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Review of  The Oxford handbook of Tense and Aspect

Reviewer: Maria Stambolieva
Book Title: The Oxford handbook of Tense and Aspect
Book Author: Robert I Binnick
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 23.4801

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EDITOR: Robert I. Binnick
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

Maria Stambolieva, Department of English Studies & Laboratory for Language Technologies, New Bulgarian University, Sofia.


“The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect” is an edited volume containing 1089 pages (together with bibliographies and a final Index), 36 chapters by 40 authors, and a 50-page introduction by Robert I. Binnick. The book aims to present, in the editor’s words, “what we know about tense and aspect early in the second decade of the 21st century” (p. ix).

The Handbook is structured into six parts: Contexts (chapters 1 - 3), Perspectives (chapters 4 - 16), Tense (chapters 17 - 24), Aspect (chapters 25 - 32), Aspect and Diathesis (chapters 33 and 34) and Modality (chapters 35 and 36). These are preceded by a Preface, a Table of Symbols and Abbreviations, a presentation of the authors (“About the Authors”) and an Introduction, in which the editor motivates the separate parts of the book and summarises each chapter.

PART I: CONTEXTS is a view on Tense and Aspect from the perspective of three branches of science closely related to linguistics:

Chapter 1, “Philosophy of Language” by Peter Ludlow, is an accessible presentation of two major stands on the status of tense -- those of “tensers” and “detensers”, and an introduction to the notions of A-series (positions in time) and B-series (relations of precedence and following).

Chapter 2, “Narratology and Literary Linguistics” by Monika Fludernik, reviews work on the function of language structure in general, and the grammatical categories of aspect and tense in particular, in discourse and text. The author presents Benveniste’s (1966) work on ‘discours’ (conversation) and ‘histoire’ (narrative) and Weinrich’s (1985) central notions of ‘reliefing’ and ‘tense metaphor’. Specific literary uses of tense are presented and illustrated, including postmodernist experiments.

Chapter 3, “Computational Linguistics” by Mark Steedman, outlines the major contributions of linguistics to this interdisciplinary field, on the one hand, and the substantial contribution of computational linguistics to the study of temporal semantics, on the other. The author stresses the necessity to create time-related resources and to integrate temporal semantics in major applications.

PART II: PERSPECTIVES presents 13 different viewpoints on Aspect and Tense.

Chapter 4, “Universals and Typology” by Jean-Pierre Desclés and Zlatka Guentchéva, opens with a discussion of inductive and deductive approaches to universals and the setting out of primitives, before focusing on the notion of boundedness. Central to the chapter is the topological approach (cf. Desclés 1989) and the definition of intervals and boundaries. The authors argue for an aspectual division into states, processes and events, where processes are viewed as left-bounded situations.

Chapter 5, “Morphology” by Ashwini Deo, is a presentation of the essential components of a morphologically grounded theory of tense and aspect. Three components, claimed to be essential to a universally valid theory of grammatical meaning, form the core of the discussion: hypotheses about semantic ingredients, the “nature and organisation of the temporal / aspectual pie” (p. 157), and the role of defaults and blocking mechanisms.

Chapter 6, “Syntax” by Tim Stowell, is concerned “with the syntactic properties of tense, and how the theory of syntax should account for them” (p. 184). Four main issues are addressed: the definition of tense from a semantic and from a morphosyntactic perspective, the position of tense morphemes in syntactic structure, the extent to which the semantic properties of tenses are reflected in their syntactic form, and the parallels that exist between tense and its expression in grammatical classes of words. The chapter concludes with a presentation of Stowells’ “Zeit-Phrase” (ZP) analogue of DP and its participation in tense interpretation.

Chapter 7, “Markedness” by Edna Andrews, is an analytical and critical review of, arguably, one of the greatest contributions of the Prague School: Roman Jakobson’s Markedness Theory. The author highlights the qualitative difference between markedness in the phonological and morphological system and questions the validity of several implications of the theory, here qualified as “myths”, e.g. the relation between markedness and frequency, the applicability of the principles of neutralisation and substitutability to morphological phenomena. The chapter ends with an overview of Russian aspect in the context of markedness theory.

