Lin1180 semantics lecture 12
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LIN1180– Semantics Lecture 12. Albert Gatt. In this lecture. We focus on tense and grammatical aspect Progressive/non-progressive Perfective/imperfective Aspect across languages Interaction of grammatical aspect and lexical aspect ( Aktionsart ). Part 1. Tense as a deictic system.

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LIN1180– Semantics Lecture 12

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LIN1180– SemanticsLecture 12

Albert Gatt

In this lecture

  • We focus on tense and grammatical aspect

    • Progressive/non-progressive

    • Perfective/imperfective

  • Aspect across languages

  • Interaction of grammatical aspect and lexical aspect (Aktionsart)

Part 1

Tense as a deictic system

A general characterisation of deixis

  • Deictic expressions rely on the context of utterance

    • deictic demonstrative pronouns: this, that, those…

    • deictic place expressions: here, there…

  • Relevant features of the context:

    • physical context

    • persons involved in communication

    • time

Tense as deictic

  • Classic distinction between:

    • past

    • present

    • future

  • Relies on the relationship in time between the event talked about and the time of utterance

    • therefore, the reference point is usually the act of speaking

Graphical characterisation




time of utterance

I saw the moon.

I was seeing the moon.

I see the moon.

I am seeing the moon.

I will see the moon.

I will be seeing the moon.

Tense across languages

  • English:

    • usually marks tense using auxiliary verbs

      • I see

      • I am seeing

      • I will be seeing

  • Maltese:

    • can mark temporal distinctions on the main verb

      • nara (I see), rajt(I saw)…

    • uses particles for fine-grained temporal distinctions

      • senara (I am going to see)

Tense vs grammatical aspect

  • Progressive aspect:

    • I listen (non-progressive)

    • I am listening (progressive)

    • Note: tense is distinct from grammatical aspect! – Both examples are in the present tense.

  • Past/Present/Future rely on the relationship between the time of an event and the moment of speaking.


  • We can often locate an event in the present/past/future, and use it as a reference point for another event.

  • When you called, I had finished my work.

    • Main reference point: now, moment of speaking

    • Two events: you called and I had finished my work

    • Relationship to moment of speaking: Both in the past.

    • Relationship to eachother: Within the past time, one occurs before the other.

When you called, I had finished my work

past (yesterday evening)



finish work

time of


you called

time of finish work acts as reference for you called

main reference point for past tense is the time of utterance

Perfect aspect in English

  • Emphasises temporal relationship to a secondary reference point

  • Present perfect: I have eaten

    • the event of eating has terminated by the time of speaking

  • Past perfect: I had eaten (before I left)

    • event of eating has terminated by the time of leaving

    • time of leaving is related to the time of speaking using the past

  • Future perfect: I will have eaten (by the time you arrive)

    • event of eating will terminate by the time something else happens

    • secondary event is related to the time of speaking in the future

Reichenbach’s theory of time

  • Hans Reichenbach (1966):

    • proposed a theory to account for both simple and perfect tenses

  • System uses three different times:

    • actual event time (E)

    • reference time or time to which event is related (R)

    • utterance time (= moment of speaking) (U)

Simple present




E = R = U

Example: I sleep

Reference time, utterance time and event time are the same

Simple past





E = R

  • Example: I slept

  • E before U (therefore past)

  • R = E (no secondary relation)

Simple future





E = R

  • Example: I will sleep

  • E is after U (therefore future)

  • R = E (no secondary relation)

Present perfect





R = U

  • Example: I have slept

  • E before U (therefore, event understood as having already occurred)

  • R = U

  • basically relating a past event explicitly to the present

Past perfect







  • Example: By the time you arrived, I had slept

  • E before U

  • R before U

  • R after E

  • relating a past event explicitly to another event that occurred after it, but also in the past

Future perfect







  • Example: By the time you arrive tonight, I will have slept

  • U before E (therefore future)

  • U before R

  • E before R

  • Relating a future event explicitly to another event in the future which occurs after it


  • Tense is deictic, and requires reference to the time of speaking to be determined.

  • Distinction between:

    • simple tenses

    • perfect tenses

  • Reichenbach’s model uses three temporal parameters to describe the semantics of different tenses.

Part 2

Grammatical aspect

Tense vs Aspect

  • Tense is about the location of an event in time. (Tense as deictic)

  • Aspect has to do with the temporal distribution or contour of an event (Comrie, 1976).

  • Aspect is independent of tense.

Lexical vs. grammatical aspect

  • Lexical aspect (Aktionsart):

    • an inherent property of the semantics of verbs (sentences)

    • related to the type of situation under discussion

    • cf. lectures 10 & 11

  • Grammatical aspect:

    • ways of specifying the temporal contour of an event using grammatical means

Grammatical mechanisms

  • Russian:

    • perfective/imperfective

      • marked inflectionally

        On čital pis’mo

        He read.PAST.IMPERFa letter

        “He was reading a letter”

        On pročital pis’mo

        He read.PAST.PERFa letter

        “He read a letter”

Grammatical mechanisms

  • Maltese

    • perfective/imperfective

      • marked inflectionally


        read.3MSg.PERFa letter

        “He read a letter”


        read.3MSg.IMPERFa letter.

