This is my first question here. I normally participate in ELU. This question was posted yesterday https://english.stackexchange.com/q/289903/129806. The OP asks why They build a house next to mine. is not correct. The accepted answer is not acceptable to me. John Lawler's answer is more in the right direction (could be a great answer, however I am not able to see that because it assumes understanding of things which I am not completely clear on yet.)

It seems to me that in the above sentence there is a conflict between the lexical aspect of build and how the verb is being used in the sentence.

My questions:

1) I'd like to say "There is a conflict between the lexical aspect of the verb and it's grammatical aspect." however I am not sure if I am using the term "grammatical aspect" correctly. Am I? What exactly is the difference between lexical aspect and grammatical aspect?

2) I can see that there is a difference between a verb's lexical aspect and how it is used in a sentence but often it seems that the use of the verb in a sentence changes it's lexical aspect. For example, in looking online, I see that sources say "build" is an accomplishment verb and that it is telic. However, in the sentence, "They build houses for a living." the verb doesn't have that "accomplishment" sense but seems to make it an "activity" verb. It also seems to be atelic in the sentence. What's going on here?

I'm motivated to ask this because as an ESL teacher teaching students whose native language is Chinese it is a daily occurrence that students use verbs incorrectly and don't seem to have an understanding of verbs and their lexical aspect which we as native English speakers have. So, a student will say "I write a book today." or "I am working in the R&D department." (but they don't mean it in the "Just doing this for a few weeks while my colleague is on vacation" sense.) And, the question from ELU that I linked is a common one, and I would like to develop a good and meaningful explanation to help students understand this.


As luck would have it, I'm just preparing a talk on aspect at a conference. The problem, with your question is that you're looking at aspect in isolation.

Your sentence (as a sequence of words) is perfectly grammatical. It only becomes ungrammatical (in as much as that means anything) when you put it in context.

  1. And what do they do? They build a house next to mine.
  2. Before you know it, they build a house next to mine.
  3. They build a house next to mine, every year, then tear it down.
  4. *They build a house next to mine, right now.

English has no such thing as lexical aspect (verbs that already indicate the completion of the event in their frame) with some exception where the semantics already carries the meaning, such as shop vs. buy.

Verbs such as build, on the other hand are aspect free. This is in contrast to Slavic languages, where most verbs are clearly marked as to aspect. E.g. in Czech, there is no such thing as saying 'shoot (sb) dead'. The verb 'shoot (sb)' already contains the completion (death), whereas a separate verb means 'shot and wounded' (ie. shot without completion).

The reason people's first instinct is to say that They build a house next to mine. is ungrammatical, is that they already assume a default 'generic' context. E.g. last year or right now. This is purely a matter of default frames of reference and collocation. Not grammar.

The way to approach aspect (following Givón), is through the TAM space (tense, aspect, modality). Any utterance is positioning the meaning somewhere in that space. You are never (or almost never) just expressing one of these, you're always also being committed to the other two.

So in sentences 1 and 2, you are talking about a narrative time and negative emotion. It is interesting, how often the 'default' meaning of aspect/tense can be inverted through narration and emotional charge.

Whereas sentence 3 is a simple propositional statement with time and repetition marker which identify the aspectual reading.

In 1-3, the aspectual/modality markers go hand in hand with the tense marking on the verb (plus provide context for its interpretation).

The time/aspect marker in sentence 4, however, clashes with the tense/aspect marking on the verb. And since that is the one likely to be assumed when no such marker is present, the sentence on its own feels 'ungrammatical'.

This has important implications for teaching tense/aspect. It needs to be taught alongside its full communicative function, not just with reference to the timeline and an abstract notion of completion. This is quite often done in modern TEFL materials (e.g. Headway).

I outlined what this looks like in this presentation (it focuses on Czech, but gives the English overview for comparison).

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  • I'm confused. So, are you saying that there is no such thing as lexical aspect? That verbs don't "fit" into accomplishment, stative, activity categories? Or am I misunderstanding you?. Is there an online source that can help me understand TAM. What I am getting from your post is that verbs seem to have a narrative associated with them...for example the narrative associated with "sneeze" is vastly different than that for "build" and that I should be teaching that to help students use the right tenses...? – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '15 at 9:42
  • In looking at your presentation, I noticed a statement that aspect and tense often go together...so in other words trying to think of the verb on it's own in terms of accomplishment or stative isn't a good path, but thinking of it combined with a tense, yields better understanding...? – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '15 at 9:48
  • In the functions chart, Modality is the Z axis extending toward and away from me. Correct? So it represents different modes of expression in the present? – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '15 at 9:51
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    I upvoted this before seeing that you say that 1-2 have "negative emotion", which I don't think is at all the correct analysis. Why do you think they are negative? – curiousdannii Nov 27 '15 at 13:32
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    @michael_timofeev I'm saying that in English, there's no such thing as lexical aspect - at least not in a way that makes the label justified. In other languages, there are patterns that make it sensible to talk about 'lexical aspect' but even there we have to be mindful of the importance of the tense and mood associated with particular usage. You cannot extrapolate meaning of an utterance simply by looking at pure aspectual meaning. – Dominik Lukes Nov 27 '15 at 20:21

In English the lexical aspect or aktionsart is not fixed for most verbs, but is context dependent instead.

Present tense events are formed using the progressive aspect in English. A bare present/non-past tense verb instead conveys habitual meaning. Dominik Lukes gave an example (3) of how the habitual meaning could be made explicit. He also gives some examples (1, 2) of how the bare present verb can be used in a present story telling style, but note that this is a rather unusual and marked style. A single sentence in isolation can't really use that style.

Your example sentence "they build a house next to mine" doesn't seem at all natural as a habitual sentence, because the noun 'house' is given the singular indefinite article. A normal habitual sentence would be "they build houses (next to mine)". So your example, while not strictly ungrammatical, is very unnatural and infelicitous.

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  • So viewed in isolation, verbs have a lexical aspect but when introduced into a sentence, the context can change that. So this is what's going on in the OP sentence...there is a conflict between the inherent nature of the verb and the tense it is being "squeezed into." Would that be a correct statement? – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '15 at 13:36
  • As a side question, why is it that English requires the plural when talking about general things? I ran into this when trying to write an answer last night. Also, does the accepted answer have any merit? I don't think so, but perhaps I'm not seeing something. – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '15 at 13:38
  • @michael_timofeev Well maybe. Most verbs probably have the aktionsart of activity, which is the least marked. There's no conflict at all though. I don't know why you think there's a conflict. – curiousdannii Nov 27 '15 at 13:40
  • I'm not sure how to articulate this idea properly...as a native speaker, my first reaction on seeing that sentence is to "fix" it to the present progressive because if the verb is used in the sentence as is, there is an inherent meaning problem. Build is an activity and an accomplishment but the surrounding context is trying to change that into a state, like "know" or "own." Does this make sense? – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '15 at 13:50
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    @curiousdannii Ok, I think we're in agreement on the practical advice to give to a student. I was just being nitpicky on the way it is presented. It's my common bugbear with test and textbook makers as well as teachers who do not construct examples with enough context. Learners don't have the ability to generate the same level understanding as native speakers. – Dominik Lukes Nov 28 '15 at 11:55

Your students won't go far wrong if they follow the rule: For the present tense of a verb referring to an activity or a process (i.e., non-stative), use the progressive aspect. There is an exception to this rule for generic sentences, as Lawler says, where you don't need to use progressive, and the historical present is also an exception.

In a semantic sense, the apparent exceptions are not truly exceptional, since generic sentences do not just apply to the present time, and the historical present actually refers to the past.

I don't understand what you're saying about the "lexical aspect" of a verb.

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  • Lexical aspect is another term for aktionsart. – curiousdannii Nov 27 '15 at 13:17

Unfortunately, there's been a lot of terminological variation and hence confusion in aspect studies (e.g. Sasse 2002 or Slabakova 2002). So, when you read any research on aspect, make sure you know how the terms are understood/used in that particular paper. The following is mostly based on Filip 2012.

Lexical aspect includes telic/atelic (and sometimes bounded/unbounded) dichotomy. It is determined by the verb itself, the verb phrase, and even the whole sentence. Not everyone makes a distinction between telicity and boundedness but imho Ilse Depraetere has convincingly shown why it's important (e.g. Depraetere 1995).

Grammatical aspect includes, among other things, imperfective/perfective (understood differently from what these terms usually mean in traditional Slavic studies). Again, imho Vladimir Plungian (and many others) has convincingly demonstrated that e.g. Russian sovershennyj/nesovershennyj vid does not correspond to PF/IPF (e.g. Plungian 2011). The Russian dichotomy is derivational anyway, which by the way does not turn it into some lexical aspect.

Aspectual classes are traditionally states (know), achievements (recognize), accomplishments (build a house), and activities (build). Sometimes aspectual classes are called lexical aspect, so, to avoid terminological confusion and unnecessary baggage, a new term actionality has been proposed (e.g. Tatevosov 2003).

The term Aksionsart, because of terminological confusion, is usually avoided in modern aspect research.

Now, your example. The unacceptability of the sentence "They build a house next to mine" under habitual reading is infelicitous because of extralinguistic considerations.

Cf. They put up a tent next to my house every summer.

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  • This is a good example of how the semantics of the whole matters. 'They build a house next to mine' is more likely to sound wrong than 'They run next to my house' because there are more ready scenarios in which habitual or narrative context can be triggered. 'They pitch a tent next to my house' is somewhere in the middle. The question cannot be resolved simply by reference to pure aspectual meaning. – Dominik Lukes Nov 28 '15 at 11:59
  • Aktionsart is avoided? Really? What terminological confusion do you mean? – curiousdannii Nov 28 '15 at 14:18
  • @curiousdannii, Aktionsart has been used too indiscriminately, starting with Brugmann, then Sigurd Agrell etc. - see Plungian 2011 or Młynarczyk ‎2004 for further details. Comrie 1976 (!) avoids the term Aktionsart (see his explanation on p.7). Sasse 1991 argues the term should be abandoned. Bertinetto and Delfitto 2000 use actionality instead of Aktionsart etc. – Alex B. Nov 29 '15 at 3:18

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