Chapter 8, “Adverbials” by Monika Rathert, is a classification and semantic description of adverbial expressions relevant to temporality, with a focus on their interaction with the German Present Perfect. Four groups of adverbials are set out and consecutively analysed. The discussion closes with a brief analysis of tense interpretation in two types of subordinate clauses: relative clauses and complement clauses.

Chapter 9, “Pragmatics” by Patrick Caudal, explores the role of context in the interpretation of markers of aspect and tense and the manner in which semantics and pragmatics interact in this interpretation, from both a synchronic and a diachronic viewpoint. Two features are set out, believed by the author to be crucial in theory assessment: the adoption of dynamic semantic theories and the choice of intertwined, as opposed to separate, contributions to semantics and pragmatics. The main interest of pragmatics in the study of tense and aspect forms is claimed to lie (1) in the context-sensitive uses of the forms in synchrony and (2) in the conventionalisation of these contextual uses. The author stresses the importance of diachrony for a theory of the pragmatics of tense-aspect forms.

Chapter 10, “Discourse and Text” by Janice Carruthers, is a view of tense and aspect as vital components of the “textuality” of discourse. Two case studies are presented, offering perspectives on the notion of markedness: the historical or narrative present and the narrative imperfect. The chapter concludes with an introduction to “focalisation” in texts, with tense and aspect as key components.

Chapter 11, “Translation” by Diana Santos, focuses, on the one hand, on the importance of temporal modelling in the process of translation and, on the other, on the role of translation theory and translation data for linguistic analysis. Two basic notions in translation theory are presented -- “translation equivalence” and “untranslatability”. Other issues addressed in this chapter are: the “Translation Network” model, problems of explicitness and implicitness in translation, the translation of metaphor, the role of the translator, the usefulness of parallel corpora with more than one translation version, and the relevance of genre.

Chapter 12, “Diachrony and Grammaticalisation” by Steve Nicolle, opens with a summary account of how tense-aspect systems develop. Both primary and secondary grammaticalisation are shown to follow cross-linguistic patterns -- e.g. the development of completive markers from verbs meaning “finish” or the tendency for aspect markers to develop into tense markers. A number of such grammaticalisation changes, linked sequentially, form “grammaticalisation chains”. Major factors for language change are: semantic and structural congruence (“attracting force”) and analogy.

Chapter 13, “Language Contact” by Victor A. Friedman, is focused on the languages of the Balkans. Several cases of contact-induced change are presented: the development of Superordinate Aspect, the development of Subordinate Aspect, and aspect neutralisation. Sections are devoted to Future Tense markers, to the Conditional, to the grammaticalisation of the “have/be+past participle” construction into a Perfect, and to the emergence and development of the Evidential and the Narrative Imperative.

Chapter 14, “Creole Languages” by Donald Winford, opens with Bickerton’s (1984) influential claim that tense-aspect-modality systems are the result of the workings of a language bioprogramme, then presents alternative hypotheses viewing the emergence of Creole systems and, in particular, their tense-aspect categories, in terms of the interaction of linguistic inputs, social contexts and mechanisms of contact-induced change.

Chapter 15, “Primary Language Acquisition” by Laura Wagner, is devoted to the challenges that children face in acquiring tense and aspect, to the types of under-extensions in their production and the factors underlying them. The crucial observation triggering discussion is that young children have a tendency to group Aktionsart, grammatical aspect and tense in the so-called “vertical classes”, restricting past tense and perfect markers to telic predicates, using perfective verb stems to refer to past times and imperfective verb stems to refer to present times. According to the author this phenomenon is probably due to the fact that vertically defined classes reflect semantic combinations with the lowest information processing demands.

