Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

TAMPA: on Time & Language

This begins a new series here at the CALLE site.  TAMPA is meant to provide a basic overview of the relationship of Time and Language — how languages express time and how time expression manifests itself in the various structures and forms of language.  It is a precursor to an upcoming textbook covering the same information with particular focus on applying this understanding to the language education experience.  Information on that project will appear soon at when it becomes available.

TAMPA is an acronym referring to the five attributes of language used for expression of time and the relationship of time to linguistic structures in all languages.  These terms tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart are used throughout linguistic and language education texts, yet there exists still quite a bit of confusion regarding their meanings. Tense, Aspect, and Aktionsart are the three primary temporal attributes of language. That is, they are the concepts in linguistics that deal specifically with time. The fourth term, perfection is more secondary to the expression of time as it is purely the method of presenting the verb as completed (finished) or not.  The fifth, mood, is again not specifically a temporal element, but is a key element in time expressions in most languages including English.  What’s interesting about these five is that they are among the most simple, easy to understand concepts in the study of languages, yet they are also among the most misunderstood of all linguistic concepts.


There’s a reason so much confusion exists regarding these topics. More than anything, that reason is terminology. The temporal nature of language has not been the most actively studied area of languages and this is probably because it’s been only in the last hundred years or so that linguists have truly come to understand how such information is expressed in most languages and how different languages relate to time and its expression within their forms. The study of the relation of time and languages began in earnest only around the turn of the 20th century. It was at this time that linguists in Russia and Germany first realized that what works in analyzing one language does not necessarily work in analyzing another. Prior to this time, grammars and analysis of languages had been based on the model established by Greek and Roman philosophers studying Greek and Latin. Greek (ancient Greek) was the model used for most study. The Greek language is, compared to most modern tongues, quite simple and straightforward, especially in regard to temporal expression. People were discussing and writing about the interworkings of the Greek language thousands of years before the idea of linguistics as a field of study even came about. They figured out much of the science of communication and basics of what we still study today (semantics, syntax, morphology, etc) at a time when much of the world hadn’t even thought of the wheel. Human beings being easily proud of our accomplishments unfortunately didn’t continue our passion for linguistic research with that ancient fervor of old. Having figured out the basics of Greek linguistics, students of language basically stopped and for the next two thousand years attempted to describe every language they encountered in terms of their comparison to Greek.

It’s Greek to Me.

Every language is of course not Greek, nor are that many of them structurally similar to that common tongue of Sparta and Troy. Today it is understood that there are many languages, that those languages can be grouped into families of related tongues, and that various types of languages have various characteristics that may not be common in other types of language. As commonsensical as this seems though, this view is a fairly new innovation. Prior to the 20th Century, most grammars, regardless of language used the Greek model. English is by far the best example of this because most of the grammars of English, both past and present, have been written with relatively little attention paid to the actual linguistics of English. Instead, they have attempted (and always failed) to shape the structures of English into a form that can mesh with seemingly equivalent forms in Latin and Greek.

To understand the fallacy of such an approach it’s best to perhaps first consider what the study of linguistics is and to compare that to the study of a language or of the study of languages as a whole. The study of a language is basically the academic pursuit of fluency in that tongue. It’s basically just learning the language for the purpose of being able to communicate with speakers of that language. The study of languages as a social science is more one of anthropological curiosity – of comparing the ways in which various peoples and cultures communicate and how they blend the aspects of their culture and character with that communication. The field of linguistics takes this study of languages to a new level, that of the study of language as a whole – the human ability to create systems of communication with various patterns and forms and of the underlying math of such systems. It’s these systems that are truly the focus of linguistics.

Every language conveys the same information. They all have subjects and objects and verbs and ways of communicating the who, what, when, where, how, and why of daily life. This is the primary similarity of all human communication. The differences are in how this information is conveyed. Some languages use extremely long words in which complex systems of prefixes and suffixes express things like tense, number, mood, person, aspect, and any other combination of information or character. Other languages use individual words for each of these attributes. Most, like English, are somewhere in the middle with a system of inflected words and structures providing the full inventory needed for expressing any combination of meaning.

It is important to understand that all languages, while appearing sometimes very different on the surface, are at their core quite similar, especially in their being tools for conveying common information and key attributes of human existence. Time is of course one of those key attributes of our lives and languages all have a means of expressing time through their grammars, syntax, and usage. The mistaken historical approach of trying to make everything fit the mold of Greek or Latin is not in the idea that the information expressed is different, but rather that all languages express that information in similar ways. They of course do not, so while time is a standard and ever present component of language, the relation of time to each language is specific and merits specific treatment and research.

TAMPA: Tense, Aspect, Mood, Perfection, & Aktionsart

In understanding languages, improving language learning efficiency, and especially in honing an approach in secondary language instruction, understanding the primary ways in which languages express time and their interaction is of the utmost importance. Regardless of any differences languages may have in the manner in which such information is expressed, the types of time information are the same – combinations of tense and aspect as regulated by aktionsart. Some languages also blend supporting moods into their systems of temporal expression. English is a prime example of such a language in that all but two future forms in the language require additional modal support. Basically, there are five linguistic components at play regarding the relationship of time and language: Tense – the contrast between temporal references on the timeline of an utterance; Aspect – the temporal nature of that utterance, usually as durational or not, as determined by structure; Mood – any additional qualification of the utterance, particularly as applied to its verb; Perfection – the quality of the temporal nature of that utterance as completed or not, as determined by structure;  and Aktionsart – the temporal nature of the inclusive verbs used in that utterance, most often defined as a combination of duration and completion.

Continue reading TAMPA: The Basics

March 12, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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.

