An aspect is a grammatical category that helps us to understand the way the event described by a verb should be viewed. Amongst other things it can indicate that the event is fleeting, habitual, repeated or if it is in progress at the time of speaking. There are two aspects in English: progressive and perfect.
The progressive aspect is indicated by the presence of a form of the auxiliary verb be used in conjunction with the '-ing' form of the following verb:
1. I am coming with you!
2. He was strolling slowly down the lane.
3. You will be working with me.
The perfect aspect is indicated by the presence of a form of the auxiliary verb have in conjunction with the past participle (third form) of the following verb:
4. She has bought a new car.
5. She had once lived with a member of the government.
6. They will have eaten all the food before we get there.
The two aspects can also be combined:
7. We have been visiting my grandmother, who is in hospital at the moment.
8. He had been drinking heavily before the accident.
9. 'They will have been expecting for us for hours!'
Quiz ¹ 1: What are the tenses in 1 - 9 above?
The Meaning of the Progressive Aspect
In order to understand what meaning the progressive (sometimes called the continuous) aspect adds to a tense, we need to contrast it with the simple (sometimes called the indefinite). No doubt, you have already noticed that either the word 'continuous' or the word 'simple' is present in all of the tense names. We will start by studying two sentences with similar meaning.
- I live in Moscow.
- I am living in Moscow.
Which of the above sentences gives the impression of a temporary situation, and which seems to have no time limitation either in the past or the future?
The above question should present no difficulty but if you are uncertain try asking yourself to which sentence do you feel most comfortable in adding the words 'at the moment'?
The answer is, of course, the second. Why? Well, because the progressive aspect adds the idea of limited duration. Sentence 1 could be referring to the exact same speaker and circumstances as sentence 2. The choice made by the speaker will depend on the context and how the speaker feels about the situation. If the speaker has a definite idea of when he or she will move from Moscow, the 2nd sentence is more likely. If there is no particular need to stress the temporary nature of the situation, then the 1st is likely. Perhaps, for example, in response to questioning by police where their interest is clearly in the speaker's current place of residence and not in the fact that this residence is expected to last for only one year.
Police officer: Where do you live?
Responder: I live in Moscow. (Far more likely than 'I am living…')
Although the question 'Where are you living?' is possible, it presupposes some prior knowledge on the part of the questioner as to the temporary nature of the responder's residential situation. So is limited duration the only thing that the progressive aspect adds? No, but it is probably the most important.
Some verbs are rarely used in continuous tenses and some others are used in continuous tenses only when the verb in question has certain meanings. Many of these are 'state' verbs such as believe, doubt or know. Verbs used for the senses are also rare e.g. smell.
Quiz ¹ 2: Compare the following pairs of sentences and decide which are acceptable:
|1||a) I am believing you.
b) I believe you.
|2||a) He knows quite a lot about our operation.
b) He is knowing quite a lot about our operation.
|3||a) I've accidentally been cutting myself with the bread knife.
b) I've accidentally cut myself with the bread knife.
|4||a) I see what you mean.
b) I am seeing what you mean.
The sentences above illustrate an interesting effect that the progressive aspect has on short action verbs. Grammatically sentence 3a is correct. In terms of grammar there is little difference between these two sentences:
- I've been cutting myself.
- I've been cutting wood.
Native speakers readily accept the second, but in accepting the first have to come up with a context involving some form of masochism or deliberate harm to oneself. Why? After all, the grammar is essentially the same. The answer lies in the fact that, 'cut' is a short action verb. We have already understood that the progressive causes the action to be extended over a limited period, but what if the verb can't be extended in time. 'Cut' for example takes a very short time in most contexts. In these cases the progressive still causes the action to be extended but does so by making the action repeat! So, when we are talking about an action that is repeated like 'cutting wood', the continuous seems natural. However, 'cutting myself' , is not something we would normally want to do and is therefore difficult for us to accept without some mental gymnastics to come up with a context in which repeatedly cutting oneself makes some sense.
The Meaning of the Perfect Aspect
Those of you who are from the USA will need to spend a little more time on this section than those from Britain since you use this aspect less frequently. The Perfect aspect relates an event, state or time to a later event state or time. Confused? You don't need to be. It's really quite simple. As before let's start with a couple of examples.
- I've seen that film already.
- I felt I knew him: I had heard so much about him.
Sentence (1) is an example of the present perfect tense. Do we know exactly when the speaker saw the film? What do we know about when he saw the film. The answer to the first question is - 'No, we do not'. The answer to the second is not very helpful if we really want to know when he saw it - At some point between his birth and the moment he made the above statement. The information contained in sentence (1) focuses on the fact that he did see the film and not on when he saw it. After all, when he saw it is unlikely to be of great interest to the listener.
Sentence (2) is an example of the past perfect tense. Did the event 'heard' happen before or after the event 'felt'? How do you know? The answers are: (a) Before; (b) Because the use of the past perfect means that 'heard' preceded 'felt'. When exactly did the speaker 'hear about him'? The answer is that we don't know. We only know that it was at some point (or points) in the speaker's life before she 'felt she knew him'. Once again, 'when' is not important here. In the unlikely event that the listeners, for some reason, wish to know 'When?', they will ask. Even then, it is uncertain they will get a satisfactory answer: the speaker probably 'heard about him' on many different occasions.
So, the perfect aspect is about 'beforeness': the present perfect is about before now; the past perfect before a point in the past; the future perfect before a point in the future. It has been said that the perfect tenses are the 'up to' tenses: Past perfect - up to a point in the past; Present perfect - up to now; Future perfect - up to a point in the future. The perfect aspect can also help us to understand the order in which events occurred, and allow us to talk more easily about things that happened at an unknown or indefinite time.
When used with a 'state' verb such as 'live' we understand that the 'state' exist(s)(ed) up to a point in time as the following examples demonstrate:
- I was sent to school in Wales even though we'd been living in France for as long as I could remember.
- He has been going out with Emily since last August.
- I will have worked for this company for ten years by next month.
Quiz ¹ 3: What are the two points in time related by the perfect verb forms in each of the above sentences?
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End of Section 2
Answer to Quiz Questions
Answers to Quiz ¹ 1: Aspects
1- Present continuous
2- Past continuous
3- Future continuous
4- Present perfect
5- Past perfect
6- Future perfect
7- Present perfect continuous
8- Past perfect continuous
9- Future perfect continuous
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Answers to Quiz ¹ 2: Simple Vs Continuous
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Answers to Quiz ¹ 3: The Perfect Aspect
The speaker's earliest memory and the moment of being sent to school in Wales.
Last August and the moment of speaking (now).
When the speaker began working for the company and next month.
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