• Question

How to distinguish between phase and aspect?

  1. From one-language point of view

To take an example from Mandarin Chinese, I don't see a difference between a phrase with (cf. the quote from (Li & Thompson 1981, p. 65) in section below) an "inchoative aspect indicator" 起来 qǐlái such as in 玛丽 工作 起来 - Mǎlì gōngzuò qǐlái - Mary to.work INCH - 'Mary gets to work' and a phrase with (cf. the quote from (Talmy 2000, Vol. 2, p. 156) in section below), a "starting phase" verb, such as 开始 kāishǐ 'to start' in 玛丽 开始 工作 - Mǎlì kāishǐ gōngzuò - Mary to.start to.work - 'Mary starts work'. [The translation of the examples above are from Google translate, for sake of objectivity].

The distinction between phase and aspect as illustrated in these two phrases is even less clear when I analyze them from the lens of the two following basic definition of aspect:

_Croft (2012: 4):

Aspectual structure can be broadly described as how events unfold over time.

_Talmy (2000, Vol. 2: 157):

Aspect is the pattern of distribution through time of an action or state.

To me, both 玛丽 工作 起来 - Mǎlì gōngzuò qǐlái and 玛丽 开始 工作 - Mǎlì kāishǐ gōngzuò describe how the event 工作 gōngzuò 'to work' unfold over time (they both specify that it started to unfold).

  1. From two-languages comparison point of view

To approach the problem from a comparative point of view, in Hungarian, particles like -meg or -le are directly responsible for the telic reading of a verb in a phrase (Kardos 2016):

The examples above demonstrate that predicates like hosszabbít ‘lengthen’ and fest ‘paint’ significantly differ from their English counterparts in terms of their aspectual properties in that the former can receive a telic interpretation in the presence of an object that has quantized reference just in case a verbal particle like meg or le, or a resultative expression like fehérre ‘lit. into white’ appears with them. (p. 3)

(...) Hungarian (...) has specific markers to determine telicity for various verbal predicates. (p. 13)

The previous sections have demonstrated that telicity in Hungarian is often strictly dependent on the presence of a verbal particle or a resultative expression. (p. 14)

The author's definition of telicity comes from Beavers (2008), with the basic idea synthesized as follows (Kardos 2016: 11) :

Beavers motivates this by stressing that telicity is only about reaching a culmination of goal point.

Comparatively, according to scholars in Chinese linguistics, 完 wán 'finish' is a phase indicator which indicates the completion of an action. 完 wán is a verb, meaning 'to finish' which, when used as a phase indicator, is attached on the right of an action verb (e.g. 看 完 kàn wán - watch finish - 'has finished watching')

So why -meg is an aspect indicator (for completion), while 完 wán is a phase indicator (for completion)?

Below I give further description of the two notions of phase and aspect as they have been provided in both general linguistics and the descriptive linguistics of Mandarin Chinese respectively, with my inconclusive interpretation along the lines (the main point being bolded).

  • General linguistics

Talmy (2000, Vol. 2, p. 156) posits a distinction between phase and aspect:

Distinguished from aspect because of its different behavior, the category of 'phase' refers to changes in the status of an event's existence.

And identifies three types of phase:

The main member notions for any type of event are 'starting', 'continuing', and 'stopping'.

I find it difficult to distinguish the "inchoative aspect" from the "starting phase"; the "continuative aspect" from the "continuing phase"; and the "telic aspect" from the "stopping phase".

In my understanding, Talmy precises here that aspect and phase are to be distinguished, not with semantic criteria (as I tried to do in the intro of my post), but with morphosyntactic criteria (cf. "different behavior").

From this angle, I wonder whether phase is basically the same as aspect, but expressed in other linguistic forms than inflections.

