In English and (at least a portion of) other Indo-European languages the perfect aspect's foremost role is that of a discourse marker, marking prior events (or events beginning in the past and continuing into the present) serving as background material to the mainline of the discourse. However, many world languages do not have a perfect aspect so to speak.

What are other mechanisms used by languages to make the distinction between background material and mainline material that happens to be in the past? I know some languages have dedicated morphemes for marking foreground and background material. Is the stative aspect commonly used for this purpose?

I would imagine it's safe to assume that most languages have such a mechanism, given the rather universal need to distinguish foreground and background material in a discourse.

  • There's a point of view that the English Perfect is not actually an aspect. The two unquestionable aspects of the English verb are Continuous and Non-Continuous, and Perfect is not opposed to Continuous, they can combine, hence the English verb system can be looked at as being 3-dimensional: Time (Present, Past, Future, Future-In-The-Past) - Aspect (Continuous, Non-Continuous) - Perfectness (Perfect, Non-Perfect).
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 10:06
  • The perfect is a tense modifier. It changes how tense is used so that a sentence's tense does not indicate the time of the event/action, but instead indicates a reference time for which the event/action is before.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 7:08

1 Answer 1


Two common mechanisms are:

  1. Choice of tense, other than the perfect. Romance languages often use their imperfective past tense for narrative background and their perfective past tense (e.g. French passé composé or Spanish simple past) for narrative foreground. Suzanne Fleischmann wrote an excellent book about this.
  2. Main vs. subordinate clauses. There's a tendency for narrative foreground events to be expressed in main clauses, and for background material to be expressed in subordinate clauses. This isn't absolute, but it's a pretty strong correlation in many languages.

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