The difference between tense and aspect, in a nutshell.

This morning I received a question about how the present perfect tense works in English:

Is the following sentence correct in terms of grammar ‘Yet ongoing political stabilization has been beneficial for further political and legal development of the country’? I am a little bit embarrassed by the use of present perfect tense for the event which has not been completed yet but is progressing, so it is impossible so far to predict for sure an outcome of it.

Here is my reply.

The “has been” refers not to the state of completion of the stabilization, nor even that the benefits are already palpable and therefore contain some complete benefits. The use of this tense is predicated by the fact that we are still in the time period the writer has in mind. It does not really equate to perfective aspect, but to cut-off or periodization of times.

This is the difference between tense and aspect, in a nutshell.

Interestingly, languages which use verbs with a mind to their aspect of success or completion or change of state have a tendency to use a past tense in ‘l’. Not only does Slavic use “l” for the past but even Chinese uses “l” for the past tense marker, but they make it a separate word with its own symbol and call it “le”.

Languages more concerned with periodising the effect of the verb in the past rather than worrying about whether it was finished or not (tense rather than aspect) tend to use “n” or “t/d” as past tense markers. Germanic, Turkish, Hungarian, Japanese – the range of languages in this category is surprisingly broad.

And then there are languages where the verb doesn’t change at all for the past and the timing or completeness of the actions are marked by accompanying adverbs.

So for those of you who have been saying to me that there is no such thing as aspect, only tense, and that tense and aspect are the same thing, you will understand the subtle difference when you see why it was all rather confusing for my correspondent.

6 thoughts on “The difference between tense and aspect, in a nutshell.

  1. The categories are kind of fuzzy though, and there is wide variation. The people who don’t separate them may just be opposed to the common categorization, but don’t have a better idea of how to go about it — I don’t like calling the present perfect a tense, but I tend to do it anyway because I don’t have a better name for it.

    1. The essence of aspect is that it is actually there where you acknowledge it in a language – that is to say the grammar acknowledges it de facto by constructing around it, and tense is also there, whether or not the grammar of the verbs of a language accommodates it.

      This truth is best illustrated when it comes to Slavic languages, which try both to show the aspect and also the tense, but aspect “trumps” tense.

      There are verbs whose meaning gives them a basically perfective or basically imperfective meaning. For example, if you think of a verb like “to throw” – the time involved in throwing something is so short that its basic meaning has a perfective aspect. When encountering “to throw” in writing or conversation, you will more likely find it in the past or in the future than in the present, unless we are talking about a session of repeated throws like a target practice or a game of darts, etc.

      This means that throwing is basically perfective but can require an imperfective form, and so in a language like Czech the base verb hodit is imperfective and they have to double back into a 4a class conjugation and make hazet to get a forced imperfective counterpart.

      On the other hand you get a verb like “to know” and this is a state of being aware of something. However, there is also the point at which you get to know something and then this is perfective. In Slavic languages you get a do- or an u- prefix to the znati or vedeti root, and that makes a base imperfective verb perfective.

      It is all very elegant, really, but takes some getting used to.

      In Western languages there is an attempt to use tenses to cover these aspectival difference and that is why you end up in the end with a lot of tenses. In French “I did not know” MUST be “je ne savais pas”, ie past imperfect tense. The system is not balanced as in Slavic because they do not use a future imperfect, really, and je ne vais pas savoir is pretty synonymous to “je ne saurai pas”.

      In French the moment of finding out is past perfect “A ce moment, j’ai su qu’elle ne disait pas la verite”. “At that moment, I knew (for the first time) that she was not telling the truth.” So aspect is still there but because it is unacknowledged as aspect, there are more tenses than in fact there would need to be if the grammar reflected aspectival dualism in the way that Slavic does.

      1. I suspect it would be easier to follow the comment if I could speak Slavically, as the esperantists say, but I think I understand what you mean. As you touch upon in the post, it’s similar in Chinese, with the exception that they don’t inflect anything.

        So, with ‘throw’, if you force an imperfect form upon it, it means repetitive action, right? (And conversely with ‘know’.)

        1. Either you are making throwing iterative, and there are iterative siffixes that go to help convey that meaning when you are making an imperfective aspect from a verb whose base meaning is either perfectove or where you’ve already added a prefix to adapt the meaning and that has caused the verb’s basic imperfective form to be perfectivised, or you are basically in the course of the action. To be in the course of throwing one thing is a short space of time, and therefore rarely spoken about in the present tense. “I am throwing you a life belt here” is one example, but it’s figurative of course. In the case of throwing you are usually throwing countable items, so the number would tell if it was one or more, but you can also throw uncountable nouns, such as fruit. Here the context would be the guide, and if you were to be using an imperfective aspect for throwing and having an uncountable, the assumption would be, unless otherwise dictated by context, that more than one piece of fruit was at issue.

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