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The Category of Aspect

Aspective verbal semantics expresses the inner character of the process denoted by the verb. It reflects the inherent method of the realization of the process irrespective of its timing. The category of aspect as a grammatical category shows the manner in which the action is either performed or represented: in English, the category of aspect is based on the opposition of the continuous forms to non-continuous or infinite forms of the verb. The strong member of the opposition is the continuous form: the continuous form presents an action as a process which develops at a certain moment or a limited period of time; the indefinite form just names the action. This category has a verbid representation in the infinitive. Here it expresses the same contrast between action in progress and action non in progress: “He may be sleeping”.

Two systems of verbal forms, in the past grammatical tradition analysed under the indiscriminate heading of the "temporal inflexion", i. e. synthetic inflexion proper and analytical composition as its equivalent, should be evaluated in this light: the continuous forms and the perfect forms.

The continuous verbal forms analysed on the principles of oppositional approach admit of only one interpretation, and that is aspective. The continuous forms are aspective because, reflecting the inherent character of the process performed by the verb, they do not, and cannot, denote the timing of the process. The opposition constituting the corresponding category is effected between the continuous and the non-continuous (indefinite) verbal forms. The categorial meaning discloses the nature of development of the verbal action, on which ground the suggested name for the category as a whole will be "development". As is the case with the other categories, its expression is combined with other categorial expressions in one and the same verb-form, involving also the category that features the perfect. Thus, to be consistent in our judgments, we must identify, within the framework of the manifestations of the category of development, not only the perfect continuous forms, but also the perfect indefinite forms (i.e. non-continuous).

The perfect, as different from the continuous, does reflect a kind of timing, though in a purely relative way. Namely, it coordinates two times, locating one of them in retrospect towards the other. Should the grammatical meaning of the perfect have been exhausted by this function, it ought to have been placed into one and the same categorial system with the future, forming the integral category of time coordination (correspondingly, prospective and retrospective). In reality, though, it cannot be done, because the perfect expresses not only time in relative retrospect, but also the very connection of a prior process with a time-limit reflected in a subsequent event. Thus, the perfect forms of the verb display a mixed, intermediary character, which places them apart both from the relative posterior tense and the aspective development.

The gerund and the participle do not distinguish this category although there are traces of progressive meaning, esp. in the present participle: “A boy doing his homework”.

Present participle is one of the markers of the category (in combination with the categorial auxiliary). In particular, these traces are easily disclosed in various syntactic participial complexes. Cf.:

The girl looked straight into my face, smiling enigmatically. → The girl was smiling enigmatically as she looked straight into my face. We heard the leaves above our heads rustling in the wind. →We heard how the leaves above our heads were rustling in the wind.

The category of aspect is a category which has been disputed for a long time. Originally the category was identified on Slavonic material. In Slavonic languages the category of aspect is lexical – grammatical because the difference is not purely formal: in order to form an aspective verb you should add a prefix thus changing the meaning of the verb. In Russian, the aspective division of verbs into perfective and imperfective is, on the contrary, very strict. Although the Russian category of aspect is derivative, it presents one of the most typical features of the grammatical structure of the verb, governing its tense system both formally and semantically.

On the other hand, the aspective meaning can also be represented in variable grammatical categories. Aspective grammatical change is wholly alien to the Russian language, but it forms one of the basic features of the categorial structure of the English verb.

Some linguists who do not find any aspective meaning in the indefinite form consider the continuous form to be one of the tense forms, which marks an action as simultaneous to some other action or time.

As a rule, the continuous form is not used with non-term verbs because they denote a state, however there are numerous instances of the use of the continuous form with non-term verbs: the two main semes of the continuous form are the activity of the process and the temporary character of it – if the continuous form is used with a non-term verb it is either change in the meaning of the verb which comes to denote an activity (a semantic change) (I’m thinking of him = I think, you’re right) or if the continuous form is used with a quality in this case the dominant seme is the temporary character of the state (You’re being silly!).

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