Yet, the following quote from Talmy (2000, Vol. 2, p. 156) makes the distinction between phase and aspect even more challenging, because, according to it, both grammatical forms (including inflections) and lexical forms can potentially express both phase and aspect:

a) Phase notions can be incorporated in verb roots or colocations, as in strike up 'initiate the playing of [a tune]' – and, by one interpretation, also in reach (e.g. reach the border) 'finish going toward', shut up 'stop talking' and halt 'stop moving'. Phase notions can also appear as the sole meaning of a verb without the incorporation of further semantic referents, as in English start, stop, finish. Strikingly, the particular phase concept of 'stopping' can appear only in verbs – whether alone or with other semantic material – not as an auxiliary, satellite, or inflection.

b) Phase notions other than 'stopping' can be expressed by satellites. For example, 'finishing' is expressed by German fertig-, as in fertig-bauen/-essen 'finish building/eating' (or, more literally, 'build/eat to completion'). The concept of 'inaugurating' is expressed by German an-, as in an-spielen 'open play (e.g., at cards)' or an-schneiden 'make the initial cut in'. And 'starting' in the specific sense of 'bursting out' is expressed by Yiddish tse (+ zikh) as in tse-lakh zikh 'burst out laughing'.

c) Depending on the interpretation, phase either is or is not expressed in inflections. Thus, a preterite inflection seems to indicate stopping or finishing in conjunction with an unbounded or bounded event, as in She slept/She dressed. But it may be better interpreted as being basically a tense/aspect indicator, 'wholly occurring before now', that merely implies cessation. There is also the "inchoative" inflectional indication of 'entry into a state' – that is, 'becoming' – but it is not clear whether this should be classed together with 'starting'.

  • Descriptive linguistics

In two very-well recognized Mandarin Chinese linguistics monographs, phase and aspect have been also separately used. Below, the accounts of Chao (1968) and Li & Thompson (1981) on phase and aspect in Mandarin Chinese.

  • Chao (1968)


In Chao (1968, p. 461), Chapter 6 "Compounds", the author has a subsection called "6.6.3 Phase complements and aspect suffixes", where he identifies different "phase complements". I list the main of them below:

zhao 'touched, got at, successful after an attempt'; 到 dao 'arrive at, each'; 见 jian 'perceive';


In Chapter 4 "Morphological types", subsection "4.4.5 Verbal suffixes", Chao (1968, p. 265) gives a list of "aspect suffixes of verbs". I list 6 of the 7 below:

le the perfective aspect; 着 zhe the progressive suffix; 起来 qilai the inchoative aspect; 过 guo the indefinite past aspect; reduplication as a tentative aspect; 下去 xiaqu the successive aspect

  • Li & Thompson (1981)


Li & Thompson (1981, p. 65), Chapter 3 "Word structure", subsection "A.2 Phase RVCs" give the following list of phase verbs:

wán 'finish', which indicates the completion of an action; 着 zháo 'be on target'; 住 zhù 'hold on'; 到 dào 'reach, succeed'; 好 hǎo 'completing the task signaled by the first verb'


In their Chapter 6 "Aspect", Li & Thompson (1981, p. 185) list the following types of aspect in Chinese :

Perfective: 了 le and perfectivizing expressions; Imperfective (durative): 在 zài, 着 zhe; Experiential: 过 guo; Delimitative: reduplication of verb

I have not been able to find in these two monographs a justification/explication from the respective authors about why and how aspect and phase are distinguished.

  • Conclusion

If I follow my interpretation, 起来 qǐlái might be more an aspect indicator, because it behaves like an inflection (a suffix), while 开始 kāishǐ is a phase marker, because it behaves like (it is) a verb.

But then why would 起来 qǐlái be an aspect indicator, while 完 wán is a phase indicator, since both have an aspect-like meaning (start and completion of an action, respectively) and both behave similarly (attached just after the action verb)?

  • References

Chao, Y. R. (1968). A grammar of spoken Chinese. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Croft, W. (2012) Verbs: Aspect and causal structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kardos, É. (2016). Telicity marking in Hungarian. Glossa: a journal of general linguistics, 1(1).

Li, C. N., & Thompson, S. A. (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Univ of California Press.

Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 27, 2022 at 23:29
  • 1
    You might find these useful, a general remark on the terminology in the aspect studies linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/15132/445 and on telicity linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/27836/445
    – Alex B.
    Apr 1, 2022 at 15:14
  • And a general remark on the dichotomy in your question "aspect vs. phase." As to be expected, there is no fiat dictating to all linguists to understand and use linguistic terminology unanimously and consistently. On phase vs. aspect there are several scenarios. 1. Phase is a subtype of aspect (e.g. Descles and Guentcheva 2012 call phase Aspect3, i.e. type 3 of Aspect).
    – Alex B.
    Apr 1, 2022 at 16:16
  • (cont.) 2. Phase and aspect are different concepts, e.g. Plungian 2011. Under his proposal, aspect is about the internal structure of the event, whereas phase is about the existence (or non-existence) of the described event to an earlier point in time. 3. Phase and aspect are identical (this view is extremely unproductive in my opinion and hence uninteresting).
    – Alex B.
    Apr 1, 2022 at 16:16
  • 1
    Ok, if you insist, I’ll ask the authors themselves, hopefully you’ll find their clarification convincing enough
    – Alex B.
    Apr 2, 2022 at 14:19

1 Answer 1


From a Mandarin Chinese perspective:

The 'complements' 补语 bǔyǔ can be distinguished from the 'particles' 助词 zhùcí in the linguistics of (Mandarin) Chinese, of which aspect particles 动态助词 dòngtài zhùcí are the prime example. But the distinction is blurry, and there are many examples even in pedagogical literature which see complements as a type of particle.

The most trivial yet salient difference is phonological: particles, including aspect particles, have often been described as toneless in Mandarin, deriving their pitch pattern from the tone of the preceding syllable and from intonation. Complements on the other hand will retain lexical tone, and may also receive a substantial amount of dynamic volume and contrastive 'stress' (stress in Mandarin Chinese as a whole is a highly regional phenomenon, and hotly debated in academia).

E.g. 你到底做完了吗? Nǐ dàodǐ zuò wánle ma? for "Have you finished [it] yet?", containing:

  • the main verb 做 zuò,
  • the complement 完 wán
  • the perfective particle 了 le
  • the sentence-final / question particle 吗 ma

I would find it hard not to emphasise the 完 in this utterance! (The only other lexeme that I would feel able to emphasise is 到底.)

Note however that this purely phonological distinction is not relevant for many other Chinese topolects, e.g. Cantonese, and thus the extent of grammaticalisation and lexical independence come to the fore (see chapter 2 of "Directional Particles in Cantonese: Form, function, and grammaticalization" for an example).

However, Mandarin 完 is currently being grammaticalised into an aspectual particle. Although there is some debate, it has been posited that it is not the same as a 'true' resultative complement like 起来 qǐlai, but behaves differently, as a "phase marker". This is Chao (1968)'s point, and is espoused in the following quote from a grammar contrasting Mandarin with another topolect of Chinese:

It is highly likely that wán 完 has certainly been an RVC marker before developing into a phase marker, or a perfective aspectual marker, marking the completion of a non-stative event.

Thus "phase", which generally describes actions ("inchoative" for the aspect, "starting" for the phase), is thus simply a looser term than "aspect", useful for a less well-defined set of Aktionsart outside the TAM (tense-aspect-mood) framework.

"Marker" is another similarly broad term, which precludes anyone from defining anything as a particle or a complement, not needing to presume the phonology or independence of the syllable.

  • Thank you very much for your response! "完 is currently being grammaticalised into an aspectual particle" did you know this article published recently that came to that conclusion tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07268602.2021.1995698
    – Starckman
    Apr 1, 2022 at 4:29
  • "Thus "phase", which generally describes actions (...) is thus simply a looser term than "aspect"" then why authors use both terms at the same time (saying 了 is an aspect marker and 到 is a phase indicator) ? Is your statement based on a precise reference? Or is it a general feeling you obtain from reading the literature?
    – Starckman
    Apr 1, 2022 at 4:34
  • "useful for a less well-defined set of Aktionsart outside the TAM framework." I didn't get it. The phase markers are Aktionstart because they are more about telicity (since telicity is often seen as belonging to the realm of Aktionstart)? What does "outside the TAM framework" mean?
    – Starckman
    Apr 1, 2022 at 5:22
  • "Mandarin 完 is currently being grammaticalised into an aspectual particle" I re-checked Chao (1968), and found I made a mistake. Chao says "6) 完 wan, etc. The general idea of completion can be expressed by complements 完 wan, 好 hao, 得 der and 了 leau (...). Since these are always stressed and take the suffix 了, they are still ordinary complements rather than phase complements" I corrected my post accordingly
    – Starckman
    Apr 1, 2022 at 5:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.