Speaking of Words: Verb Tense and Verb Aspect

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Michael Ferber

Speaking of Words
By Michael Ferber

       Many people think that English verbs have a large number of tenses.  They would say that he is eating lunch and he has eaten lunch are in different tenses, for example, and if they worked through all the possibilities they would conclude that English has twelve tenses, and even more if they included he would eat lunch and he used to eat lunch and a few other forms.

       But it is much clearer and simpler, as well as truer to the long history of English, if we employ another term that linguists call “aspect.”  English verbs express both tense and aspect, and so do the verbs of every other language in the Indo-European family.

       Tense can be defined as the point on the time-line that the action expressed by the verb takes place, with reference to the act of speaking, and in English there are three such points: past, present, and future.  Quite a few languages have more than three.  Two languages of the Niger-Congo family, for example, distinguish seven tenses by obligatory marks or inflections on their verbs: remote past (before yesterday), hesternal past (yesterday), hodiernal past (earlier today), present, hodiernal future (later today), crastinal future (tomorrow), and remote future (after tomorrow).  Every time you use a verb in one of these languages you must indicate one of these seven positions on the time-line.

       Aspect has to do with how the verbal action or event occupies time or extends over time.  A fundamental distinction, found in many languages, is that between “perfective” (bounded and complete) and “imperfective” (unfolding over time and not yet complete).  It is the difference between he ate lunch and he was eating lunch.  They are both in the past tense, but they have very different meanings.  You can say He was eating lunch when I called him, but it would be odd to say He ate lunch when I called him unless you meant that your call prompted him to eat lunch.  In English we often call these the “simple” and the “progressive” aspects, but the simple aspect is simple only in that it needs just one verb, while the progressive aspect also needs a form of be and the ending -ing.

       Note that all main verbs in English come in only two forms: present tense, such as eat(s), and past tense, such as ate.  If you want the future tense you must use a helping verb or verb phrase: he will eat or he’s gonna eat.  And if you want other aspects you need more helping verbs.  In many other languages more tenses and aspects are inscribed on the main verb, as in French il mangera (he will eat), and il mangeait (he was eating).

       The terms “perfective” and “imperfective,” though preferred by linguists, are a little troublesome because there is another aspectual distinction, the “perfect,” as in he has eaten lunch. The perfect is sometimes called the “stative,” because it expresses a state or condition in which a past event is still in effect.  I have visited Paris means something a little different from I visited Paris, for it emphasizes your ongoing status as a Paris-visitor and suggests that you may have made more than one visit.

 All three aspects can take all three tenses, so we have nine possible combinations:

perfective (simple): he ate lunch, he eats lunch, he will eat lunch,

imperfective (progressive): he was eating lunch, he is eating lunch, he will be eating lunch  

perfect: he had eaten lunch, he has eaten lunch, he will have eaten lunch

Some linguists think the perfect is not exactly an aspect because it has implications of a past event, so they call it a “secondary tense,” but if it is a tense it is a tense that has tenses, so I think it is better to take it as a third aspect.  Besides, it mainly expresses states.  I have been vaccinated means I am among the vaccinated ones.

       I think English is unique among its kindred languages in that it can add yet another aspect, the “perfect progressive” (or “perfect imperfective”): he had been eating lunch, he has been eating lunch, he will have been eating lunch.  This last form requires no less three helping verbs.  With this set we have twelve tense-aspect combinations.

       Some kindred tongues have seen a recent drift from present perfect to past perfective (or simple past).  In French there was once a distinction between il a mangé (he has eaten) and il mangea (he ate), but il mangea has vanished from spoken French and is now considered literary or formal.  Instead the present perfect form now functions as the simple past (or “preterite”) as well as the perfect.  The same process has taken place in German, where er hat gegessen (he has eaten) has replaced the older er ass (he ate).  So when you hear what was once a perfect in these languages you have to guess whether it is (still) a perfect or a past.  This drift did not take place in English.  We are perfectly happy with our perfects!  And we like to preserve distinctions.

       French, German, Italian, and some other languages also lack a present imperfective; they make no distinction between he eats lunch and he is eating lunch.  To make clear that he is still eating lunch they need work-arounds such as il est en train de manger le déjeuner) (“he is in the process of eating lunch”).

       The fact that we distinguish these two aspects in all tenses, however, creates a difficulty in the present perfective.  What does he eats lunch mean?  When would we use it?  Is it really a present tense?  Sometimes it has a habitual sense, as in he eats lunch at 1:00 PM, implying it is his daily habit.  And some verbs are almost required to be in the

               perfective aspect, that is “stative” verbs expressing states of mind: love, hate, think, believe, etc.  He loves pizza.  He believes pizza is good for him.  (Though Justin Timberlake’s I’m lovin’ it has muddied the waters.)  We also use the perfective present for performative or ceremonial statements in the first person.  I promise.  I swear.  With this ring I thee wed.  I pronounce you husband and wife.  But eat is not stative and is rarely found in performatives.  Therefore he eats lunch by itself amounts to a timeless tense, pretty much equivalent to he is a lunch-eater

       Are there yet other aspects?  How about he used to eat lunch?  That seems like a past imperfective or habitual, but it also implies that he no longer eats lunch.  A present-tense form is found in the Caribbean, he uses to eat lunch, which means “It is his custom (or usage) to eat lunch.”  We can also say he does eat lunch, which we might call the emphatic aspect.  Then there are modal phrases such as he must eat lunch or he could eat lunch, but modals take us to another feature of verbs, namely “moods,” and that is a topic for another column.

       Every language has distinctive complexities, but all these tense-aspect combinations in English should make you feel grateful if you are a native speaker of it.

       I am happy to hear from readers with questions or comments: mferber@unh.edu.

Michael Ferber moved to New Hampshire in 1987 to join the English Department at
UNH, from which he is now retired. Before that he earned his BA in Ancient Greek at
Swarthmore College and his doctorate in English at Harvard, taught at Yale, and served on the
staff of the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy in Washington, DC. In 1968 he stood trial in
Federal Court in Boston for conspiracy to violate the draft law, with the pediatrician Benjamin
Spock and three other men. He has published many books and articles on literature, and has a
deep interest in linguistics. He is married to Susan Arnold; they have a daughter in San

Columns and op-eds express the opinions of the writer, not InDepthNH.org. We seek diverse opinions at nancywestnews@gmail.com

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