A is for Aspect

20 03 2011

Following on from the discussion on backshift, in which I argued that the past tense had less to do with time and more to do with distance, I want to now turn my attention to aspect – or, at least, to the progressive aspect, initially.



40 responses

20 03 2011

Thanks for a smashing video clip, Scott. I’m sure those of us who’ve grown up not knowing the pre-internet era will appreciate not having to read too much. Seriously, though, this will be great for all those DELTA-ites who chose to tackle aspect during the course.

I suppose I should ask a question while I’m here.

Scott, how do you think that languages, French being a great example, cope so well without the continuous (progressive if you like) aspect? Time adverbials must be able to carry the weight. If so, and we know it is so, why did the English language bother developing this aspect? Do you see this the continuous being slowly phased out among non-natives whose mother tongue doesn’t have the continuous form as English continues its global conquest?

Sorry for the long and rambling nature of the questions; just wondering, that’s all.

20 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Adam, thanks for the comment.

Most languages – as far as I know – have ways of encoding aspectual meaning somehow – but (as you correctlty suggest) this is often done lexically. So, French, for example uses the formula ‘en train de’ to suggest activity-in-progress Thus “I’m going home” might be something like “Je suis en train de rentrer à la maison”.

By the same token, many languages have verb aspects that English encodes phraseologicaly. So the aspectual meaning “to continue doing something” might be expressed in English as “to keep doing”, whereas in Turkish (I’m just guessing) there may be a specific verb inflexion that expresses the same kind of meaning. Anoither example: according to Wikipedia, “Finnish and Estonian, among others, have a grammatical aspect contrast of telicity between telic and atelic. Telic sentences signal that the intended goal of an action is achieved. Atelic sentences do not signal whether any such goal has been achieved”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verb_aspect)

English has only two aspects that are encoded in the verb phrase; progressive and perfect.

31 03 2011
Nick Jaworski

FYI: In Turkish “to keep doing something” would be “bir sey yapip durmak”. It sort of translates as to stop and do something all the time. The “ip” ending indicates that the subject and tense of the following verb is the same as the one where “ip” is used. It’s like saying “he paid n left” rather than “He paid and he left”. It’s idiomatic in the same way “keep doing” is in English and there is no grammar involved necessarily special to the phrase.

20 03 2011

Very Langackerian, which I like a lot.

20 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Anna – I developed this theory (i.e. the analogy with countability) myself, only to discover that it is a core tenet of (Langacker’s) cognitive linguistics!

20 03 2011

That’s a great question, really – of why some languages are synthetic, using flections to express grammatical meanings, and some – analytic, like “lego” construction kits… and why the English language “bothered” to leave this analytic form… This has a lot to do with the people’s mentality and the nation’s history – the way we think is reflected in the way we put words together. Can the “why” question have an answer? And I wish the continuous aspect would not get phased out completely – as I find it beautiful… 🙂

5 04 2011
Nick Allison

“Can the “why” question have an answer?”, waykate asks. When training as a psychotherapist, the tutor told us, “Avoid asking your clients ‘why’ questions as they are too open. Instead ask, “‘What is the reason for…?'” For instance, a client says, “I always feel nervous when asked to decribe myself in a group.” The therapist may ask, “What do you think the reason may be?”, not, “Why (do you feel nervous)?”. I try to translate this into my 1-2-1 Homestay teaching as being a more helpful reponse to the student than just asking her/him, “Why!?”

21 03 2011
Declan Cooley

A footnote in Comrie [Aspect, 1976, CUP, p40 n] mentions that some gerunds (verb+ing) seem to have some aspectual difference from other nouns derived from the same verb.

The example given is ‘thieving’ vs. ‘theft(s)’ – the first being ‘unbounded’ the latter more of a bounded lemon.

Attempting to think of more examples, ‘killing’ versus ‘a kill’ sprang to mind (crime lexicon of brain obviously activated !) i.e. ‘Killing whales is wrong’ vs. ‘He raised his harpoon for the kill.’ Then came an apparent flaw – there is a countable noun ‘killing’. Still, I noticed that dictionary {LDOCE} examples were “a series of gangland killings” and ” a killing spree” – iterative and durative events – so perhaps that shows that the progressive ing-form still correlates with repeated and ‘continuous’ events both as a verb aspect and a “noun aspect”.

