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The Verb. The Category of Aspect and Tense

As is well known, one of the most interesting and difficult problems is the interaction of the category tense and aspect in a single form. Grammarians of the classical school were the first to draw attention to the category of aspect, but their treatment of this subject testifies to the confusion of morphological, lexical and syntactic means of denoting the matter of action of the English verb, typical of the English scientific grammar. Smirnitsky thinks the category of aspect is constituted by the opposition of two form classes: non-continuous and continuous. But professor Ilyish characterized them as common and continuous.

Forms of continuous aspect are used with the adverbs 'always, constantly' when the action is meant unlimited by time,

E.g. He was constantly experimenting with new seeds.

Rose is always wanting James to retire.

If we compare the 2nd sentence with the following

Rose always wants James to retire

We’ll see that the difference does not lie in the character of the action. It is quite clear that the 1st sentence is an example of the exaggerated statement where the form of the continuous aspect is used emotionally.

Otto Jespersen treated the type 'is writing' as a means of expressing limited duration. A similar view was expressed by professor Irtenieva. She thinks that the basic meaning of the type 'is writing' is that of simultaneity of an action with another action.

Another view was held by professor Ivanova. She recognizes the existence of the aspect category in English, but treats it in peculiar way. She thinks that 'is writing' is a form of a continuous aspect, but the form 'writes' is not an aspect form because its meaning is vague and it can't be clearly defined.

So, the author reaches the conclusion that some of the finite forms of the modern English word have the category of aspect, while others have no aspect.

Professor Ilyish does not agree with professor Ivanova. He affirms that the continuous aspect is marked both in meaning and in form where is the common aspect is non-marked both in meaning and in form,

E.g. A young girl sat in the corner of the room.

A young was sitting in the corner of the room.

The same situation may be described in both ways, the only difference between them being of that of stylistic colouring. The 1st form is more matter-of-fact, whereas the 2nd one is more descriptive. These two examples say of the same situation. But if we take such examples,

E.g. He brought her some flowers.

He was bringing her some flowers.

In these two examples the two facts will be different. With the common aspect 'brought' the sentence means that the flowers actually reached her, whereas the continuous aspect form means that he had the flowers with him, but something prevented him from giving them to her.

So, we may say that 'sat = was sitting' and 'brought ~ was bringing'.

What is the cause of this difference? Here we'll have to touch upon the lexicological problem, without which the treatment of the continuous aspect can't be complete. The verb 'sit' differs from the verb 'bring' in the important way. The verb 'sit' denotes the action which can go on indefinitely without necessarily reaching a point where it has to stop. Whereas the verb 'bring' denotes an action which must come to an end. Sometimes those verbs are called and terminative respectively. So, the difference between the common and the continuous aspect may be neutralized with durative verbs, and with terminative verbs, and with terminative verbs it can't be neutralized. And in these cases the common aspect can't substituted or the continuous aspect, and vice versa.

We are to speak on the relation between the aspects of the English verb and those of the Russian verb. The Russian verb has two aspects: perfective and imperfective. It is obvious that there is no direct correspondence between English and Russian aspects. The relation between the English and the Russian aspects may be represented by the following table.



English Common Continuous
Russian Perfective Imperfective


The English common aspect may correspond not only to the Russian perfective, but to the Russian imperfective aspect,

E.g. He wrote = Он писал. Он написал.

Russian imperfective may correspond not only to the continuous, but also to the common aspect in English,

E.g. Писал = was writing, wrote

The category of tense

The tense category is universally recognized. The task here is to define the category of tense, to find the distinctions of the category of case, to find how many tenses there are in English and what each of them means. Ilyish gives such a definition to the category of tense: it is a verbal category which reflects the objective category of time and expresses on this background the relations between the time of the action and the time of the utterance.

The main divisions of objective time are past, present and future. There are great differences between tense systems of different languages. In English there are three tenses - past, present and future - represented by the forms: 'lived - lives - will live'. But Otto Jespersen denied the existence of a future tense in English because of the formation of this tense with the help of the words 'will, shall', which preserve according to Jespersen some elements of the original meaning,

E.g. 'shall' means 'obligation', 'will' - 'volition'

But Ilyish does not agree with Jespersen, he thinks that these verbs are free from these shades of meaning,

E.g. I'm sorry. I'm afraid I will have to go back to the hotel.

The verb 'will' is used here as an auxiliary of the future tense and the meaning of the volition is excluded by the context. So, the verb here has only one grammatical meaning - the meaning of futurity.

It is well-known that a present tense form may also be used when the action belongs to the future,

E.g. Mary is coming tomorrow.

Mary will come tomorrow.

The three main divisions of time are represented in the English verbal system by the three tenses. Each of them may appear in the common and in the continuous aspect. Thus, we get six tense aspect forms. Besides these six, there are two more - the future in the past and the future continuous in the past. The future in the past and the future continuous in the past do not fit into the system of tenses, represented by a straight line, running out of the past into the future. These are the deviation from this straight line. Their starting point is not the present, from which the past and the future are reckoned, but the past itself it may be said that the past is a new centre of the system. Professor Ivanova considers past as an essential element of the English tense system.

A different view of the English tense system has been put forward by N. Irtenieva. Her opinion is that there are tenses centring in the present and tenses centring in the past.


The former would comprise the present, present perfect, future, present continuous and present perfect continuous. The latter would comprise the past, past perfect, future in the past, past continuous and past perfect continuous.

Professor Korsakov establishes a system of absolute and anterior (coming before) tenses and a system of stative and dynamic tenses. By dynamic tenses he means tenses of continuous aspect and by anterior tenses he means the tenses of the perfect correlation.

Reznik admits two aspect forms in English. The choice between the forms is determined by the way the action is presented in the context. The following factors are being of major importance:

1) Number of enumerative actions

A single action may be described in the context or a chain of successive actions,

E.g. I was writing a letter when he came. These are single actions.

I wrote a letter when he came.

I wrote a letter, put it into the envelope and posted it (this is a chain of successive actions).

2) Frequency of the last action

The action may be presented as done once or repeatedly or permanently,

E.g. I said that I was writing a letter to my friend. These are actions done once.

I wrote to my friend in answer to his.

I often wrote letters to my friend (a repeated action).

3) Presence of an exact indication of time

The time of the action may be exactly indicated or not,

E.g. I wrote a letter when he came. These are actions exactly indicated.

I was writing a letter when he came.

I shall tell them that I wrote this letter (an action that is not indicated).

4) 'Character' of the action

The event may be presented as a complete or not complete in the time,

E.g. I wrote a letter when he came (a complete action).

I was writing a letter when he came (a not complete action).

The continuous form will be generally used to denote one action done once, taking place at a moment, exactly indicated in the situation, and presented as a continual process.

The non-continuous form will be used to denote a chain of successive actions, a repeated or permanent action, an action the time of which is not exactly indicated or a complete event.


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