Chapter 16, “Second Language Acquisition” by Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig, is an overview of the Aspect Hypothesis within Second Language Acquisition research on tense and aspect. The hypothesis can be broken down into four separate claims: (1) learners first use past marking on achievements and accomplishments, extending it to activities and states, (2) in languages with grammatical aspect, Imperfective Past appears later than Perfective Past, and Imperfective Past begins with statives, extending to activities, then to accomplishments and, finally, achievements; (3) in languages that have progressive aspect, progressive marking appears first with Activities; and (4) progressive markings are not incorrectly overextended to statives.

PART III: TENSE includes eight chapters presenting a variety of problems and perspectives on the representation of temporality.

Chapter 17, “Tense” by John Hewson, begins with a brief historical note on the understanding of temporality. Aspect is seen as the basis of verbal forms, involving the representation of event time, while tense is a later development. Separate sections are devoted to: the tense system of Indo-European, the Remoteness systems of three Bantu languages, and the temporal functions of modal forms.

Chapter 18, “Remoteness Distinctions” by Robert Botne, demonstrates that the concept of remoteness does not simply reduce to a number of tenses and linear temporal distance, but can be much more complex and layered. The discussion focuses on languages which have the means to express, along with simple tense relations of past and future, very fine-grained distinctions in marking distance or degree of remoteness from a deictic centre.

Chapter 19, “Compositionality” by Henk J. Verkuyl, offers a brief review of Reichenbach’s (1947) ternary tense system and Te Winkel’s (1866) binary tense system, followed by a presentation of the author’s Compositional Theory of Aspect. Aspectual tests are applied to English and Russian sentences. The author concludes that “the obvious differences between Slavic and Non-Slavic languages can be explained maintaining compositionality as the basis for translation equivalence” (p. 581).

Chapter 20, “The Surcomposé Past Tense” by Louis De Saussure and Bertrand Sthioul, is a thorough and well exemplified analysis of a French tense that most foreign students of the language find truly perplexing. Apart from an unusual morphology, the forms of the Surcomposé Past Tense also demonstrate interesting syntactic behaviour. Arguing against a unified interpretation of the forms, the authors propose, instead, a pragmatic approach.

Chapter 21, “Bound Tenses” by Galia Hatav, is devoted to the interpretation of free and bound tenses, based on data from English and Hebrew. The author presents the idea (Ogihara 1996) that an embedded tense is “deleted” under identity of the local tense. Tenses may be bound within their respective clause or outside it, depending on their kind of binding (syntactic or semantic).

Chapter 22, “Embedded Tenses” by Toshiyuki Ogihara and Yael Sharvit, opens with the observation that the English present tense does not behave uniformly in all embedded environments: its interpretation depends on the type of subordinate clause (complement of attitude verb or relative clause) and on the matrix tense -- a behaviour that not all languages exhibit. In the course of the discussion of these language-internal and cross-language variations, the authors first present two theories of embedded tense -- the Upper Limit Constraint Theory and the Copy-Based Theory, before proposing a third, “Combined Theory”, with insights from the other two.

Chapter 23, “Tenselessness” by Jo-Wang Lin is a study of languages which, while expressing temporal relations, have not developed grammaticalised tense forms. Such languages make up at least half of the existing tense-and-aspect systems. The chapter addresses the issue of the adoption of reliable criteria for the identification of tenselessness and the means of expressing temporal location in tenseless languages, with particular attention to syntactic properties of tenseless clauses.

Chapter 24, “Nominal Tense” by Jacqueline Lecarne is a discussion of the grammatical system of languages where nominal determiners are the only bearers of tense marking. Case studies of “nominal evidentiality” are also presented. The relation between visibility, evidentiality and (present) tense is claimed to reflect the epistemic importance of visual perception in human knowledge.

PART IV: ASPECT includes eight chapters, which present the most important categories, forms and constructions assumed to belong to the domain of aspectuality.

Chapter 25, “Lexical Aspect” by Hana Filip, introduces basic aspect-related terminology and delimits lexical aspect from lexical class and grammatical aspect. The basic division among lexical classes is seen along the lines of the telic/atelic opposition, with “end” or “limit” as the main distinguishing criterion. Other aspectually relevant concepts discussed are change of state and temporal extent. Space is devoted to the presentation of the homogeneity and subinterval properties, to mereological and scalar approaches to aspect. Two new lexical classes are defined: incremental and scalar verbs.

Chapter 26, “Verbal Aspect” by Henriette de Swart, begins with an analysis of the English Progressive construction as a grammatical aspect marker before turning to grammatical aspect from a cross-linguistic perspective, with observations of the Perfective / Imperfective aspect opposition in Russian, the Passé Simple / Imparfait opposition in French, the Progressive / Perfect opposition in English and the temporal function of aspect markers in Mandarin Chinese. A layered approach analysis is proposed, with aspectual class at the core. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the interaction of grammatical aspect with measurement adverbials and negation.

Chapter 27, “Perfective and Imperfective Aspect” by Jadranka Gvozdanovic, focuses on the grammatical opposition of Perfective / Imperfective aspect in Slavonic languages, which she defines (along the lines of Maslov 1984) as a total / partial view of the situation. Lexical aspect (distinguishing states, activities, accomplishments and achievements), is delimited from Modes of Action (alias “Aktionsarten”), “derived verbal lexical-aspectual classes which denote phases or quantification” (p. 783). After a summary of approaches to the study of aspect in the Slavonic and “Western” tradition, Gvozdanovic devotes considerable space to the co-existence of the Perfective / Imperfective aspect opposition with the Aorist / Imperfect and Perfect / Non-Perfect in the structure of Bulgarian. A layering approach to aspect and tense phenomena is adopted, along the lines of Lindstedt’s (1985) notion of “nesting”.

Chapter 28, “Progressive and Continuous Aspect” by Christian Mair, is an accessible presentation, well substantiated by data and quantitative analyses, of the English Progressive and its cross-language counterparts. Comrie’s (1976, p. 25) aspectual oppositions have been adapted for the purpose of the presentation to locate the Progressive in a hierarchy of classes with, at the top, the binary opposition Perfective / Imperfective. The focus of the chapter is recent changes in the English Progressive demonstrating an increasing use with stative verbs -- a tendency attributed to its pragmatic and stylistic overtones.

Chapter 29, “Habitual and Generic Aspect” by Greg Carlson, is devoted to the analysis of the term “habitual aspect”, the definition of habituality and its aspectual status. Habituality is defined along the lines of Comrie (1976, p. 27), as a characteristic situation that holds at all times. As to the aspectual nature of habituals: in languages which grammaticalise the Perfective / Imperfective opposition, habituality is generally marked by the Imperfective -- an argument against the separate postulation of a “habitual aspect”. In some languages however, as the discussion demonstrates, habituality can be formally marked. Specific forms expressing habituality are discussed, in English and across languages. The chapter concludes with the characterisation of habituality as “gnomic imperfectivity plus iterativity”.

Chapter 30, “Habituality, Pluractionality, and Imperfectivity” by Pier Marco Bertinetto and Alessandro Lenci, aims to define the features of habituality and iterativity and to place them in the broader notion of “verbal pluractionality”, on the one hand, and of “gnomic imperfectivity”, on the other. A distinction is made between event-internal (multiplicative) pluractionality and event-external pluractionality. Habituality is distinguished from iterativity, and this distinction is argued to be aspectual in character -- as demonstrated by the application of several test criteria to English and French language data. The chapter ends with a formal semantic presentation of habitual sentences.

Chapter 31, “Perfect Tense and Aspect” by Marie-Eve Ritz, offers a review of theories on the Present Perfect and perspectives of analysis, with a focus on the aspectual status of the forms. Four main theories of the semantics of the Perfect are presented: the Indefinite Past theory, the Extended Now theory, the Embedded Past theory and the Current Relevance theory. A final section is devoted to the pragmatics of the Perfect, with examples demonstrating its complexity and instability. The author concludes that the Perfect should be viewed as “the shapeshifter of tense-aspect categories, changing and adapting to fit in a given system and to serve the communicative goals of the speakers” (p. 904).