This killing seems to be mostly in the plural although the dictionary does not explicitly label it as being so; however, ‘kill’ (n) LDOCE says is “mostly singular”. Interestingly, in order to make “killing” singular – there is the phrase ” to make a killing” (I realise more metaphoric) – perhaps this is the same way we create the difference between ‘swimming’ and “have a swim” (unbounded and bounded) and between ‘looking’ and ‘take a look’ etc.

Could this also explain the difference between “I like swimming” and “I like to swim…” – the former used for the general enjoyment of the activity, the second used often with the (implied) context of a particular (!) occasion e.g.” …on a Saturday morning”. (unbounded vs bounded again) ?

Is it improbable to see an analogy in “It was interesting” vs “I was interested” the former being the unbounded experience, the latter the bounded bodily experience ?

Thank you for keeping my mind buzzing for several hours as I re-read relevant parts of Comrie, as well as Steven Pinker ‘The Stuff of Thought’ (Penguin,2007) which gives a popular account of the cognitive linguistics for spatial and temporal construal [in Chapter 4].

21 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Declan, for those very interesting references. In fact, in the post G is for Gerund, and its subsequent comments, some of these issues came up – e.g. whether there is a core semantic difference between -ing forms and infinitives. I quoted The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, CUP, 2006) to the effect that

the difference in meaning is often not great, but -ing emphasises the action or event in itself, while the infinitive places the emphasis more on the results of the action or event (p. 515).

This would seem consisent with the dynamic/fuzzy vs non-dynamic/entire (or lemon vs a lemon) argument, doesn’t it?

And thanks for reminding me of the Pinker connection. On p. 200 he says: “Phrases like in an hour and for an hour are part of a mental system in which stretches of time are dynamically spun out, measured, and sliced off … They are temporal versions of the mental packager in the noun system which can convert substances into objects, as when you order a beer or take out three coffees“.

And later: “Languages have an even more powerful device for packaging durative activities or grinding telic ones… [i.e. aspect]. Actually a better analogy than grinding and packaging is zooming in to scrutinise the internal stuff of an event, with its boundaries outside the field of vision, or stepping back, allowing the entire event, including any fuzzy boundaries, to shrink to a smudge” (p. 201).

Zooming in, or stepping back: that’s neat.

However, later he goes horribly wrong: “In describing a current state… you have to use the simple present — he knows the answer; he wants a drink, not he is knowing the answer; he is wanting a drink. … Presumably this is because the progressive, which turns an action into a state, is redundant with verbs like know and want that already are states” (p.203).

The progressive turns an action into a state? Surely it’s the exact opposite!

21 03 2011

Funny to watch you quote some of your own examples, more or less, from How to Teach Grammar! Would you consider an encore video showing how you present these ideas to English learners?

I’m experimenting with x-word grammar and have been encouraging students to say “the -ing form” instead of “present/past progressive” since those traditional terms can be so misleading and are also meaningless to students unfamiliar with them. I use examples like the ones you gave to help them see that the time meaning is found either in the context alone or in the context and the x-word (i.e. auxiliary is vs was etc). The sense of “temporary” is clear.

Often, though, when searching for examples of the -ing form in authentic text, we find it without an x-word from the be-family, e.g. “She has a way of making people smile.” Descriptive?

21 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Cyndi. I’m not that familiar with x-grammar, but if you stop thinking that ‘auxiliary + -ing‘ is a different class of animal than ‘verb + -ing‘, you can start to appreciate the sense of what -ing does when you tack it on to a verb stem. What, after all, is the difference between

She was waiting.


She sat waiting.
She kept waiting.
She liked waiting.
She stopped waiting.
She tried waiting.


The only difference is syntactic (i.e. the way you make these sentences into questions or the way you negate them). But the meaning of ‘waiting’ is fairly constant, isn’t it?

21 03 2011

Yes, Yes…An encore!!
I’ve followed the development of your line of thinking about aspect in various articles and presentations that you’ve given on this topic and have a deep desire to share these concepts with my students. It’s so temptingly simple and it also complements the idea that learning verb grammar is really fundamentally about developing a ‘sense’ for it. However, it’s heart breaking to watch them when I tell them that time is not equal to tense. All those years of studying rule after rule leaves them in disbelief.

21 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Delpha, I agree that it’s all about getting a sense of it, or a feel for it (see the earlier post F is for Feel). Labelling collocations like the present tense of the verb to be + -ing as the present progressive and then calling the whole thing a tense doesn’t seem to me to be of much use in developing that feel for what -ing means, au fond.

22 03 2011
Penny Hands

Although Pinker appears to get a bit confused/confusing, he raises an interesting point, which relates to stative verbs. The bounded/unbounded idea is neat for dynamic verbs, but what about stative verbs? When we say “I like bananas”, is the verb bounded? Can it be likened to *a* lemon? In my mind, a state is more like lemon. How do other people feel about states? (This leads on to other questions about supposedly stative verbs being used with progressive aspect, but I’ll try not to get distracted for the moment…)

Similarly, we use simple verb forms (i.e. with no aspect) to talk about general truths, e.g. “The moon goes around the Earth”. Are these bounded?

Sorry to have only questions, and no answers! I’ve been pondering this for a while, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to share ideas.

22 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your question, Penny — and no need to apologise! Not least because it gives me a chance to bang on a bit about my “theory”.

In the light of which, I have come to question the stative verb versus dynamic verb distinction as having any real validity at all. Just as all nouns share the capacity to be both countable and non-countable (“After the accident, the road was covered with car”; “The rugby game was notable for having a lot of ball”; or “I tasted a bread once that was made carrots”, “We guarantee to return all monies in the event of cancellation”; etc) we should think of verbs as having a similar potential — to represent states, at times, and actions, at others. Thus, the verbs to know or to want normally describe a state, but occasionally we might want to look inside that state to see it evolving in a more dynamic fashion, hence we might (and do!) say “I find I’m knowing more and more about less and less” or — even more plausibly — “I’ve been wanting to meet you for ages”. Likewise, when we say “the moon goes round the earth”, we are less interested in the dynamics, the staged and evolving nature, of the action, than its steady state, as seen in its entirety.

So I propose we stop talking about stative verbs and dynamic verbs, and simply talk about verbs being used sometimes statively and sometimes dynamically. And the same goes for countability in nouns.

22 03 2011
Penny Hands

Yes, I’m with you there; the progressive aspect is commonly used with those verbs traditionally described as ‘stative’ (and it’s become gradually more frequent over the last 20 years or so). I suppose, what I was asking, though, was this: when we *do* use the simple form with verbs such as ‘like’ and ‘know’, are we seeing these experiences as somehow bounded? ‘I like…’ and ‘I know…’ are definitely not as clear-cut as ‘She crossed the street’, which is an event, and has a definite beginning and end to it. Is ‘boundedness’ perhaps a continuum?

22 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Penny, another good question. An alternative analysis might simply be to say that like, know, etc – and go, do, and so on – are in the unmarked form, i.e. they are neither markedly bounded nor markedly unbounded, if you see what I mean. And that adding -ing marks them for dynamism. I think this is the line Michael Lewis takes in The English Verb, arguing that the base form – whether used as an infinitive or as a finite verb – is the unmarked form. This would be more credible if there wasn’t the damned third person -s!

22 03 2011
Kate Wild

This is a fascinating discussion. Scott, you suggest: “I propose we stop talking about stative verbs and dynamic verbs, and simply talk about verbs being used sometimes statively and sometimes dynamically”. But this still doesn’t explain the difference between the sets:

a) I like bananas – b) I’m liking bananas.


c) I grow bananas – d) I’m growing bananas.

Why is (b) so much more marked than (d)? Is it just because (b) is a newer form? Or is there a fundamental difference between ‘like’ and ‘grow’, i.e. one is a stative verb and one isn’t… which brings us back to having a stative/dynamic verb distinction!

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

22 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good question, Kate.

The reason ‘I’m liking bananas’ sounds more marked than ‘I’m growing bananas’ (and ‘I’m going bananas’, for that matter!) is that affect (likes, dislikes, preferences, etc) is not normally thought of as being something that evolves, changes shape, has blurred edges, and so on. You either like something or you don’t. Just as you either know something or you don’t. (You do of course have the option, in English, of a periphrastic construction like ‘I’m getting to like [Lady Gaga/okra/Bognor etc] more and more).

Physical/biological processes, like ‘growing’, on the other hand, are concepts that very much lend themselves to a dynamic interpretation, and hence are likely to be found in the -ing form.

So, statistically, you will find many more examples of ‘I love it’ than ‘I’m loving it’, in a corpus. Just as you will find many more examples of ‘some bread’ and not ‘a bread’. And you will probably find a lot of examples of ‘it’s growing’, if not quite as many as ‘it grows’. (The most frequent verbs that take the progressive, by the way, are go, do, get, come, try, and look – together comprising 60% of progressive constructions – all being verbs that encode motion or processes [data from Mindt, 2000]).

Which is all just to say that our perceptions influence our language choices. A different perception, a different language choice. That’s what I’m thinking/I think!

22 03 2011
Anthony Gaughan

The COCA has “it grows” outpunching “it is growing” by about 8:1. However, my favorite example is dynamic:

“it is growing at an alarming rate; and we have little defense against it.”

Seriously like your suggestion to lose the stative/dynamic verb dichotomy. As for the theoretical problem of the 3rd person S, let time and ELF take care of that;-)

22 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the stats, Anthony. If ‘it grows’ is 8 times more frequent than ‘it is growing’ this is probably significant, since, on average, the present simple outnumbers the progressive by something like 20:1. This suggests that ‘grow’ is used more often in its -ing form than many other verbs, confirming my thesis. No doubt ‘I love…’ outnumbers ‘I’m loving…’ by an even more significant margin.

23 03 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Indeed it does – by a whopping 1132:1! That’s probably statistically significant 😉

23 03 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I should say that last stat was from the BNC not COCA. The other 3 instances of “I’m loving” were adjectival.

I’m wondering (dynamically) whether Hoey’s lexical priming has any relevance here…

23 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Anthony asks “I’m wondering (dynamically) whether Hoey’s lexical priming has any relevance here…”

It certainly does. “You change the rules of the game by playing it”, as Diane Larsen-Freeman is fond of quoting. An advertising slogan (itself derived from a colloquialism) or a song lyric, or a line from a film, becomes a catchphrase, and it in turn influences how ‘the language of the tribe’ evolves. ‘I’m lovin’ it’ is a perfect example. ‘OK’ is another.

23 03 2011
Declan Cooley

Here’s a sum-up based on my current understanding inspired by Pinker, Comrie and Scott and all the postigns here:


Visual representation on a time-line helps me with conceptualization, (and depending on a person’s learning/perceptual style might also be useful in the classroom).

If time is represented on a line heading with an arrow from left to right (past –> future) with events placed along it, the tense locates events/objects along the line [relative to points in time, or relative to other objects/events on the line].

We can then look at just a section of this timeline [which in its entirety we guess stretches from the Big Bang and to the Big Crunch on either end, (or perhaps the ends meet !)]– say, take a 6-month long timeline with NOW in the centre of it. On this timeline, these objects/events could be represented by a ‘shape’.

Now taking aspect to be taking a perspective/view on events/objects looking down from above the line we can either zoom out or zoom in. This can have 2 different effects:

EFFECT 1– we LOSE OR GAIN sight of AN OBJECT’S PARTICULARS/ DETAILS/ STRUCTURE (if there is any internal structure/process)

(i) Zooming out from the events/objects makes it more dot-like so that it seems to have no internal structure or process to it; (in the noun analogy – we don’t see the dimples on the lemon, we just see a yellow dot)

(ii) zooming in on an events/objects leads to us to start to see some of its internal structure and processes (in the noun analogy – we start to see the dimples, pips, segments etc).

EFFECT 2 – we LOSE OR GAIN sight of AN OBJECT’S OUTLINE (BOUNDARY) or the sense that it is a bounded whole entire UNIT

(i) zooming out for a bird’s eye view we get a wide-angle lens view of the object (and thus in the noun analogy – see an entire and whole lemon ‘bounded’ by its lemon shape) > we GAIN sight of AN OBJECT’S OUTLINE (BOUNDARY)

(ii) zooming in on the line and magnifying a bit of an object/event (in the noun analogy – we will then see just a glob of lemon-like stuff – ‘unbounded’ here means we no longer discern a lemon-shaped outline or silhouette because we are seeing it from the inside of the lemon, we are knee-deep in lemon)


23 03 2011
Declan Cooley


Now here are three events on the line:

(a) “I taught a course in Spain” might be a longish oblong with definable edges whereas
(b) “I had a car accident in June” would be just a small blob.
(c) “ I like bananas“ or would be an extremely long rectangle filling the timeline as far as the eye can see and has no discernible ends (apart from birth & death)].

[in the noun analogy (a) and (b) are similar, like two lemons (one big, one small) while (c) is like the longest banana ever]

Now let’s combine ZOOMING IN with the events (a) (b) (c)

reminder this has two effects


(a) Zooming in on “I taught a course in Spain” we could see the internal structure and process {EFFECT 1} and say “I was teaching aspect in the middle of the course” – to capture an indistinct area of the oblong (lemon-stuff) and it seems we use the progressive to show this internal process and structure that wasn’t visible from a greater height. We have also lost the boundary of the ‘course’ and now just see a fuzzy bit in the middle.

{EFFECT 2} Crucially, if we wanted to, we could draw a boundary line around this section using time expressions or by other means “ I taught aspect for three days” or “I taught a module on aspect” thus going back to non-progressive [simple] for bounded events (if we want to see/construe it as an object within the greater object – the segment or pip within a lemon)

(b) We could zoom in on the car accident and the blob would turn into a longer blob and we could say “As I was turning into the street, there was someone crossing the road and …” as we start to see some of its internal structure of the event. {EFFECT 1} Again, we could easily zero in on and draw a line around other sub-events, start to see other dots (tiny discernible events within this blob, pips in a lemon) and use non-progressive for these, such as “the car hit the pedestrian” and if I wished I could even zoom in on a slice of this pip/dot and say “As the car was smashing into his leg… using the progressive to slice open the lemon.

[(a) and (b) are similar in that both EFFECT 1 and EFFECT 2 come into play].

23 03 2011
Declan Cooley


(c) Firstly, let’s just notice that “I like bananas” is different in shape and consistency. It’s true it doesn’t have a shape at first glance , thus seems unbounded– but if you zoom out to the max it does (like any eventuality) have a beginning and an end (the first time you tasted bananas and either you lose the taste for it or you die) and from this ultimate zoom-out it looks like one massive monolithic unit with, yes, we have to admit, with bounded ends. Now to zooming in….

Zooming in on “I like bananas” doesn’t seem to make much of a difference – since it is such a steady phenomenon and quite homogenous, looking even more closely at it doesn’t seem to reveal anything different or any unfolding process – it looks about the same no matter from what height you view it from – it always looks like a long rectangle with ends stretching into infinity no matter how you zoom in.

 Thus EFFECT 1 = we GAIN sight of AN OBJECT’S INTERNAL PARTICULARS/ DETAILS/STRUCTURE doesn’t really happen – there isn’t any internal structure.

 For EFFECT 2 = we LOSE sight of AN OBJECT’S EXTERNAL OUTLINE (BOUNDARY) – again doesn’t really matter, it didn’t have much of a boundary to begin with (to see this boundary we had to zoom out and get a satellite image – and we usually view things from somewhere in mid-height, so most of the time we don’t consider its boundary, though we vaguely know it’s there).

Or as Scott puts it: “they are neither markedly bounded nor markedly unbounded”.

So, to quote Scott, ‘I’m liking bananas’ sounds more marked than ‘I’m growing bananas’ is that affect… is not normally thought of as being something that evolves, changes shape”. But even though verbs such as ‘like’ normally describe a homogenous state, “occasionally we might want to look inside that state to see it evolving in a more dynamic fashion”. It’s because it’s only occasionally that makes it ‘marked’.

To use a song as an example of something we like, we could use progressive when

We want to show a dynamic change in degree in how much we like it:

Okay, I’m liking this song more now, even with the vocals.
I’m liking this song more and more every time I sing it.

We want to express the dynamic process of beginning to like it:

Even it’s only 20 seconds, I’m liking this song already.

Or express that it is a dynamic changeable state of affairs:

I’m liking this song though it’s surprisingly more country influence than I expected. It still sounds great though.

{Google has about 35,300 examples of “I’m liking this song” versus 1,190,000 hits for “I like this song”}.

23 03 2011
Declan Cooley

EDIT: As the car was smashing into his leg… using the progressive to slice open the >PIP<.

As we can see, it is lemons all the way down … and up.


23 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Brilliant, Declan!

The zooming in and out nicely captures what (progressive) aspect is all about. As I said somewhere else, tense is where you point the lens, while aspect is how you focus it. In fact, now that I’m a proud owner of an iPhone, I see an analogy for your zooming device: the way, when you’re texting on the iPhone, you can magnify parts of the text that you want to edit simply by tapping it.

To improve your model, however, I might think less in terms of a line going from left to right, than two concentric circles. The first, inner circle, represents the here-and-now; the outer circle represents there-and-then. In this way we capture the fact that tense is about distance – typically distance in time, but not necessarily.

23 03 2011
Penny Hands

Phew! Thanks for that, Declan. Really helpful to think of a state as a very very long banana. I was relieved that it still looked the same when we zoomed in, as I didn’t have the stomach for the brown mashed up stuff first thing in the morning…

Since certain verbs are set apart by behaving in this way, and are considered to be marked when used with progressive aspect, perhaps there is still a case for calling them ‘stative verbs’; maybe it’s simply the definition of a stative verb that needs to be loosened a bit?

On a different note, I remain intrigued as to why it is becoming increasingly common to use so-called stative verbs with progressive aspect. We all know about the MacDonalds effect (‘I’m lovin’ it’), which used the lyrics of a Justin Timberlake song in its advert. But the trend had started before that. Can it be traced to some form of American street talk influenced by a particular language variety, I wonder?

25 03 2011
Lorna Liebeck

The McDonalds slogan was invented by a German advertising agency (Heye & Partner) and then passed into common English usage. The original German (Ich liebe es) could be stative or dynamic.

25 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that, Lorna. But if it could be stative or dynamic, why – I wonder – did the US advertising team opt for ‘I’m lovin’ it’ and not ‘I love it’? Presumably because the former captured something of the (youth culture driven) idiom of the time.

26 03 2011
Anthony Gaughan

And – lest we forget – “love” as a dynamic verb has been around since at least Otis Redding’s “I’ve been lovin’ you/too long/to stop now…”

Which leads me to a potentially Earth-shattering (and thesis worthy?!) observation: just noticing that verbs may start this transition from stative to dynamic by way of perfect aspect: take LOVE above, or “I’ve been meaning to ask you…”, where MEAN is still solidly stative in general, but has become acceptably dynamic when used, as here, in conjunction with perfect aspect (at leat, in BrE). What is going on here, and can anyone spot other similar cases?

Off to start the thesis research, just in case 😉

26 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that, Anthony. Given that perfect aspect allows us to ‘retrospect’ on situations (more on that in a further post) it’s probably not surprising that retrospection encourages an unfolding (i.e. progressive) view of what would normally be states. Hence, ‘I’ve been meaning to…’, ‘I’ve been wanting to…’

The Corpus of Contemporary American English gives 279 examples of had/have/has been wanting and their contractions. By way of comparison there are 256 examples of is/are/am wanting (and contractions) although in quite a few of these wanting is an adjective. But:

If that’s what Mr. Shipp is wanting, ” she said, ” that’s not possible.
The one other point, Daryn, that the marine general is wanting to make is, they are calling this not an evacuation.
Bill is wanting to get a job but we can’t because we ain’t got a car
And, of course, people are wanting to know who to blame. Is it the band?
is it because of my allergies? I am wanting to know because sometimes I stop breathing while I am sleeping.

26 03 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Thanks for the reply, Scott. The stats for WANT are fairly balanced – wonder what the situation is with some of those others? I’d also be interested in looking at what happened over time: when, and in what order, such usages were recorded. Was there significant perfect continous/progressive application leading up to a burst of continuous aspect on its own, or was the growth more balanced over time? Not sure what either would suggest, but I am curious.

26 03 2011
Penny Hands

Kate Wild and I have been doing some research on this very topic, and have found that it’s not only perfect aspect that renders these forms less marked, but also ‘will’, e.g. ‘You’ll be wanting a bed for the night, then, I suppose?’ and ‘You want to get married, you want kids, next thing you’ll be wanting Tupperware.’

We’ll be presenting our findings at IATEFL in Brighton, but, since we’re also going to be talking about research we’ve done on some other areas of grammar, we probably won’t have time to go into this in any more detail than has been done here.

One factor to take into account when tracking the development of progressive aspect with so-called stative verbs is that a lot of the citations with ‘be loving’ relate to enjoyment, e.g. ‘She’s been at university for three months now, and she’s loving it.’ Here, ‘love’ is more or less synonymous with ‘enjoy’, which is traditionally seen and used dynamically, and so it is less marked. We have still noted a significant increase in the use of progressive aspect with this sense over the past 20 years; however, the real ‘burst’ in new usage can be seen in the other, slightly different sense of ‘love’ that people use when they see something they appreciate, and comment on it, as in ‘I’m loving the new hairstyle!’ Interestingly, people don’t seem to be using ‘want’ in this way, as in *’I’m wanting that car!’

26 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that, Penny – really looking forward to your presentation at IATEFL. That is a very suggestive point you make – about the way that the semantics of a verb like ‘enjoy’ can ‘leak’ into, or ‘colour’, those of a verb like ‘love’ or ‘want’. This seems to be a very natural feature of language change and something that, as teachers, we ignore at our peril!

27 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

On the subject of the historical shift from stative to dynamic uses, I wondered if Google’s new historical corpus tool (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) might be of any use. I tried it out with ‘I’ve been wanting’ and got no or very few hits prior to the 20th century; then there was an odd peak mid-century, before a fall and then a slower rise to the present time. With ‘I am loving’ the only hits prior to the 19th century were in Latin grammars – as a translation of part of the verb paradigm ‘amo, amas, amat’ etc.

May be worth playing around with, with the proviso that the corpus is entirely book-based.

27 03 2011
Penny Hands

Thanks for that pointer, Scott. How intriguing to see that massive peak for ‘I’ve been wanting’ in the 1940s. And then a peak for ‘I’m loving’ in the 1930s. I had a quick look to see what sort of ‘I’m loving’ this was. Here’s a typical one: “Olga,” he said her name almost shyly, “Olga, it’s that I’m loving you so much. Do you understand?” They seem to be mostly used for (romantically) telling someone you love them.

26 03 2011

Firstly, thank you.
I’ve been reading your blog (very progressively) for a couple of days now. It has been interesting, to say the least. I’m teaching English in Italy and found myself nodding constantly like those puppets some people put on their car dashboard.

I can’t understand why I haven’t found this blog earlier, and I’m almost ashamed to say I haven’t read your book. Yet.

I’m actually Finnish, so I was delighted to see you used my dear mother tongue as an example (I’m referring to your answer to Adam at the beginning of this thread). To be precise, your aspect example was not about verbs but sentences: as wiki says, telicity aspect is indicated by the case of the object, not by the verb.

In Finnish, ‘if a verb can be used or not to describe a static or progressive situation depends on its lexical meaning’

(Finnish grammar: http://kaino.kotus.fi/visk/sisallys.php?p=1499)

Interesting, isn’t it?

And, in the same grammar resource, the writer specifies that ‘aspekti’ is a fuzzy term indeed.

In English it is quite clear, after all. IMHO.

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