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Verb: the category of aspect

It is but natural that the verb should take up so much, or
indeed, more space than all the other parts of speech we have
so far considered, put together. It is the only part of
speech in present – day English that has a morphological system
based on a series of categories. It is the only part of
speech that has analytical forms, and again the only one that
has forms (the infinitive, the gerund and the participle) which
occupy a peculiar position in its system and do not share
some of the characteristic features of the part of speech as
a whole.

In analysing the morphological structure of the English verb it
is essential to distinguish between the morphological categories
of the verb as such, and the syntactic features of the
sentence (or clause) in which a form of the verb may happen
to be used. This applies especially to the category of voice
and, to a certain extent, to the categories of aspect and
tense as well.

The order in which we shall consider the categories of the
verb may to a certain extent be arbitrary. However, we should
bear in mind that certain categories are most closely linked
together than others. Thus, it stands to reason that the
categories of aspect and tense are linked more closely than
either of them is with the category of voice. It is also
plain that there is a close connection between the categories
of the tense and mood. These relations will have to be borne
in mind as we start to analyse the categories of the verb.

One last preliminary remark may be necessary here. It is always
tempting, but it may prove dangerous, to approach the
morphological system of the verb in one language from the point
of view of another language, for example, the student’s
mother tongue, or a widely known language such as Latin. Of
course the system of each language should be analysed on its
own, and only after this has been done should to compare it
with another. Anyway the assessment of the system of a given
language ought not to be influenced by the student’s knowledge
of another language. Neglect of this principle has often brought
about differences in the treatment of the same language,
depending on the student’s mother tongue.

We will begin the analysis of each verbal category by
examining two forms or two sets of forms v differing from each
other according to that category only.


The category of Aspect is a linguistic representation of the
conceptual category which is defined as Aspectuality, the
latter reflecting the objective category of Manner of action.

The problem of Aspect in English has always been one of most
disputable and controversial. The discrepancy in views upon
aspects in English is elicited by the diversity of their

First of all, Aspect should be defined in its linguistic
status as a morphological category which represents Aspectuality
in morphological or lexico – morphological ways.

The recognition of the morphological nature of Aspect makes it
possible to exclude from aspects different lexical and it
possible to exclude from aspects different lexical and lexico –
syntactical devices of expressing Aspectuality which are widely
used in Modern English. It follows that the number of
aspects in a language and their character depend on how many
and which of the notions of Aspectuality are represented
lingually in the language by means of morphological or lexico –
morphological devices.

Commenting upon the realization of the category of Aspect we
should bear in mind that there is only one morphological verb
– form

which marks Aspectuality and signifies Continuality or

Referring back to the point mentioned previously, a distinction
between Continuous and non – Continunous aspective forms mustbe
made. Furthermore, the Continuos forms is marked analytically by
the Vbe + Ving marker whereas the non Continuous is, on the
contray, unmarked. The paradigmatic meaning of the Continuous
forms n English is “Durativeness” or Progressiveness”.

The existence of the Continuous aspect in Modern English is
not refutable because there is the corresponding aspect
opposition of Continuous and non – Continuous forms of the
analytical Vbe + Ving and the zero markers. But, as the
triangle pattern shows, there are some other morphological and
lexico – morphological devices signifying different aspectual
notions in the frame of Aspectuality. A question aries whether
or not such devices can be qualified as aspect – markers. On
the one hand, the Present Perfect, for instance, satisfies the
requirements to be an aspect – marker: it is a morphological
form of the verb and it signifies Perfectiveness or
Resultiveness. On the other hand, these meanings are not quite
categorial meanings of the Perfect as it is. As mentioned,
the English Perfect can hardly be recognized as grammatical
category because the Perfect forms have no invariant categorial
meaning common for all o such forms. The only way out is to
admit that the Present Perfect, which stands apart from other
Perfect forms, has or retains its aspectual nature due to its
ability to signify aspectual meaning.

Another refutable question concerns the nature and status of
some postfixes which are found with the verbs as postpositions.
We are not going to dwell here upon the nature of the
adverbial postpositions which are lexico – grammatical verbal
particles. But there are such postfixes as up, on and off
which are devoid of any lexical meaning. Their grammatical
nature is revealed in their signifying. Their grammatical nature
is revealed in their signifying Perfectiveness or
Terminativeness. In view of this, these postfixes occur as the
significators of Aspectuality and can be recognized as aspect –
markers. Nevertheless, these are not categorial markers, they do
not stand in any categorial aspect opposition. We can admit,
of course, that these postfixes mark the selectional Aspect,
which is intermediate in its status: form – derivational and
word – building at the same time.

In conclusion, we would supply some examples in which the
Perfectiveness or Terminativeness are expressed by means of
different devices.

There are two sets of forms in the Modern English verb which
are contrasted with each other on the principle of use or non
– use of the pattern “be + first participle”:

writes — is writing

wrote — was writing

will write — will be writing

has written — has been writing


These two sets of forms clearly belong to the same verb write
and there is some grammatical difference between them. We will
not here consider the question whether the relation between
writes and is writing is exactly the same as that between
wrote and was writing, etc. We will assume that it is the
same relation.

What, then, is the basic difference between writes and is
writing, or between wrote and was writing given in various
grammar books, e shall find, with some variations of detail,
that the basic characteristic of is writing is this: it
denotes an action proceeding continuously at a define period of
time, within certain time limits. On the other hand, writes
denotes an action not thus limited but either occurring
repeatedly or everlasting, without any notion of lasting
duration repeatedly or everlasting, without any notion of lasting
duration at a given moment. It should be noted here that
many variations of this essential meaning may be due to the
lexical meaning of the verb and of the other words in the
sentence; thus there is some difference in this respect between
the sentence the earth turns round the sun and the sentence
the sun rises in the East; the action mentioned in the former
sentence goes on without interruption, whereas that mentioned
in the latter sentence is repeated every morning and does not
take place at all in the evening, etc. But this is irrelevant
for the meaning of the grammatical form as such and merely
serves to illustrate its possible applications.

The basic difference between the two sets of forms, then,
appears to e this: an action going on continuously during a
given period of time, and an action not thus limited and not
described by the very form of the verb as proceeding in such
a manner.

Now, the question must be answered, how should this essential
difference in meaning between the two sets of forms be
described. The best way to describe it would seem to be
this: it is a difference in the way the action is shown to
proceed. Now this is the grammatical notion described as the
category of aspect with reference to the Slavonic languages
(Russian, Polish, Czech, etc.), and also to ancient Greek, in
which this category is clearly expressed.

As is well known, not every verb is commonly used in the
form “be + first principle”. Verbs denoting abstract relations,
such as belong , and those denoting sense perception or emotion,
e. g. see, hear, hope, love, seldom appear in this form. It
should be noted, however, that the impossibility of these verbs
appearing in this form is sometimes exaggerated. Such categoric
statements give the reader a wrong idea of the facts as they
are not verified by actual modern usage. Thus, the verb see,
hope, like, fear and others, though denoting perception or
feelings (emotions), may be found in this form, e.g. It was as
if she were seeing herself for the first time in a year.
The form “be + first participle” is very appropriate here, as
it does not admit of the action being interpreted as
momentaneous (corresponding to the perfective aspect in Russian)
and makes it absolutely clear that what is meant is a sense
perception going on (involuntarily) for some time.

This use of the form is also well illustrated by the
following bit of dialogue from a modern short story : “Miss
Courtright – I want to see you,” he said, quickly averting his
eyes. “Will you let me — Miss Courtright – will you? “Of
course, Merle,” she said, smiling a little. “You’re seeing me
right now.” It might probably have been possible to use here
the present indefinite : “You see me right now,” but the use
of the continuous gives additional emphasis to the idea that
the action, that is, the perception denoted by the verb see,
is already taking place. Thus the descriptive possibilities of
the continuous form are as effective here with the verb of
perception as they are with any other verb.

A rather typical example of the use of the verb see in the
continuous aspect is the following sentence: Her breath came
more evenly now, and she gave a smile so wide and open, her
great eyes taking in the entire room and a part of the
mountains towards which she had half turned, that it was as
though she were seeing the world for the first time and might
clap her hands to see it dance about her.

Here are some more examples of continuous forms of verbs which
are generally believed not favour these forms: Both were
visibly hearing every word of the conversation and ignoring it,
at the same time. The shade of meaning provided by the
continuous will be best seen by comparing the sentence as it
stands with the following variant, in which both forms of the
continuous have been replaced by the corresponding indefinite
forms: Both visibly heard every word of the conversation and
ignored it, at the same time. The descriptive character of the
original text has disappeared after the substitution: instead of
followings, as it were, the gradual unfolding of the hearing
process and the gradual accumulation of “ignoring”, the speaker
now merely states the fact that the two things happened. So
the shades of meaning differentiating the two aspect forms are
strong enough to overcome what one might conventionally term
the “disclination” of verbs of perception towards the continuous

We also find the verb look used in a continuous form where
it means “have the air”, not “cast a look”: Mr March was
looking absent and sombre again. This is appropriate here, as
it expresses a temporary state of things coming after an
interruption (this is seen from the adverb again)and lasting for
some time at least. Compare also the verb hope: You’re rather
hoping he does know, aren’t you? If we compare this sentence
and a possible variant with the present indefinite: You rather
hope he does know, don’t you? We shall see that the original
text serves to make the idea of hope more emphatic and so
the form of the continuous aspect does here serve a useful
purpose. But I’m hoping she’ll come round soon… Let us again
compare the text with a variant: But I hope she’ll come round
soon… The difference in this case is certainly much less
marked than in the preceding example: there is no process
going on anyway, and it is clear from the context (especially
the adverbial modifier soon) that the feeling spoken of only
refers to a very limited space of time. So the extra shade
of meaning brought by the continuous form appears to be only
that of emphasis.

Our next example is of the link verb be in the continuous
aspect form: There were a few laughs which showed however that
the sale, on the whole, was being a success. With the non –
continuous form substituted: There were a few laughs which
showed however that the sale, on the whole, was a success. In
this instance, once more, the difference would appear to be
essential. In the text as it stands, it is certain that the
laughs mentioned were heard while the sale was still going
on, whereas in the second variant this left to conjecture:
they might as well have been heard after the sale was
concluded, when some people were discussing its results. So
the continuous form of the link verb has an important function
in the sentence. Compare also the following: You are being
presumptuous in a way you wouldn’t be with anyone else, and I
don’t like it. Compare also the following: you are being
presumptuous in a way you wouldn’t be with anyone else, and
I don’t like it. Compare also: “ I think you are being just,”
Charles said… Here the continuous is perhaps more necessary
still, as it clearly means that the person’s behaviour in a
certain concrete situation is meant, not his general
characteristic, which would be expressed by saying, “ I think
you are just”. Compare also: Perhaps I’m being selfish… The
link verb be is also use in the continuous aspect in the
following passage: What I think is, you’re supposed to leave
somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s
getting all excited about something. He is being interesting
obviously means here, “he is behaving in an interesting way”,
or “he is trying to be interesting”, and it implies a certain
amount of conscious effort, whereas he is interesting would
merely mean that he has this quality as a permanent
characteristic, without reference to any effort of will and
without limitation to any period of time. Compare also: Now
you are being rude.


Each of the two aspects must be given some name which should
of course be as adequate as possible to the basic meaning of
the aspect. It seems easier to find a name for he type is
writing than for the type writes. The term continuous aspect
has now been in use for some time already and indeed it
seems very appropriate to the phenomenon which it is used to
describe. As to the type writes, a term is rather more
difficult to find, as the uses of this form are much more
varied and its intrinsic meaning, accordingly, less definite.
This state of things may be best of all described by the
term common aspect, which is indefinite enough to allow room
for the various uses. It also has merit of being parallel
with the term common case, which has been discussed above and
which seems the best to denote the phenomenon if a case
system in English nouns is recognized at all. Thus we will
use the terms continuous aspect and common aspect to denote
the two aspects of the Modern English verb.

Special uses

However, the problem of aspect and their uses is by no means
exhausted. First of all we must now mention the uses of the
continuous aspect which do not easily fit into the definition
given above. Forms of this aspect are occasionally used with
the adverbs always, continually, etc., when the action is meant
to be unlimited by time.

Aspect and character of the verb

The problem of aspect is intimately connected with a lexico
-logical problem, which we shall therefore have to touch upon
here. It may be well illustrated by the following series of
examples. If we have, for example, the sentence, A young man
was sitting in the corner of the room, without affecting he
basic meaning of he sentence . The same situation may be
described in both ways, the only difference between them being
that of stylistic colouring: the variant with the common aspect
form is more matter – of – fact and “dry”, whereas the one
with the continuous aspect form is more descriptive.

The absence of any actual difference in meaning in such a
case is brought out in the following passage from a modern
novel: Mr Bodiham was sitting in his study at the Rectory. The
nineteenth – century Gothic windows, narrow and pointed, admitted
the light grudgingly; in spite of the brilliant July weather,
the room was sombre. Brown varnished bookshelves lined the
walls, filled with row upon row of those thick, heavy
theological works which the second – hand booksellers generally
sell by weight. The mantelpiece, the overmantel, a towering
structure of spindly pillars and little shelves, were brown and
varnished. The writing – desk was brown and varnished. So were
the chairs, so was the door. A dark red – brown carpet with
patterns covered the floor everything was brown in the room,
and there was a curious brownish smell. In the midst of this
brown gloom Mr Bodiham sat at his deks.

By comparing the first and the last sentence of this passage
it will be seen that they tell of the same situation, but in
different ways. The first sentence is clearly descriptive, and
it opens a rather lengthy description of Mr Bodiham’s room,
its furniture, books, etc. the last sentence of the passage,
on the other hand confirms the fact that Mr Bodiham sat in
his study, as if summing up the situation. So the same fact
is told a second time and the difference in the stylistic
qualities of the continuous and the common aspect is well
brought out.

On the other hand, if we have the sentence He brought her
some flowers and if we substitute was bringing for brought and
say, He was bringing her some flowers, the meaning will be
affected and the two facts will be different. With the common
aspect form brought the sentence means that the flowers
actually reached her, whereas the continuous aspect from means
that he had the flowers with him but something prevented him
from giving them to her. We might then say that he sat = he
was sitting,, whereas he brought = he was bringing.. What is
the cause of this difference? Here we shall have to touch on
a lexicological problem, without which the treatment of the
continuous aspect cannot be complete. The verb sit denotes an
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 owing to its
very nature. It has now been customary for some time to call
verbs of the sit type cursive, or durative, and verbs of the
bring type terminative. We may then say that with cursive, or
durative verbs, the difference between the common and the
continuous aspect may be neutralized whereas with terminative
verbs it cannot be neutralized, so that the form of the
common aspect cannot be substitute for the form of the
continuous aspect, and vice versa, without materially changing
the meaning of the sentence.

A final note is necessary here on the relation between the
aspects of the English verb and those of the Russian verb.

Without going into details, we may assume that the Russian
verb has two aspects, the perfective and the imperfective. Ll
other varieties of aspectal meanings are to be considered within
the framework of the two basic aspects. It is obvious at
once that there is no direct correspondence between English
continuous aspect is not identical with the Russian
imperfective. The relation between the two system is not so
simple as all that. On the one hand, the English common
aspect may correspond not only to the Russian perfective but
also to the Russian imperfective aspect; thus, he wrote may
correspond both to написал and to писал. On te other hand,
the Russian imperfective aspect may correspond not only to the
continuous but also to the common aspect in English; thus,
писал may correspond both to was writing and to wrote. It
follows from this that the relation betwen the English and the
Russian aspects may be represented by the following diagram:

English Common Continuous

Russian Perfective Imperfective

What is aspect?

Aspect describes whether the action is accomplished or still in

Basically, there are two aspects: perfective and imperfective.

3.    Perfective aspect describes actions viewed as an accomplished
whole in a single point of time which happened in the past,
or will happen in the future.

4.    Imperfective aspect describes 1) an ongoing process, 2) a series
of repeated actions which were taking place in the past, are taking
place now, or will be taking place in the future.

5.    Perfective verbs have always future meaning in their present tense

6.    The future of imperfective verbs is always formed with the helping
word budu + infinitive of the verb.

7.    Verbs describing actions can be both perfective and imperfective,

8.    Verbs describing states are always imperfective.

9.    Perfective verbs can be made imperfective by means of prefixes and
endings, and vice versa.

10. It is impossible to translate aspect directly using any of the
English tenses and vice versa.

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