Chapter 32, “Resultative Constructions” by John Beavers, offers a definition of resultative constructions and their classification in terms of the lexical category of the head of the “result XP”, the aspectual nature of the main verb and its syntactic type. The juxtaposition of the main verb and the XP results in event composition. The situations derived are “lexical accomplishments”. The constructions are characterised in terms of change of state, durativity and telicity.

PART V: ASPECT AND DIATHESIS. The two chapters included in this part of the Handbook are devoted to the interaction of aspect with other categories.

Chapter 33, “Voice” by Mila Dimitrova-Vulchanova, is devoted to the relationship of voice and aspect, and is primarily based on data from Bulgarian. Voice is defined as the range of potential alternative realisations in syntax of the same verbal root. Verkuyl’s compositional theory (Verkuyl 1993 and elsewhere), arguing for the contribution of argument structure in aspect construal, is adopted as a theoretical framework.

Chapter 34, “Case” by Kylie Richardson, is a study of the aspectual relevance of case cross-linguistically, based on data from a large number of languages and language families. The discussion touches upon the existing connection between case forms, on the one hand, and telicity, boundedness and definiteness on the other.

PART VI: MODALITY includes two chapters: one addressing modality in its relation to time, tense and aspect, the other focusing on evidential mood and mirativity.

Chapter 35, “Time in Sentences with Modal Verbs” by Ilse Depraetere, is an account of “the ways in which temporal information is communicated in sentences with modal verbs” (p. 989). After introducing important concepts and terms, the author proceeds to present a methodology for the analysis of temporal information in the grammatical context of modality. The chapter offers a discussion of the distinction between epistemic and root modality and a survey of modal possibility meanings and the temporal information communicated in them, richly illustrated with corpus data. The last section is devoted to the temporal interpretation of modal utterances and the impact of aspectual distinctions.

Chapter 36, “Evidentiality and Mirativity” by Ferdinand de Haan, is a discussion of the so-called “Evidential Mood” and the grammaticalised expression of unexpectedness, mirativity, often sharing formal markers with the evidential. The author surveys the history of studies in the field, then sets out and exemplifies two types of evidentials: direct evidentials, marking the speaker’s possession of visual or auditory evidence of an event, and indirect evidentials, with two variants: hearsay and inferentials. Evidentiality is shown to interact with modality, temporality, aspectuality and mirativity.


“The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect” is substantial, well organised, carefully edited and cross-referenced. It is a comprehensive and high-quality survey of work on tense, aspect and related categories, presenting the results of research in an area of investigation which is not easy to encompass. It offers a clear picture of mainstream work in the field, carried out during the last several decades in what has become known as the “western tradition” of tense and aspect studies. On the whole, the volume is accessible, offering adequate reading to a target audience ranging from advanced students, linguists, philosophers of language, computational linguists or industrial researchers. Last but not least, it demonstrates excellent editorial work.

Most chapters provide self-contained surveys of general or specific topics directly or indirectly addressing temporal and aspectual issues, and contribute to the presentation of aspect and tense from a variety of linguistic and non-linguistic perspectives and fields of application, in their typical grammatical and syntactic contexts.

The general structure, with separate parts addressing non-linguistic perspectives, linguistic perspectives, contexts and central notions, is well conceived on the macro-level. It could be argued that a more prominent position of the parts devoted to tense and aspect might have facilitated the understanding of the areas of application; also, the motivation behind the allocation of some chapters to particular parts of the book, and not to others, is not obvious. Chapters 8, 19, 32, 33 and 34, for instance, exploring different aspects of compositionality and grammatical context, might have formed a natural group. The chapters themselves, while of an excellent quality, offer very different discussions: some are overviews, some are presentations of a theory, yet others are accounts of empirical investigations.

Many authors offer their own analyses and hypotheses on the semantics and exponents of aspect and tense, and the general picture that obtains is not very coherent. While the chapter devoted to typology, universals and semantic primitives (4) argues that aspect forms a tripartition and that processes are bounded situations, most other discussions view processes as unbounded and define aspect as a binary opposition of Perfective / Imperfective. These latter are, in turn, understood in many different ways -- as a comparison of chapters 2, 15, 17, 30, and 31 shows. Even if somewhat disturbing, this lack of unified approach is not a weakness of the book: it is a reflection of the state of the art.

Not all analyses of data from Slavonic languages are accurate. Focusing on Bulgarian, I would certainly not agree with some of the grammaticality assessments presented in chapter 33. First, uses like (16b) are gaining ground in the modern language. Next, the assertion that, in Bulgarian, “a periphrastic passive necessarily requires a perfective form of the verb” (p. 950) is, simply, wrong. The interaction of aspect and voice is very well studied by Bulgarian grammarians; and reference books, while establishing a statistical dominance of perfective periphrastic passives (approximately 90 %), very clearly stress the grammaticality of the form with imperfectives (cf. e.g. Ivanova 1989/93).

Rather surprisingly, Slavonic linguistics is markedly underrepresented in the Handbook. This is to be regretted -- not only because Aktionsart and Aspect are typically Slavonic phenomena or because the systems of some Slavonic languages display, in interaction, most of the categories scattered through this volume, but above all because these systems and phenomena have been very thoroughly investigated in the context of long-standing traditions of language study. Careful acquaintance with these traditions could demonstrate that some of the topics presented here have been covered, with similar results, before. Thus, the detailed and well exemplified investigation of the contextual meanings of the Bulgarian Perfective and Imperfective carried out by Stankov (1980) covers large portions of the ground discussed in chapters 27, 28 and 30. The analysis of the Imperfective presented in chapters 5 and 28 could gain some useful insights from the work of Karolak (2001) on Aspect subtypes.

The above remarks do not in the least minimise the undoubted merits of the book, which is the first reference work of this kind -- a rich and long-expected collection of theories, analyses, ideas on aspect, modality and tense, which will no doubt give birth to new theories, analyses and ideas. “The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect” is a landmark publication which has every chance of becoming a standard work of reference.


Benveniste, E. 1966. Problèmes de linguistique générale 1. Paris, Gallimard.

Bickerton, D. 1984. The language bioprogram hypothesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 173-188.

Comrie, B. 1976. Aspect: An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Desclés, J.-P. 1989. State, event, process and topology. General Linguistics, 29, 159-200.

Ivanova, K. 1989/93. Chapter on Voice in: Gramatika na savremenniya balgarski knizhoven ezik, t. 2. Morfologiya. Sofia: Publishing House of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 236-257.

Karolak, S. 2001. Configurations aspectuelles inchoative et résultative en bulgare”. Studia Kognitywne No.4 Warsaw, SOW, 31-47.

Lindstedt, J. 1985. On the Semantics of Tense and Aspect in Bulgarian. Helsinki: Slavica Helsingiensia 4.

Maslov, Yu. 1984. Ocherki po aspektologii. Leningrad: Izdateljstvo Leningradskogo universiteta.

Ogihara, T. 1996. Tense, attitude, and scope. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Reichenbach, H. 1947. Elements of symbolic logic. New York: Macmillan.

Stankov, V. 1980. Glagolniyat vid v balgarskiya knizhoven ezik. Sofia, Naouka I izkoustvo.

Te Winkel, L. 1866. Over de wijzen en tijden der werkwoorden. De Taalgids, 8, 66-75.

Verkuyl, H.J. 1993. A theory of aspectuality. The interaction between temporal and atemporal structure. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Weinrich; H. 1985. Tempus: Besprochene und erzählte Welt. Fourth edition. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer (Originally published 1964).

Maria Stambolieva is Associate Professor of general and contrastive linguistics at New Bulgarian University, Sofia, where she is a lecturer of English Morphology, English Syntax and Modern English, and is head of the NBU Laboratory for Language Technologies. She is also a founding member and president of the Bulgarian association for corpus and computational linguistics ANABELA. Her interests are in the field of syntax and semantics, computational and corpus linguistics.

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