Review of The Syntactic Nature of Inner Aspect
Date: Sun, 15-Nov-2009
From: Eugenia Romanova
Subject: The Syntactic Nature of Inner Aspect: A minimalist perspective
AUTHOR: MacDonald, Jonathan E.
TITLE: The Syntactic Nature of Inner Aspect
SUBTITLE: A minimalist perspective
SERIES: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 133
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Eugenia Romanova, Institute of International Relations, Yekaterinburg, Russia.
This is a 241-page expansion of the author's dissertation containing eight
chapters. Strategically, the book is aimed at demonstrating that ''variation is
variation'' irrespective of where we observe it, inside one language or
crosslinguistically. To accomplish this, the author employs syntactic
configurations of inner aspect in English and compares them to those in other
languages, like Russian, Finnish and Bulgarian. He lays out the intricacies of
the English aspectual system in careful detail and arrives at a number of
interesting conclusions, for example, the independence of
Object-to-Event-Mapping (OTE) from event structure (ES), or the purely syntactic
nature of accomplishments. In spite of the familiarity of the topic to many
researchers, this work offers a fresh perspective on inner aspect. First, it has
a strictly minimalist orientation, which means no (neo-)constructionalist
explanations but a feature-based account of aspectual phenomena. Second, it pays
attention to what seems to be obvious and in no need of special attention, that
is, it serves as a good example of a scientist's willingness to undertake any
amount of toil disclosing mechanisms underlying the workings of language.
Unfortunately, there are portions of the book with which this reviewer does not
Chapter 1. An Introduction to the Syntax of Inner Aspect.
In this chapter MacDonald gives a short introduction to the syntax of inner
aspect, presents some previous accounts, and sets the theoretical premises for
his investigation. He observes that in English the internal argument plays an
important role in the aspectual interpretation of the verbal predicate and names
this property ''the OTE (Object-to-Event) Mapping''. Another important aspectual
property is ES (event structure), which is a configuration of two features, <ie>
(initial part of event) and <fe> (final part of event). In order to analyze the
interaction between aspectual interpretation and the direct object, the author
employs Verkuyl's [+/-q] (quantity) characterization of noun phrases (NPs). To
analyze event structures, he makes use of the Vendlerian classes of verbs:
accomplishments, achievements, activities and states. Telic verbs have the <fe>
feature and atelic ones do not. Accomplishments, achievements and activities all
share the <ie> feature, which is missing in states.
MacDonald shows that the OTE and ES properties are distinct: without a
prepositional phrase the verb 'carry' behaves as an activity, that is, it has no
OTE property (see (1)). When a goal PP is added (see (2)), 'carry' behaves as an
accomplishment with the OTE property.
1a. John carried a goat for ten minutes/ #in ten minutes.
b. John carried livestock for ten minutes/ #in ten minutes.
2a. John carried a goat into the barn #for ten minutes/ in ten minutes.
b. John carried livestock into the barn for ten minutes/ #in ten minutes.
Thus, ''the [q] property of the NP entering into the OTE mapping cannot be the
same property introduced by the goal PP; otherwise, the goal PP would not have
any effect on the aspectual interpretation of the predicate'' (p.5).
Presenting views by other authors (Borer, Ramchand, Harley, Travis), MacDonald
agrees with those who distinguish between the two properties of inner aspect and
between achievements and accomplishments.
Chapter 2. The Syntax of Eventives 1.
Here the author argues for the existence of an aspectual projection, AspP,
between the little v phrase (vP) and the verb phrase (VP). AspP is independent
of event structure, thus there should exist some languages where one of these is
absent. In the introduction MacDonald claims that Russian is such a language:
its verbal system has no AspP.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to showing what effect the presence of AspP
has, where it must be located and how it can be separate from the event
structure of the verb. The durative phrase ('for an hour') test demonstrates
the atelicity of the event on the single event interpretation (3) and its
telicity on the iterative interpretation (4). In the latter case the durative
phrase also modifies the entire event: there is no end to it (p. 34):
3a. The worker carried the bag for an hour (3a, p. 33)
b. John screamed for an hour (4a, p.33)
c. The boy loved the girl for a year (5a, p.33)
4a. The farmer dragged a log into the barn for an hour [the barn is on some
elevation and the log keeps rolling back down] (6a, p.33)
b. The captain spotted a plain for an hour (7a, p.33)
The atelic (but not iterative) interpretation is also achieved via the Agree
with Asp relation: for example, the [-q]NP 'wood' agrees with and values Asp
and the whole event is interpreted as atelic (pp. 43-44):
5. A kid dragged wood into a barn.
The iterative interpretation arises when a bare plural object (and it need not
be direct) moves to AspP. By doing so it introduces existential quantification,
and then moves further above AspP to bind a variable inside the domain of
aspectual interpretation (p.54):
6a. A kid dragged logs into a barn. (54a, p.52)
b. A kid dragged the log into barns. (55a, p.53)
Nothing above AspP can influence the aspectual interpretation of the predicate.
External arguments cannot, so the little v projection that introduces them is
Chapter 3. The Syntax of Eventives 2. Event Features.
In this chapter, in order to check which features are present in which event
types, MacDonald uses the 'almost' test and the 'it takes x time' test. These
expressions are sensitive to both edges of the event.
Accomplishments and achievements have both features, <ie> and <fe>, activities
have only <ie>, and statives are featureless. Accomplishments and achievements
both being telic, differ with respect to the feature configuration. In
accomplishments the <ie> feature c-commands the <fe> feature, and in
achievements they are introduced by the same head and cannot be in the c-command
relation. This conclusion is prompted by different behaviours of accomplishments
and achievements with 'almost' and 'it takes x time':
7a. It took Phil ten minutes to drink the pitcher of beer (2a, p. 64)
b. Phil almost drank the pitcher of beer. (3a, p.64)
The examples with the accomplishments in (7) are ambiguous between a start-time
and an end-time interpretation. Achievements have only a start-time interpretation:
8a. It took Jerry ten minutes to catch the raccoon ((22a), p. 73)
b. Jerry almost caught the raccoon (23a, p. 73)
This chapter also provides the answer to the question posed at the beginning of
the book: how to distinguish between the two properties, OTE and ES?
Chapter 4. A Lexical Derivation of Achievements.
Here the author accounts for the achievement configuration. Achievements arise
as a result of a lexical process reminiscent of Hale and Keyser's conflation. We
already know that the feature <ie> is carried by the aspectual head, whereas the
feature <fe> can be introduced by a number of other projections, including V
itself. MacDonald studies conflation verbs with an abstract preposition in their
structure. The preposition carries <fe> and as it gets conflated with the verbal
head, the feature does as well. Both the V-head and the feature conflate with
the Aspectual head later on in the derivation, all of which takes place prior to
entering narrow syntax under the premise that ''there is syntax in the lexicon''
(p. 98). The problem of functional projections in the lexicon, like AspP, is
solved by renaming the latter into VP.
To demonstrate the idea from a different angle, the author discusses idioms,
among which only achievements can be found. Since an idiom is a kind of lexical
item, the conclusion is: achievements are formed in the lexicon, whereas
accomplishments are constructed in syntax.
Chapter 5. Minimalist Variation in Inner Aspect.
In this chapter the author speaks of intralinguistic and crosslinguistic
variation of inner aspect. The chapter opens with the discussion of English
statives vs. eventives, which can alternate as a result of adding or removing
the <ie> and <fe> features.
The main material for demonstrating crosslinguistic variation in inner aspect is
taken from Russian, which, in the author's opinion, has no AspP. This is so, he
claims, because Russian (a) does not have the OTE mapping, and (b) has no SSE
(sequence of similar events) effect. Russian has a deficient inventory of event
types, with accomplishments missing. Bulgarian, which is ''aspectually like
Russian'' (p. 166) is demonstrated to be different from Russian, for it has cases
of OTE mapping and thus sometimes projects AspP.
Chapter 6. The Autonomy of Inner Aspect.
In this chapter the author shows that inner aspect is independent of (a) case,
and (b) lexical meaning and thematic relations. The language under scrutiny for
point (a) is Finnish. It takes MacDonald three pages to solve the intriguing
puzzle of aspectual composition found in this language: When the internal
argument is accusative, it agrees with Asp and the predicate is interpreted as
telic. Partitive arises from an abstract preposition that blocks the agreement
between the [q] feature of the noun and the Aspectual head, leading to the
atelic interpretation of the predicate. Point (b) is supported by English and
Chapter 7. A Consideration of Other Aspectual Facts.
In this short chapter MacDonald considers such aspectual phenomena as
resultatives, conatives and psych-achievements. He comes to the conclusion that
adjectival (John wiped the table clean (4a, p. 195)), prepositional (Fred
tracked the leak to its source (3a, p. 195)), ''way'' (John insulted his way
across the room (17a, p. 198)) and fake reflexive (Bill cried himself to sleep
(18a, p. 198)) resultatives all contribute <fe> to the structure just like
accomplishment PPs do. As for conatives, the preposition ''at'' merges directly
with AspP valuing its [-q] feature, which results in an atelic interpretation of
the predicate. Psych-achievements are problematic because the [q] feature on
their subjects seem to interfere with the aspectual interpretation of the
predicate, but MacDonald solves this problem, too, showing that Experiences
originate lower in the structure than Agents.
Chapter 8. The Syntactic Nature of Inner Aspect and Some Speculative Remarks.
In this concluding chapter MacDonald summarizes his theory, speculates more on
crosslinguistic and intralinguistic variation, and discusses alternations
between event types, which are limited by the number of steps required to be
taken for removing or adding the necessary features. Thus, the alternations a)
between achievements and accomplishments and b) between statives and
accomplishments are not found to be due to the length of the derivational way
from the former to the latter and back.
The book is written in very clear language with transparent presentation of
ideas and detailed argumentation for some of them. A number of important
assumptions are made: 1) event structure and Object-to-Event mapping are two
independent aspectual properties; 2) iterativity is triggered by inherently
telic predicates; 3) intralinguistic and crosslinguistic variation are phenomena
of the same order caused by different interactions of the same features. Two
useful tests for event edges can be cited from this work: ''almost'' and ''it takes
The strict well-structured system carefully built by MacDonald is, however, too
abstract and it makes him sacrifice data and precision to his theory. Chapter 5
especially suffers from this problem. Therefore I will concentrate on evaluating
To begin, I disagree with the majority of the claims made about Russian in
1) Contrary to the claim, Russian does have accomplishments -- the argumentation
on pp. 164-165 that drinking a bottle of wine is a punctual event is rather
weak; in addition, the translation of ''almost'' into Russian should be ''chut' ne''
(see (9)). With this correction the example on p. 164 behaves exactly like
English accomplishments, being ambiguous between the start-time and the end-time
9 Ja chut' ne vypil butylku vina.
I almost drank.PERF bottle wine.GEN
I almost drank a bottle of wine
The mis-translation of ''almost'' undermines MacDonald's test for event structure
of imperfectives. ''Pochti'' in (30), p. 151 was intended to target only <ie>.
However, his examples repeated here as (10) are uninterpretable to native speakers:
10a. #Ja pochti pil butylku vina. (30a, p. 151)
I almost drank.IMPERF bottle wine
b. #Mary pochti chitala knigu. (30b, p.151)
M. almost read.IMPERF book
2) Trying to show that imperfectives are always atelic and cannot have an
iterative interpretation with internal argument bare plurals, MacDonald states
that the nouns in (11) (=(20), p. 147) can be interpreted as a group:
11a. Mary jela jabloki. (20a, p. 147)
M. ate.IMPERF apples
b. Mary chitala knigi. (20b, p. 147)
M. read.IMPERF books
However, the noun phrases in (11) cannot have a group interpretation; Mary can
only eat one apple after another and read one extract after another. It is hard,
at least for me, to imagine the books being all ''read at the same time.''
The author presupposes that all perfective verbs are telic without testing them
properly and disregards the two-level nature of the iterative reading, saying:
''If a BP (bare plural) is to elicit an SSE (sequence of similar events)
interpretation, then we expect it to do so with a verb in perfective form, since
as we noted above, perfectivized verbs are telic.'' (p. 147). Here it would be
useful to remember that (im)perfectivity is the instantiation of OUTER aspect,
which does not always have a one-to-one correlation with inner aspect
characteristics. Thus, secondary imperfectives will be telic on the micro-event
level, which is reflected by their compatibility with the time span adverbials,
but atelic on the macro-event level, which is seen from their compatibility with
the durative phrase:
12. Vanja vy-piv-a-l stakan piva za polminuty v techenije pervyx dvux chasov.
V. out-drank-IMPER glass beer in half.minute in running first two hours
Vanja drank a glass of beer in half a minute for the first two hours.
3) Russian statives present a problem for MacDonald as well: all imperfectives
have the <ie> feature, but statives do not. This is because Imperfectives can be
anything: accomplishments (see (12)), achievements (umirat' 'die'), statives
(znat' 'know') and activities (rabotat' 'work').
Contrary to what the author says about Russian statives, they do take lexical
prefixes, thus alternating between statives and achievements.
4) Superlexical prefixes are shown to introduce the <fe> feature, but so high in
the structure that no telicity results. There are, however, only two
superlexical prefixes that behave according to the author's claim, delimitative
po- and perdurative pro- (Borik, 2006). The rest are different: they are not
compatible with the durative phrase. MacDonald notices this fact only about the
inceptive prefix za-, which makes him think that it must be lexical. This takes
us to point 5:
5) Inceptive za- cannot be a lexical prefix. Note in (13) the difference between
the argument structure of the verbs with superlexical za- (a) vs. lexical za-
(b), and in (14) examples of stacking of inceptive za-, which can even co-occur
with lexical za- (14c):
13a. Kompjuter zarabotal.
The computer started working.
b. Vanja zarabotal 1000 rublej.
V. za-worked 1000 RUR
Vanja has earned 1000 roubles.
14 a. za-vy-daval ''started giving out''
b. za-pere-prygivali ''started jumping over''
c. za-za-bival ''started making goals''
d. za-na-jezzhali ''started attacking'' etc.
6) The Bulgarian examples in (61) and (62) on page 167 -- said to demonstrate
that there are Slavic languages having AspP -- do not contrast with Russian,
since it is not the direct object that makes the verb perfective (and thus
telic), but on the contrary, perfectivity of the verb induces definiteness of
its complement NP. As a consequence, it requires the definite article on the
noun. In fact, (in)definiteness of the noun here just disambiguates the
interpretation of these borrowed biaspectual verbs (remontiraxa ''repair'' and
arestuvaxa ''arrest''). Di Sciullo and Slabakova (2005) note that bare plural
direct objects of perfective verbs receive a strong interpretation even without
Thus, Chapter 5 unfortunately fails to make one of the most important points for
MacDonald: the existence of a language with no AspP. In fact, Russian is much
more like English than he believes. With more research, the author would have
arrived at a number of interesting conclusions without any harm to his main
theoretical assumptions, for instance, that Russian accomplishments behave like
English accomplishments with respect to the ''almost'' test; or that Russian
offers the same alternations of event structure as English does, and has no
achievement-accomplishment or state-accomplishment pairs. But the author seems
to have been misled by the idea that Russian has no Object-to-Event mapping,
which is not quite true (and neither is the independence of event structure from
thematic relations in English discussed in Chapter 6). Accomplishments in
Russian are more like English PP accomplishments, since the PP is the source of
lexical prefixes. But MacDonald believes that attachment of lexical prefixes
takes place in the lexicon, which automatically turns the verbs carrying them
into achievements, and he goes to great lengths to try to show this.
So, trying to follow the minimalist perspective in which ''less machinery is
better than more'', MacDonald ends up doing the opposite, postulating the
existence of syntax in the lexicon, which, in my opinion, leads to redundancy
and unrestrictedness. How many syntaxes can there be? And where is the boundary
between the syntactic syntax and the lexical syntax? And what makes the verb
decide not to be an achievement and to exit the lexicon before the conflation of
an <fe> feature on P or V?
Another confusing characteristic of MacDonald's minimalism is the idea that <fe>
can be introduced by Asp, V or P heads, where the actual choice of the ''feature
carrier'' looks fairly arbitrary.
As one final issue, take the analysis of the Finnish partitive, compared to
English dative prepositional phrases, like ''to his buddy'' in ''Fred talked to his
buddy'' (p.176). What is the motivation behind the choice of this kind of
analysis over a more traditional one (e.g., Kiparsky, 1998) where Partitive is
analyzed on a par with conative constructions?
The work contains some unchecked examples (Czech in (46), p.157, represented as
Russian, or the Finnish verb (incorrectly) agreeing with the partitive subject
in (24a), p. 178) and incorrect quotations. For example, Pereltsvaig (2003), to
which he refers, does not claim that the number of denominal verbs in Russian is
limited. These further undermine a promising investigation into the syntactic
nature of inner aspect.
As a result, the monograph creates a theory which looks attractive and motivated
in the first two chapters, but as the story unfolds, it becomes more and more of
Borik, Olga. 2006. ''Aspect and Reference Time.'' Oxford University Press.
Gehrke, Berit. 2008. Goals and sources are aspectually different: Evidence from
Czech and Russian prefixes. ''Lingua'' 118(11):1664-1689.
Kiparsky, Paul. 1998. Partitive case and aspect. In ''The Projection of
Arguments: Lexical and Compositional Factors,'' ed. Wilhelm Geuder and Miriam
Butt, pp. 265-307. Stanford, CA: CSLI.
Pereltsvaig, Asya. 2003. Syntax of denominal and detransitive verbs
reconsidered. Ms. Stanford University.
Romanova, Eugenia. 2009. Constructing Perfectivity in Russian: The
Syntax-Semantics Interface of Verbal Prefixes. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Eugenia Romanova is a lecturer of linguistic disciplines at the Institute
of International Relations, Yekaterinburg, Russia. Her PhD dissertation
written at the University of Tromsø, Norway, deals with the syntactic
derivation of prefixed verbs in Russian. Her scientific interests lie in
the domain of syntax and semantics of aspect and argument structure of