Continue reading Tense

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

I HAVE YET to figure this out…

(yes, pay attention to the CAPS)

Linguistics is all about questioning what you already think you know about language.  And, as I’ve pointed out in other posts, in order to be an effective English instructor, you must also be a linguist — if not by career, at least by your willingness to question your understanding of the language.  My first ESL post is what actually led me to become a linguist.  I remember being in the classroom as a very green teacher and upon seeing the various looks of confusion on my students’ faces, thinking that there simply had to be a better way to teach English than the method used in that school (Callan Method).  I realised at the time that while these purely communicative methods provide learners with an inventory or forms and vocabulary, that they fail to convey any actual understanding of how or why to use this newly acquired knowledge.  Of course my next realisation was that neither I nor my fellow teachers really understood the various reasons and logic behind most of the usage we were teaching either.  Hence my entry into the field of linguistics, and the beginning of an ever ongoing project to research, classify, and explain the various bits of English grammar and syntax that confuse even the best of us at times.

Over the past three years I have been doing quite a bit of work on sentence structure, word order, and forms which are difficult for language learners to grasp.  I owe this to probably the greatest group of students I shall ever have — a class of 16 German engineers to whom I taught a 3 month intensive technical English course.  They were great for asking questions I couldn’t answer and for not allowing exceptions to the rules.  I made a deal with them at the time that I would research their questions until I found a fool-proof answer for them.  Three years later and I am still working on about half of those queries!

Much of my work has resulted in a classification system for modals (found here) that seeks to explain why some verbs, or forms, or other such sentences don’t mesh with the standard ‘rules’.  I’ve found that almost every one of the oddball constructions is a modal expression (just like shall, or will, or be going).  However, there is one form that I’ve been trying to figure out for well over a year now, and it’s actually the only but of standard grammar I have not been able to fully explain.  That form is:

have + yet + infinitive.

Examples include things like “I have yet to finish my homework,”  “he has yet to call home,” “I had yet to cook dinner when the fire broke out.”

These forms differ from other uses of yet and generally have an equivalent form in the perfected informational aspect:

I have yet to finish my homework  ≃ I haven’t finished my homework yet.

He has yet to call home  ≃  He hasn’t called home yet.

I had yet to cook dinner when the fire broke out  ≃  I hadn’t cooked dinner yet when the fire broke out.

Now, modal forms and adverbs both are often used to express mood in English.  And many times two completely different forms can be used to express the same mood.  Often one form has an added meaning that is perhaps a bit different than the other.  That’s probably the case here.  I have yet to actually figure out what mood is being expressed by these forms, but I am certain that have + yet is a modal phrase.

Modals in English have certain characteristics that set them apart from other verbs and verb phrases (these are outlined in the modal post below).  Certain attributes are only found in some modals though and not in non-modal forms.  Have+yet subordinates the verb that follows it into the infinitive form (requiring to); this is a modal-only characteristic.  Have+yet cannot be modified by other modals (will have yet is not possible), another modal characteristic.  Have+yet has no negative form.  This final one is characteristic that only modals and some auxiliaries exhibit.  It is also what separates Have+yet from the perfected forms with yet.

Thus, while I have no doubt that have+yet is in fact a modal, I still have no idea what mood (or moods) it expresses.

Any ideas?

December 19, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Structural Classification of English Modals

Have you ever wondered which modals can be used where?  Or why ‘will be able to go’ is grammatical but ‘will can go’ is not?  Or why some modals require to before the modified verb while others don’t?   Then read on…


Structural Classification of English Modals is the fourth in a series of five papers dealing with the basic grammatical structure and behavior of verbal constructions in modern English.  These five works: Voice in English:  Semantic Implications of the Passive-Active Paradigm (2007), Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (2007), A Logical Classification of English Aspects (2007), Structural Classification of English Modals (2009), and An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity (2009) are intended to provide a holistic overview of the core functions of the language and their inherent interactions so that a better understanding of modern English grammar may be attained.


Modality is a contentious topic within the linguistics community with a vast diaspora of theories, approaches, interpretations, and classification schemes – some complementary and some far from it.  English relies on modal expressions more than many languages and possesses a vast complexity of mood and modal forms.  While there may be much debate as to which moods are or are not present in English usage, there is little to deny that mood plays an integral role in the meaning and structure of utterances in the language.  Mood is expressed in English via an ever changing number of marked and unmarked forms.  Regardless of specific modal usage being a point of contention among linguists and grammarians, language analysis shows a clear pattern of change in recent centuries toward increased usage of marked modal forms.  Many of these marked forms involve specific abnormal word orders, adverbial or prepositional cues, qualifying clauses or phrases, and verbal constructions functioning in an auxiliary manner.  It is not the specific moods, nor the meanings expressed by them that are the subject of this paper.  Rather, this is a discussion of these various marked verbal auxiliary forms used to manifest modality within the language.

This paper first discusses the auxiliary system of English utterances as outlined in Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (Ward 2007) and in particular the role modals as auxiliaries within this system.  It should be stated that the term modal, as discussed in this paper refers to any single word or words used as a marked form for expressing modality.  There is no credence given to terminology such as true modal, semi-modal, modal approximates, or the like.  Terminology such as the aforementioned reflect a  very limited and closed-minded approach to the study of modality and have more a place in efforts to classify structures based on historical views of modality than on the usage of the forms themselves.  As pertains to this discussion, modals express modality, and any marked form – whether a single verb, phrase, or other structure which together or alone expresses modality is a modal.  Upon adequate background discussion including word order, auxiliaries, and aspect, an accounting of all currently known structural classes of English modals shall be given with special attention paid to their form, behavior, and effect on the forms they subordinate.  Finally as thorough an inventory of modal forms as possible will be provided with reference to their respective structural classifications.

Continue reading, or download the entire paper to your computer:

Structural Classification of English Modals

December 17, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments