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


This is the 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 the entire series be read in order from the beginning before reading this article.

As has been discussed up to now, the communication of information related to time is a universal of languages.  The way in which languages express temporal information may vary greatly from one to the next in form, yet all convey this information via five common universal attributes.  These five attributes (Tense, Aspect, Mood, Perfection, and Aktionsart) make up the TAMPA scheme for linguistic analysis for time.  Every utterance in every language conveys each of these five attributes in one way or another.  Thus far, two types of time information have been discussed: temporal contrast which is conveyed as tense; and temporal nature which is conveyed as aspect, perfection, and/or aktionsart.  Aspect is covered in the previous section and within that discussion perfection and aktionsart are touched upon as all three are inherently interrelated.  Perfection shall be discussed in further detail below.

Temporal Nature: Completion, Duration, and the Rest

Temporal contrast and temporal nature are basically the two super categories of time expression in language, with temporal contrast being solely the domain of tense with temporal nature determined by the combined expression of aspect, perfection, and aktionsart.  It is important to remember is that tense and aspect/perfection/aktionsart are separate from each other with tense being merely a contrast of temporal references regardless of what information is conveyed by the other TAMPA attributes.  But, that the temporal references used to establish tense are in fact determined by that temporal nature.  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 within that division as various types of verb (changes of state, achievements, accomplishments, etc), 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 a 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).  Note that when referring to the ‘inclusive verb(s)’ within an utterance, that only the content verbs are considered, and not any verb acting as an auxiliary (such as ‘am’ in ‘I am running’ or ‘have’ in ‘I have eaten’ or ‘will’ in “I will see you tomorrow’).

Those attributes of temporal nature expressed by the aktionsart of the verb, while providing the basis for the overall temporal nature of the utterance, may however be overridden or enhanced by using the structure of the utterance in which that verb appears to express these same types of information.  When the considering the utterance as a whole, it is the structure of that utterance, moreso than the aktionsart of the inclusive verb, that expresses such information and determines the ultimate temporal nature of that utterance.  Structural expression of temporal nature 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 not only the verb, but of that verb as employed to convey the predicate of the whole utterance, through structural forms.  These are often referred to as ‘the perfect’, but this is not quite correct as all utterances 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.  Attributes of temporal nature other than completeness such as duration may likewise be expressed through structural forms of the utterance in addition to such information conveyed via the inclusive verb’s aktionsart.  Such expression, as discussed in the previous section, is the domain of aspect.


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 or not.  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).  When referring to perfection though, it is the completion of the overall predicate of the whole utterance rather than a characteristic of the inclusive verb that is discussed.  It should be noted that terms such as perfective and imperfective refer not to perfection but are names given to certain classifications of aspect within some languages.  These terms actually refer to not only aspect but forms expressing several TAMPA attributes together.  Within the TAMPA system perfection is described simply as perfected or non-perfected.

Perfected & Non-Perfected Forms

In discussing perfection, many analyses of language focus solely on forms showing completion.  These perfected forms are generally marked in most languages with specific structures.  In English, utterances in the non-durational aspects are perfected by replacing the auxiliary do (which may be omitted in affirmative statements in the present tense) with the auxiliary have which is then declined for agreement with person, number, and tense, with the content verb taking on its past participle form.  For utterances in the durational aspect the change is similar with have being placed in initial verbal position and declined as above, aspectual auxiliary be taking its past participle form been, and the content verb (already marked for duration) retaining its present participle (-ing) form.  While easily observed in the structure of such utterances, it should be noted that perfection is an attribute of all utterances.  And, that non-perfected forms also express perfection, but that that information conveyed is that the temporal nature of this utterance in regard to completion is the same as that established by the aktionsart of its inclusive verb.  In other words, in utterances with non-perfected forms, if the verb is telic (naturally perfected) then the utterance is perfected; if the verb is atelic (not naturally perfected) then the utterance is not perfected either.  As with aspect, perfection trumps aktionsart and if the aktionsart of the inclusive verb is not perfected, a perfected structure of the utterance would override it.  If they aktionsart of the verb is already perfected, then a perfected structure of the utterance would further emphasize that complete nature or be used to draw attention to that completion or to provide a specific time of completion for that verb in relation to the utterance as a whole.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Logical Classification of English Aspects

A Logical Classification of English Aspects is the third 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.


In years of teaching English and sitting in classes trying to learn other languages, one thing that has become evident to me is that most people do not understand the role of Aspect in language.  This is quite obvious when language learners are used as a thermometer against which to measure native speaker production errors.  There are quite well-known instances of widespread misuse of tense/aspect combinations.  North American English speakers are known to use forms such as ‘I saw’ when ‘I have seen’ is called for.  Likewise British speakers tend to use ‘I have seen’ nearly universally, even when ‘I saw’ or ‘I had seen’ would be the ideal forms.  It’s difficult to classify such happenings as error because grammar guides generally lack a clear explanation of the features, purpose, and usage of these many forms.  Those that do attempt to provide guidance, do so with a slew of competing ‘rules’ based on traditional prescriptive guidance or misperceived standards of usage.

The role of aspect in English is the one key attribute of the language which separates it from most other tongues, especially other Germanic languages.  The dynamics of aspect as both semantic and syntactic systems within English are complex and understanding of these processes are integral to fully understanding the grammar of the language.  It is my hope that this paper provides the historical and general linguistic background to understand the aspectual system of English, and that the proposed classification system for Aspect within the language may lead to a greater understanding and easier method of explaining the grammar and nature of the various forms of English conjugations.

Read the entire paper, or download it to your computer:

A Logical Classification of English Aspects

December 17, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment