For example,
    I went to Margate last Thursday
is a perfective form which may or may not have present relevance but is clearly finished.
    Napoleon died in 1821
is another example of a perfective form in English.
imperfective
is the term which indicates that an event is not completed.  Examples are:
    She is playing tennis with John
and
    I have lived here all my life
In neither case is the event perceived as finished.
perfect
is the term used to signify an imperfective or perfective which has a certain tense structure.
For example,
    I have been to America
is a perfective (the act of going to America has been completed) but is a perfect tense indicating a present relevance of some sort.
    I have lived here all my life
is imperfective (but still a perfect form) because it also signifies some present relevance (in this case that the state is probably (not certainly) current).

Another way of visualising the aspect structure of English is like this:

aspect

There are advantages to seeing the English aspect system like this:

  1. It helps to clear up the stative / dynamic verb use problem by positing both a continuous and a progressive aspect.  This will be intuitively comprehensible to learners from many language backgrounds.  It explains, e.g., the concept of
        I wore a blue shirt yesterday
    as a simple past form being used to express the continuous aspect.  It also explains the difference between, e.g.,
        It costs a lot
    (continuous aspect)
    and
        It is costing a lot (progressive aspect).
  2. It shows how form and function may not be one-to-one equivalents and gets away from the assumption that, e.g., the -ing form is all we use for progressive and continuous aspects.
  3. It makes it clear that the so-called present perfect is a present aspect (not a past tense as the form is in many languages).
  4. It puts the past perfect in its place (which is not something that always occurs before the past).
  5. It makes perfective and imperfective forms clear.

hour glass

The durative in English

The sands of time ran slowly

It is quite arguable that English also has, in particular, a durative aspect which is often realised in different ways grammatically.  For example,

  • He would keep asking
  • I spent the evening trying to stay awake
  • I was watching television when he called
  • He will be working now
  • She gave a very long presentation
  • I slowly understood what the problem was

are all examples of English using a variety of forms to express the aspect, sometimes by changing the tense form, sometimes by using a modal auxiliary verb and sometimes by using adverbials.  For learners with some language backgrounds, that's easier to grasp than the usual focus on the progressive aspect (i.e., signalled by the -ing ending but not in certain senses of certain verbs).


combine

Combining aspects

English happens to be quite adept at combining aspects.  Other languages do this, of course, but not usually to the same extent.  For example:

  • I told you again and again not to do that: perfective and iterative
  • I have been running: perfect and durative / progressive
  • They will have worn the same coat: perfect and continuous
  • I had, as usual, arrived early: perfect and habitual


Related guides
a basic guide to tense and aspect for a much simpler guide in the initial plus sections of the site
stative and dynamic uses for more on verbs used in these ways and the role of aspect
teaching tense and aspect for more on how other languages handle this area and the problems that arise when teaching it
primary auxiliary verbs for more on how verbs like these function to make tenses and signal aspects
tense and aspect for a link to four guides to tenses and aspects
complex tense forms for a guide to how aspect and modality may be combined


There's a short test on this.