Aspect

rogersgeorge on November 23rd, 2016

This is a grammar lesson of sorts. In school, you were not taught something about verbs because English doesn’t formalize it, but it’s important in several other languages, particularly Slavic languages and Hebrew (which is where I first learned about this).

The something is called Aspect.

Aspect is hard for me to define but it has something to do with tense, but not exactly. Tense is where in time you place something. “I run” is the simple present tense; it happens now. “I ran” is the simple past tense, it happened in the past. But what about “I am running” and “I was running”? We call these progressive tenses, but the difference between these and the simple past and present is aspect.

Let’s think about the simple present. It can refer to the future, sort of. “Click the × in the upper right corner. The window closes.” This is using the present tense of close to indicate that something is customary. This customariness is an aspect.

In high school, my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Baird taught us to conjugate verbs, and she had one form that included the helping verb “to be about to.” So we had “I am about to run.” I don’t remember what she called this form, and I have searched all over for it and can’t find it in a conjugation anywhere. Maybe it had something to do with her study of Sanskrit. Anyway, this seems to be another use of aspect.

Why am I writing about this rather abstruse subject? Well, for a while I was studying Greek and Hebrew at the same time, and it occurred to me that Greek verbs showed aspect, even though this was never mentioned in class. Then recently I ran into a scholarly article about aspect in Greek verbs! It’s so scholarly I won’t even link to the article, though if you want to take a look at it, email me and I’ll send you a pdf. To give you an idea what you would be in for, here are two sentences:

For the sake of simplicity this chapter focuses primarily on perfective and imperfective aspects, concerning which there is the most consensus among New Testament scholars, and on the indicative mood. However, it will be suggested that a time-relational approach also offers potential for explaining the aspect of the perfect and pluperfect tenses, and that of the future tense in the nonindicative moods.

So now you can say you know something about English that almost nobody else knows!

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Getting verbs right part 2

rogersgeorge on February 12th, 2012

First, a little linguistics lesson. If you want, you can skip to the last two paragraphs.

These folks haven't discovered the joys of linguistics yet

Hebrew doesn’t have tenses the way English does. Hebrew has aspect. Aspect has to do with whether what the verb describes is over with or not. The perfective aspect translates pretty easily into our simple past (He ran). After all, if an action is over with, it’s in the past, right? And the imperfective aspect goes pretty well with our  present progressive (He is running). (Greek has a past tense called the aorist that has this perfective aspect, equivalent to our simple past; and an imperfective past tense equivalent to our past progressive, “He was running.”) Here are a few examples:

Hebrew: katal—English: he killed. Hebrew: okal (pronounced okayl)—English: he is eating.  Hebrew doesn’t have a way to say “he eats.” (As far as I know, but we translate it that way a lot.)

We have aspect in English, too but we don’t usually call it that—partly, I suppose, because we have some verb forms that don’t quite fit. Some of our verb forms do, though. Our simple past fits into the perfective aspect, too. And the progressive tenses are all imperfective regardless of when they happen. I am running and I was running are both imperfective.

All that to introduce today’s lesson, how to use the past perfect and present perfect tenses, which show both aspects!

The last two paragraphs:

1. The past perfect says that something was done and then ended in the past.

He had entertained thoughts of being the winner until he saw the score.

The trick to using the past perfect is you need to make some indication of when the deed ended, not just when it happened. In this case, it’s the phrase “until he saw the score.” Here’s the rule: if you don’t state or clearly imply when the deed ended, use the simple past. For example, “Yesterday he entertained thoughts of winning.” You’re saying when he did it, but not when he stopped. Simple past. Let’s turn the rule around: If you use the past perfect, indicate when the deed ended.

2. The present perfect means that something began in the past and continues until now.

He has entertained thoughts of winning ever since he began training. Also: Ever since he began training, he has entertained thoughts of winning.

The trick with the present perfect is that you need to indicate when the deed started. In this case, it’s the phrase “ever since he started training.” If you don’t give an indication of when it started, consider rewriting your sentence.

I won’t get into the perfect progressive tenses, which emphasize the imperfective aspect even more. (“He has been entertaining” and “He had been entertaining,” if you’re curious.)

And we’ll save the future perfect for a future post.