The category of aspect
Both sentences describe a situation of 'John reading a book'. The difference between the sentences in (1) is not in terms of Tense (both are in the past tense) but in terms of Aspect. The sentence in (1a) presents the situation as a whole, as completed, as closed, while the sentence in (1b) presents only some internal phases/stages in the development of the situation; we do not know when John began reading the book or whether he finished reading it - we only know that his reading was unfolding in Time when the phone rang/at 3 o'clock.
Intuitively, Aspect predicates about the size of a situation (the whole of it or only parts of it) while the contribution of Tense is to locate that situation in time. Both Tense and Aspect pertain to the domain of Time as situations, irrespective of their size, occur in time.
The generally accepted definition of the category of Tense is that Tense represents "the chronological order of events in time as perceived by the speaker at the moment of speaking'. The important characteristic of Tense (viewed as the grammaticized form of Time, roughly the present tense, the past tense and the future tense) is that it locates the time of the situation described in the sentence relative to the moment of speaking .
This means that we cannot conceive of a past or future event unless we have a present moment of time in mind (e.g., Marianne arrived last night cannot be interpreted unless the hearer has a 'today, a present moment of time' in mind with respect to which Marianne's arrival can be located).
This is why Tense is characterized as being a deictic category (oriented towards the time of the speaking ego): it relates different kinds of situations to the speech time and structures them by the relations of simultaneity and sequence (see the Category of Tense).
Aspect, on the other hand, is not a deictic category, but rather informs us about the contour or quality of the event/state as viewed by the speaker at a given moment in time (i.e reference point).
Following Comrie (1976), we could state the difference between Tense and Aspect as one between situation-internal time (Aspect) and situation-external time (Tense).
The term 'aspect ' was imported into the Western grammatical tradition from the study of Slavic grammar in the early nineteenth century, it being a loan translation from the Slavic term 'vid ' which is etymologically cognate with the words 'view 'and 'vision ', hence the term viewpoint aspect has been widely adopted in current literature. (Smith 1991).
In traditional grammars, the notion 'Aspect' is restricted mostly to the perfective -imperfective distinction expressed by inflectional morphemes on the verb or by special function morphemes within a verbal complex. From this perspective, the most widely accepted definition is Comrie's (1976: 3-4) who, quoting Holt, (1943) defines "aspects" as " different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation.... ".
The perfective provides a holistic, summarizing or unifying view upon the situation described in the sentence, while the imperfective is concerned with the temporal constituency of a situation which is presented as divided up into internal phases, there being no concern for the whole situation.
In Comrie's own words " another way of explaining the difference between perfective and imperfective meaning is to say that the perfective looks at the situation from outside, without necessarily distinguishing any of the internal structure of the situation, whereas the imperfective looks at the situation from inside, and as such is crucially concerned with the internal structure of the situation, since it can look backwards toward the start of the situation and look forwards to the end of the situation, and indeed is equally appropriate if the situation is one that lasts through all time, without any beginning and without any end" (Comrie, 1976:4).In present day linguistics this is known as 'viewpoint aspect' (Smith 1991).
The viewpoints are similar across languages but not identical. That is why knowing a language includes knowing the semantic value of the viewpoints and their distribution.There are various ways in which languages grammaticize the perfective - imperfective aspectual opposition. For instance, Russian and Chinese use different affixes to distinguish between the two aspects.
English and Dutch avail themselves of syntactic means to signal the opposition: for instance; the contemporary English form 'He is working' (be + V-ing) developed historically from 'He is on/at working' (in time, the prepositions, reduced to a or o, disappeared). Languages like Romanian, French or Old Greek make use of syncretic means to signal the opposition (i.e., the grammatical markers of Aspect have fused with those of Tense).
For instance, the Romanian prezent and imperfect signal imperfective aspect while tenses such as the perfect compus, the perfect simplu, the mai mult ca perfect signal perfective aspect. In English, the opposition perfective-imperfective has not been fully grammaticized but the opposition non-progressive - progressive is compatible with it.
Progressive aspect is signalled by distinct morphological marking: be - ing (e.g., He is/was running). Perfective aspect (also called "simple / indefinite aspect") is rendered by the simple temporal form of the verb with no distinct morphological marking (e.g., He ran).
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