Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education


This is the second of 5 areas of focus for the TAMPA series on Time and Language, along with articles on Tense, Mood, Perfection, and Aktionsart.  The introduction to this series can be found here. It is recommended that the entire series be read in order from the beginning before reading this article

In the previous chapter it is said that tense is nothing more than a way of describing the contrast between two temporal reference points on the timeline of an utterance.  The form of that reference though, particularly the type of temporal reference used in establishing tense, is determined by aspect, perfection, and aktionsart, all of which convey the actual nature of the time information conveyed.  Just as tense cannot be properly analyzed without awareness of an utterance’s aspect, perfection, and aktionsart, aspect must be considered within the context of the aktionsart of the inclusive verb within the utterance.  OK, lot’s of words there, repeated and used together, so let’s begin with a quick review:

Utterance — remember this is the linguistic term for any complete speech formation.  That is, an utterance is the generic name for a sentence, clause, phrase or such that has at the least a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought.  Utterances can be questions, statements, commands, or exclamations; regardless of type, they are all utterances.

Timeline — time is a key attribute of any human communication. Regardless what is being discussed, some time information (when, how long, etc.) is always included.  Because time is always a key bit of the information communicated within an utterance, this means that any utterance can be shown appearing within a timeline on which the temporal references of the utterance may be plotted.

Temporal Reference — because every utterance conveys the same types of time information, they all have similar characteristics (although these characteristics may take very different forms).  One characteristic that all utterances share is that they each temporal references (or standard, identifiable things that can be plotted on their timeline).  The temporal references are used to determine tense by contrasting the primary temporal reference with a secondary temporal reference.  The primary temporal reference for all utterances is called the Time of Utterance (abbreviated TUTT).  This is simply the time at which the information conveyed by the utterance is communicated.  TUTT is always contrasted with a secondary temporal reference in determining tense, and the type of secondary reference — Time of Assertion (TAST), Time of Evaluation (TEVL), or Time of Completion (TCOM) is determined by the aspect, aktionsart, perfection, and mood of the utterance.

Tense — regardless of what type of secondary temporal reference the utterance requires, tense represents a contrast between the secondary reference and the primary one (TUTT).  If the secondary reference coincides with TUTT, the tense is present; if it occurs before TUTT, tense is past; and, if it occurs after TUTT, the tense of the utterance is future.  In regard to tense, past and future are ranges and the degree of those tenses is determined by the distance between TUTT and the secondary reference on the timeline of that utterance (close together = near past/future, far apart = distant future/past).


So, tense as described above is the name given to a way of describing the contrast between two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance. Tense however, has nothing to do with the type of time information given or the nature of the information conveyed by the utterance, it is merely a manner of describing the above explained contrast between TUTT and the secondary reference.  Tense is an attribute of an utterance, not of any element within that utterance (meaning that verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions cannot be said to ‘have tense’).  Tense though is only one of the five attributes which every utterance in every language uses to express time.  These attributes together form the mnemonic TAMPA (for tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart).  Whereas tense has nothing to do with the nature of information conveyed by an utterance, aspect, perfection, and aktionsart revolve entirely around this.

Like tense, aspect is an attribute of the utterance (and not of any component within that utterance).  Again, this is important in that the concept of aspect is something that reflects a quality of the entire utterance.  This means that every utterance expresses aspect, but that while specific components within the utterance may take on forms specific to the aspect used, that nothing that is less than a full utterance carries aspect (so verbs, adjectives, prepositional phrases, etc will never ‘have aspect’).

Aspect refers to the use of  structural elements to express certain attributes of the temporal nature of an utterance.

The term aspect means literally ‘how it’s looked at’ when referring to language.  It is derived from the Latin aspectus — ‘a view’, from the verb aspicere — ‘to look at’.  In selecting the term aspect in relation to languages, linguists had chosen a term to describe how a verb is looked at or viewed within the context of the utterance in which it appears.  Thus aspect came to be used to describe how the structure of an utterance (the actual grammatical forms used) determined the role of the inclusive verb within that utterance.

Historical Development

In considering the various attributes of aspect for any given language, it is necessary to first consider the history of the study of aspect in general.  Tense and aspect have long been a topic of debate and research among linguists with philosophical debate on these fronts long predating linguistics as a separate field of study.  Much of the meaning currently assigned to aspect had been seen originally as the domain of tense, with tense being an all encompassing term for anything involving time.  The study of tense has not always been as clearly defined as is currently, with tense dealing with temporal contrast within the utterance (the relevance of TUTT to TAST, TCOM, or TEVLsee Tense above) as being within the range of present, past, or future.  Study of tense began in earnest with declined languages of learning such as Latin and Greek in which tense is marked with affixes (endings) and declensions (changes in form that convey a specific meaning).  The original function of these tense markings in many languages was not that of temporal contrast (present, past, and future) but actually of aktionsart, perfection, or aspect which convey temporal nature.

The study of aspect (and later perfection and aktionsart) as independent of tense began to develop in the early 20th Century, mostly through the work of Russian linguists studying Slavic languages.  These early proponents of a separate grammatical category dealing with the circumstances of the verb, or more precisely as they saw it, its viewpoint within the utterance as independent from true tense of the utterance focused primarily on languages (Russian, Latin, Greek) in which aspectual characteristics tend to occur in opposing pairs.  The roots of this system are still quite obvious today with binary systems such as perfective versus imperfective (not to be confused with ‘perfected’ and perfection), telic versus atelic, etc.  In attempting to apply these more clear-cut assessments of aspect into other languages, German linguists found this system did not effectively convey the what was happening in Germanic languages.  They recognized that just as aspectual characteristics of the language had been shown to be separate but related to tense, that there existed an even further differentiation within language between nature of the action inherent in the meaning of a verb and that inherent in the structure of the utterance itself.  Their solution was the proposal of a dual system in which the temporal nature of the verb itself, which they named aktionsart (literally translated as action-type) operated as separate yet complimentary to the temporal nature of the utterance in which it appeared – for this, they retained the term aspect.