        “He reads a letter”

Grammatical mechanisms

  • Maltese

    • progressive/non-progressive

      • marked using aspectual particles

        Jaqra’ ittra.

        read.3MSg.IMPERFa letter.

        “He reads a letter”

        Qedjaqra’ ittra.

        PROGread.3MSg.IMPERFa letter.

        “He is reading a letter”

Grammatical mechanisms

  • English:

    • progressive/non-progressive

      • marked inflectionally on main verb and auxiliary

        I went to the pub.

        I was going to the pub.

A preliminary classification

The perfective: definition

  • The perfective aspect involves a view of a situation as a whole. I.e. it implies:

    • a beginning

    • a middle

    • an end

  • NB: “viewing the situation as a whole” does not imply that the event is completed (i.e. finished).

Perfective and tense

  • Some languages restrict the application of the perfective to the past tense.

    • suggests that the “complete view” is only applied retrospectively.

Perfective and tense

  • In many languages, perfective aspect is used with different tenses.


    On pročital pis’mo (past, perfective)

    “He read a letter”

    ja ub’ju tebja(future, perfective)

    “I shall kill you”

Perfectivity and duration

  • Despite viewing the situation as a whole, the perfective is compatible with an expression of the duration of a situation.

The imperfective: definition

  • The imperfective aspect involves an explicit reference to the internal temporal structure of a situation.

  • It contrasts with the perfective insofar as it does not view the situation externally, as a whole.

A more complete classification

In many languages, the same form can express more than one imperfective aspect!

The habitual aspect

  • Views a situation as recurring indefinitely.


    John works/worked here.

    John used to work here.

  • Simple Past tense in English may have a habitual meaning.

  • Simple present often used with habitual meaning.

  • Habituality in the past can be marked explicitly with used to.

Progressive vs. non-progressive

  • In the progressive, a situation is marked as ongoing.

  • Again, this is independent of tense.


    John read the book. (non-prog, past)

    John was reading the book. (prog., past)

    John will be reading the book. (prog., fut.)

Non/progressive vs im/perfective

  • English does not explicitly distinguish im/perfective.

  • But the English progressive vs. non-progressive distinction seems to correlate with the perfective/ imperfective distinction.


    John read the book.

    (non-progressive + offers a complete view of the situation)

    John was reading the book.

    (progressive, also views the situation internally)

Non/progressive vs im/perfective

  • Some languages distinguish im/perfective and non-/progressive more sharply.


    Juan llegó. (perfective)

    John arrived.

    Juan llegaba. (imperfective, non-progressive)

    John was arriving/used to arrive.

    (NB: can have progressive or habitual meaning)

    Juan estaba llegando. (imperfective + progressive)

    John was arriving.

    (progressive only)

Non/progressive vs im/perfective

  • With a situation described in the perfective, continuation with the imperfective seems contradictory.


    ?On napisal pis’mo i ešče pišet ego.

    He wrote.PERF a letter and still writes.IMPERFit

    “He wrote a letter and is still writing it.”

  • The anomaly disappears with the use of the imperfective.


    My pisali pis’mo i ešče pišet ego.

    We wrote.IMPERF a letter and stillwriteit

    “We wrote a letter and are still writing it.”

Non/progressive vs im/perfective

  • We can observe the same in English with the progressive/non-progressive forms.

    • This is further evidence that English non-/progressive covers some of the im/perfective distinction.


      ?John built a fire escape and is still building it.

      John was building a fire escape and is still building it.

The English progressive

  • English progressive tends to have connotations of activity, dynamism and volition.

    • She blinked her eyes.

    • The dog was walking.

    • ?She was knowing Greek.

    • ?She was having blonde hair.

  • Thus, it tends to be infelicitous with states.

The English progressive

  • The progressive aspect interacts with situation type (lexical aspect).

    • cf. the activity/accomplishment distinction

    • With accomplishments (+telic), the progressivecancels the implicationthat the end state was reached.

The imperfective in other languages

  • In other languages, the imperfective is compatible with states.

    • E.g. French imparfait

    • Unlike the English progressive, it does not carry connotations of dynamism.


      L’air sentait de jasmin.

      DEF-airsmell.3SgM.PAST.IMPERFof jasmine

      The air smelt of jasmine.

The English non-/progressive in future

  • English uses progressive and non-progressive present for future.

    Regular future

    • I will eat out tomorrow.

    • I will play well tomorrow.

      Pres. progressive

    • I’m eating out tomorrow.

    • ?I’m playing well tomorrow.

      Simple present

    • I leave tomorrow.

    • ?I play well tomorrow.

  • Simple present and progressive are only felicitous with events which imply volition, can be planned or are certain.

  • This is in line with the connotations noted earlier for the English progressive.

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