Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

TAMPA: The Basics

This is page 2 of the introductory section for the TAMPA series on Time and Language.  The first page can be found here.


The primary point of the TAMPA series is to do away with longstanding confusion over language and time and to provide linguists, language enthusiasts, and educators with a solid yet simplified overview of these five concepts and how all languages use them to express the relationship of time and communication within  those languages.  As pointed out in the introduction, much of this confusion stems from the fact that terminology did not often keep up with developments in research and understanding in this field.  Also, as new concepts were discovered and explored, rarely were languages reanalyzed within the context of this new understanding.  This has led to a system where these concepts to be discussed (especially aspect and tense) are often conflated.  It’s also led to quite disparate terminology being used to explain the same concepts within different languages or language families.  Notice, that I said same concepts rather than similar ones.  This is because these five attributes (tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart) are universals of linguistics.  That is, they are the same concepts, with the same definitions, and the same relationships with each other regardless of the language to which the terminology is applied.  This is not to say that all languages express the relationships between time and language in the same way.  They certainly do not, however it is these same universal concepts that are at work in all of these languages in much the same way that all languages use subjects and verbs and objects.  The ways in which these attributes are utilized may be quite different from one tongue to the next, but the basic building blocks and rules of these relationships remain the same across the linguistic spectrum.

Every utterance in every language expresses within its meaning and structure information relative to time.  This temporal information includes a time reference (when), the nature of that time reference (how long), the status in relation to that time reference (finished or not finished), whether the nature, status, and reference to time is certain or dependent on something else, and it even provides information regarding the type of utterance and information conveyed and how that effects its relation to time[tense, aspect, perfection, mood, aktionsart].  The manner in which these five attributes are exhibited varies greatly from one language to the next and often can seem visually quite different even within various utterances within the same language.  Some languages have a very strongly marked system for expressing these attributes, using various declined verbs, phrases, and structures in conveying such temporal insights (English and most other Indo-European Languages are of this type) while other languages use very few special forms and are in fact often mistakenly thought to ‘have no tense’ (Chinese) or to be missing certain of these five attributes.  Often it’s simply difficult to actively identify time elements within a language because they work together in a way that leaves very little clue as to the independent temporal workings of an utterance.  Consider these two sentences in English:  “You will have been working on this for 3 days by the end of the week.” and “Stop!”

In the first utterance the tense = future (will); which is a modal future of high certainty by the subjects volition (by his own will or doing) — so mood = volitive; ‘be + -ing’ is a form in English which uses structure to express duration — this is called aspect, so aspect = durational; ‘have + past participle’ is a structural form marking completeness which is often referred to as ‘the perfect’, so in this utterance perfection = perfected;  finally the verb ‘work’ when used with this meaning is an activity and has an inherent time quality of occurring over a length of time (because it’s rather difficult to ‘work on’ something for only a single moment in time) — the time quality that is inherent in the meaning of a verb itself is called aktionsart, so for this utterance aktionsart = durational activity.

For the second example much less information seems visually available, yet all 5 time attributes are in fact present and being conveyed:  “Stop!” is a command.  It’s said now, and intended that the person who hears it stops ‘now’, so tense = present; there is no special structure used to convey duration, so the aspect = non-durational; commands use a special set of modal forms called imperatives, so mood = imperative; no information is given as to whether the activity ordered in this command is completed or not, so perfection = nonperfected; yet, the verb ‘stop’ obviously has an endpoint to it (because once someone has stopped, well, they have stopped and are not going to continue stopping beyond that).  At the same time though while there may be effort and time needed to slow down or prepare in some other way to stop, the actual act of stopping really doesn’t take any time.  You’re either stopped or you’re not, but the actual change from doing something to not doing it does not take place over a period of time so that means that stopping has no duration itself.  So together this means that for the verb ‘stop’, aktionsart = perfected, non-durational change of state.

These two examples show two seemingly very different utterances conveying the same sets of information in very different ways.  However the time information in both are conveyed using the same five temporal attributes.  These same attributes are present in every sentence in every language regardless of how different they may seem on the surface.  It is the goal of this series to provide an understanding of these concepts in simple clear terms and to equip the reader with the ability to analyze any utterance in any language in terms of these five universals of time and finally to understand how these concepts interrelate and how language combine these elements to express time — that key component of human existence and communication.


Below is a basic glossary of terminology used throughout this text.  A brief description of each of the five TAMPA concepts follows.  An extensive treatment of each concept and a discussion of how they relate to one another and other elements of syntax and morphology begins in the next section.  Some terminology listed below may be used in a manner that is not the same as other texts.  It is recommended that each definition and detail section be read and considered with an open mind toward defining existing concepts within the context of the usage detailed in this work.  It is the author’s belief that completion of these texts that the logic behind these usages and the usefulness of this system shall be clear upon the reader’s successful completion of the full Time & Language project:

Activity – an idea expressing an action that is performed by or on a person or thing.

Assertion – in a purely informative utterance, that point which is established by the predicate.

Attestation – in habituals, generalizations, and modal constructions, the argument proposed by the predicate which may be evaluated as true or not.

Duration – the quality of a verb or the predicate in which it is used occurring over a period of time (specified or not).

Generalization – an utterance in which it is attested that some point is generally true.

Habitual – an utterance in which it is attested that something occurs repeatedly under a given set of circumstances.

Punctular – occurring at a specific point in time versus over a range, not having duration.

Temporal – an adjective meaning of or related to time.

Timeline – an abstract or visual representation of the utterance in relation to time with the present being at the center, the past left of center, and the future right of center, onto which the temporal references used to determine tense are plotted.