Thus, within TAMPA temporal nature is determined by both the Aspect of the utterance and the Aktionsart of the verb within that utterance.  Whereas aktionsart is universal to a specific usage of a verb (in other words whenever a given verb is used within the context of a specific meaning (say work meaning to function) it will have the same akionsart regardless of the utterance in which it appears), aspect is just the opposite; it is an expression of temporal nature determined entirely by the structure of the utterance and thus remains the same regardless of the inclusive verb (although affected by it –see Aktionsart below).

Aspect as Related to other TAMPA Elements

Aspects can be divided into durational and non-durational varieties.  Within this division, further classifications may be used to determine the type of information conveyed.  These types of information can show whether something is meant to be purely informative, whether it is habitual (occurring over and over again), an activity, a change of state, an accomplishment, or simply to show that any of these others occur with a prolonged measurable duration.  Multiple systems of classifying and naming aspect within various languages exist and while little agreement has been achieved toward a universal system, the common points of all are that all aspects (regardless of what they are called) are either durational or non-durational, and that they are a method of using the specific structure of the utterance (word order, auxiliary verbs, special forms, etc) to override any lexical attribute of verbs (aktionsart) used within that utterance.  It should be noted that aspect cannot be considered without awareness of the aktionsart of the inclusive verbs, and also with perfection as this too is tied to aktionsart as well, and also expressed via structural forms.

The important thing to remember is that tense and aspect are separate from each other with tense being merely a contrast of temporal references.  The temporal references used to establish tense are determined by the temporal nature of the utterance.  That temporal nature is determined first by the inherent temporal nature of the inclusive verb itself (a characteristic of the verb as part of its meaning) as either durational or non-durational, and also within that division as various types of verb as described in the paragraph above, and also, as naturally completed or not naturally completed (telic and atelic); these are attributes of the individual verb(s) used within an utterance and are collectively called aktionsart.  These attributes inherent in the verb are universal and remain the same regardless of the utterance in which the verb is used so long as the meaning of that verb remains the same (in languages where one verb can have multiple meanings, in other languages each word/verb can only have a single meaning and thus the aktionsart for specific verbs within that language is always the same for that verb).  Those aktionsart attributes may however be overridden or enhanced by using the structure of the utterance in which the appears to express this same type of information.  Within the context of the utterance, it is the structure of that utterance that expresses such information.  And, structural expression always overrides lexical expression (or, attributes of the utterance trump attributes of the verb).  Whether a verb is completed/finished or not may be determined by the meaning of the verb as aktionsart (as either telic or atelic, the terms for a verb being naturally completed (like ‘kill’ or ‘finish’ — no additional killing or finishing goes on once the verb is accomplished) or lacking that quality).  It may also however be determined by the structure of the utterance. This is called perfection.  Perfection expresses completeness of the verb through structural forms.  These are often referred to as ‘the perfect’, but this is not quite correct as all utterance express perfection as either perfected (which forms like ‘I have eaten’ or ‘I have been eating’ express — in English perfected forms consist of the auxiliary ‘have’ conjugated for agreement with person, number, and tense with the past participle form of the verb), or non-perfected (which all other forms such as ‘I eat’ or ‘I am eating’ express).  If the verb within an utterance is atelic, perfecting that utterance overrides that aktionsart and completes the verb.  If that verb is already telic however, perfecting the utterance with structure may not be necessary as the verb is already completed but perfecting an utterance with an already completed verb can further emphasize that completion or draw specific attention to the exact point of completion.

Other temporal attributes such as duration may also be determined not only by the inclusive verb’s aktionsart, but by the structure of the utterance.  When the structure of the utterance is used to express a quality of temporal nature other than completion, this is called aspect.  The primary domain of aspect in most languages is in expressing duration.  Some languages have only a single durational and a single non-durational form.  Some actually have no specific form for duration at all and rely on the aktionsart of the inclusive verb or merely context to establish durative qualities.  Most however have one or more durational and one or more non-durational aspects.  English has a single durational aspect (either called the progressive or the continuous and having the form auxiliary ‘be’ plus present participle of the verb, i.e. ‘I am eating’ or ‘She had been driving’), and four non-durational aspects which while structurally identical may express different types of information such as being purely informative, whether something is habitual (occurring over and over again), an activity, a change of state, or an accomplishment; the type of non-durational aspect is often heavily influenced by the aktionsart of the inclusive verb.  Still, the important thing to get from this discussion is that aspect refers to the use of the structure of the utterance to determine temporal nature (mostly duration or lack of duration) other than completion, which is also structural but referred to as perfection.

Continue reading Perfection

February 1, 2010 - Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] Continue reading Aspect […]

    Pingback by Tense: Conclusion & Review « CALLE | August 10, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] is the first of 5 areas of focus for the TAMPA series on Time and Language, along with articles on Aspect, Mood, Perfection, and Aktionsart.  The introduction to this series can be found […]

    Pingback by Tense « CALLE | August 11, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] third of 5 areas of focus for the TAMPA series on Time and Language, along with articles on Tense, Aspect, Mood, and Aktionsart.  The introduction to this series can be found here. It is recommended that […]

    Pingback by Perfection « CALLE | August 11, 2010 | Reply

  4. I’m sorry I found it 🙂

    Comment by Asia | April 5, 2011 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: