logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2



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.


Types of aspect

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.

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 adverbs such as still, yet 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.
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.
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.

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.

If a language, for example, has a different form for an action which is repeated, e.g.,
    He was banging the drum
distinguishing it from one which is a one-off event:
    He banged the drum once
then what is called the iterative aspect is important.
In English, we have to insert some kind of marker such as once to make clear whether an action was a single one or a repeated one.  If we have
    He banged the drum while she played the violin
it is probable that the action was repeated so it's a progressive aspect but the verb is not marked that way.  However,
    He banged the drum and everyone fell silent
implies that the action was not iterative or progressive at all.  Some languages will distinguish the form of the verb in these cases.

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.
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
    I usually walked.
German does not distinguish between
    I have eaten
    I ate
nor, in non-dialect standard, between
    I write
    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, there are two 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, go to the guide to teaching tense and aspect.


Perfective, imperfective and perfect

She ran (perfectly)
He's still running

ELT is littered with terms which look almost the same but mean very different things.  This is one of those cases.
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.
is the term which indicates that an event is not completed.  Examples are:
    She is playing tennis with John
    I have lived here all my life
In neither case is the event perceived as finished.
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).
The perfect is, in English grammar, contrasted with the simple.

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


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)
        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).


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.