Utterance – any structure expressing a complete thought and including at minimum a subject and predicate.  Utterance may refer to sentences, clauses, or certain phrases; or to sentences which contain one or more of these.

TAMPA Defined

Tense – tense is the name given to a way of describing the contrast between two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance.  In describing tense, the relative location of these two references (to the left or right of each other) and the relative distance between them along that timeline determines tense.  Tense 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.  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’).

Aspect – Like tense, aspect is an attribute of the utterance (and not of any component within that utterance).  Aspect, refers to the use of  structural elements to express the temporal nature of the utterance.  Aspects can be divided into durational and non-durational varieties.  Within this division, further forms 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, an activity, 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 used within that utterance.  It should be noted that aspect cannot be considered without awareness of the aktionsart of the inclusive verbs.

Mood – in linguistics mood and modality are mostly interchangeable terms, although to be specific, mood is an attribute of an utterance determined by the modality expressed by its form.  Modality refers to the quality within a language of adding a further qualification to the assertion of an utterance.  That is, beyond what is purely expressed by the combined meanings of the individual words used, the addition of specific modality creates an added layer of meaning to the utterance as a whole.  Modality is used to express things like certainty, probability, willingness, coercion, confidence, certainty, or a lack of any of these things as well as a vast variety of other concepts.  Like aspect and tense, mood is an attribute of an utterance itself and not of any specific component therein.  Specific words and structures within an utterance however are often used to express mood.  These forms are called modals and can be single words such as shall/will/can/could, phrases such as be going/be willing/had better, special forms such as let’s, and even slang such as gotta or gotsta.  Mood is an attribute that is present in all utterances in all languages — just as with the other four TAMPA concepts.  In some utterances that mood may be seen as missing, but would better be described as neutral, or the usual mood signifying no additional qualification (usually referred to as the indicative mood).  This should not be misconstrued as a lack of mood, as mood is present, it is just simply the mood that is most prevalent and thus least noticeable.  In most languages, expression of certain tenses and aspect require the use of specific moods.  In English, eight of the ten possible forms for expressing the future require the use of specific (non-indicative) moods.

Perfection – perfection refers to the linguistic quality of completeness.  The term (often just ‘perfect’ in common parlance) derives from the Latin perfectus and further further from the verb perficio meaning ‘finish’ or ‘bring to an end’.  Perfection is actually a universal concept of many fields and comes originally from philosophy.  Greek philosophers first coined the idea to describe a uniform circle as being whole and without beginning or end.  Because a true circle had no corners or starting or stopping points, they referred to it as ‘perfect’ (the ‘perfect circle’).  This idea spread first through the sciences, and later entered everyday speech with the meaning of flawless.  The idea was first proposed by Aristotle who defined perfect as ‘that which is complete or which has attained its purpose.’  Thus in linguistics, perfect refers to the quality of a verb or predicate as completed.  Like tense, aspect, and mood, perfection is an attribute of the utterance as a whole (structural), unlike aktionsart which is an attribute of the verb itself (lexical).  At the lexical level, perfection is also expressed as an attribute of the verb’s aktionsart as complete or not (called telicity rather than perfection at the lexical level).

Aktionsart – as with aspect, aktionsart refers to the nature of information provided in an utterance.  Unlike aspect though which is an attribute of an entire utterance, aktionsart is an attribute of the individual verb used within the utterance.  In fact, aktionsart is also sometimes referred to as ‘lexical aspect’ (lexical meaning ‘of the word’ from the linguistic term lexeme which is the smallest independent unit which can express an idea — this smallest unit normally being simply put, a word).  The term aktionsart is German and comes from the original idea of ‘kind (art) of action’ — the plural form is aktionsarten (-en is how most German words become plural) and the adjective is aktionsartig (pronounced ‘aktionsartish’).  As with aspect, several systems have been proposed for classifying aktionsarten of verbs with no single system ever having gained prominence.  But also as with aspect, aktionsarten can be basically classified as either durational or non-durational, and perfected or non-perfected.  It is important to remember that aktionsart is an attribute of the verb as used in an utterance.  It is therefor inherent in the actual meaning of the word.  If however, a verb has more than one possible meaning, it may likely also have more than one possible aktionsarten depending on how it is used.  Regardless of classification scheme used (if any is used at all), all verbs within an utterance can be defined in terms of a combination of durative (having duration or not) and telic (perfected or not) qualities.  For example, Live has a naturally durative aktionsart in all forms, yet is not naturally telic, but lived (past tense) is (ie ‘John lives in Texas’ — the ‘living’ is done over an undetermined duration of time, yet no information is given regarding whether it is finished or not — but, in ‘John lived in Louisiana’ the ‘living’ is completed while the duration is still unknown.  Yet, we know that there was a duration purely from the fact that a person can’t live somewhere for merely a moment in time).  Sneeze and cough are naturally telic and have a non-durational aktionsart (because sneezes happen, then they are done (perfected) and if need be to talk about multiple sneezes over a period of time, the form of the durational aspect ‘John is sneezing’ must be used).  It is the connection between aktionsart and aspect that tend to determine the structural and temporal nature of an utterance.  The aktionsart of the verb (as a combination of duration and perfection) determine the temporal nature of the utterance (which will match that of the inclusive verb) unless, the aspect of the utterance (which remember uses the structure of the utterance to determine temporal nature) or the perfection of the utterance overrides that aktionsart of the verb.  For this reason, when determining the nature of information conveyed in an utterance, the aktionsart of the verb must first be analyzed, and then the aspect and perfection of the utterance analyzed on top of that.

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February 10, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments