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Boryana Ruzhekova-Rogozherova


Abstract: The current paper treats issues related to the expression and formation of durative aspectual value of English preterit. This article is written within the scope of a larger study focusing on contrastive French-English preterit and perfect investigation. The purpose of present analysis is to briefly present basic and secondary meanings of duration of English preterit in the wider context of some aspect formation factors’ interaction. Different values are illustrated through exemplifying utterances excerpted from original as well as translated into English texts.


1. Introduction

Before we proceed with the description of preterit durativity and its various manifestations, we shall start with a few words concerning aspectuality and temporality, essential, due to durativity being type of aspectual meaning, on the one hand, and on the other, because of omnipresent tense-aspect interaction in English. According to what Comrie writes (Comrie 1998: 1) “Tense relates the time of the situation referred to to some other time, usually to the moment of speaking. (...) Since tense locates the time of a situation relative to the situation of the utterance, we may describe tense as deictic.” (Comrie refers to Lyons (1968: 275-81) (ibid.).

As far as aspect is concerned, we should mention the fact that there is a vast variety of definitions pointing out characteristic features of this category. However, we shall quote two statements, most concisely and clearly presenting the essence of aspect. Let us start with Comrie’s classical definition “...aspects are different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation.” (Comrie writes this is based on the given by Holt definition (1943: 6 in Comrie 1998: 3). We shall cite as well Kruisinga’s ideas suggesting that aspect “expresses whether the speaker looks upon an action in its entirety, or with special reference to some part (chiefly the beginning or end).” in Brinton (1988: 2-3) Thus, to summarize, aspect may show whether a process is finished (perfective) or continuous (imperfective), and if perfective, whether there is stress on its beginning, end, duration or number of repetitions. We must state that current article’s issue, preterit durativity, can be only examined in the framework of preterit’s perfective, non-current relevant aspectual meaning.

2. Durativity in the context of English aspects and their formation

Durativity represents an aspectual meaning of English preterit along with repetitiveness, ingressiveness, punctuality and termination. Aspectual values’ formation (including durativity) in the studied language is the result of a large series of lexical, grammar, contextual and pragmatic interactions (which is not the case in Slavonic languages forming aspect through the use of morphological markers). In English (French, etc.) aspect possesses for this very reason “analytical” (Boteva 2001: 180, footnote 58) or cumulative characteristics, resulting from the intersection of numerous factors some of which will be concisely discussed in the following lines before proceeding with durativity characterization.

    2.1.1. Aktionzart

Aktionzart is amongst the great variety of lexical and grammar factors mutually influencing the process of aspect formation such as: adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, plurality, animate / inanimate, human / non-human markers, temporality and pragmatics.

However cumulative the character of aspect may be, Aktionzart plays a crucial role in aspectual meaning building.

2.1.2. Definition and types

The category of aktionzart (Comrie 1998: 7; Brinton 1988: 3) represents the lexical expression of the verb’s typically inherent aspectual meaning, i.e., this one related to the way the process is viewed.

According to their immanent aspectual characteristics verbs in English are subdivided into the following categories: dynamic / static (Quirk 1985: 178); static (be, know, love) / non-static, punctual / continuative, telic (assuming the presence of a goal or conclusion of the activity, complete a poem, write a poem)/ atelic (expressing the lack of a purpose or conclusion, work on a poem), agentive (conveying activity intention of the doer, decide to, mean to) / non-agentive (conveying the lack of such an intention) (Brinton 1988: 23-27); momentaneous (leave, arrive), indefinitely durative (live, carry), ingressively durative (arise, blacken), terminatevely durative (bring, acquire), continuously durative (maintain, subsist), momentaneously iterative (pant), duratively iterative (struggle). (Poutsma 1926 in Brinton 1988: 20)

We shall add to studied category the group of aspectualizers (Brinton 1988: 4), verbs inherently expressing the beginning, continuation or end of process, which are subdivided into the following groups: ingressive (begin, start doing sth), continuative / repetitive (keep on, go on), egressive (finish, cease doing sth), as well as the so-called phrasal verbs expressing through the combination of a verb and adverbial particle ingressiveness (hurry up) or perfectivity (drink up), continuation / repetitiveness (hammer away, drive on) ortermination of a process combined with direction (check in/out).

As it was mentioned above, aspect formation depends on a large spectrum of components which we shall briefly present so that they may be better interpreted while motivating basic and secondary preterit durativity meanings.

2.2. Role of prepositions

As it will be shown in the process of describing English preterit durativity, prepositions play a crucial role in the mutual formation of overall aspectual meaning (Verkuyl 1972: 41-46) mainly interrelating with aktionsart, articles and plurality.

We shall make some brief deductions about the way they function examining the following examples excerpted from our own utterances corpus:

  1. Like a flash the doctor ran to our tent.” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Christie); We can state the durative meaning of the past finished activity results from the combination of a continuative verb with a preposition showing the boundary of this movement, and respectively, the time needed to perform it.

  2. He worked in the forest all day long, until he fell exhausted on the ground. This utterance’s aspectual value, durative again, derives from a similar interaction, this time with a time preposition indicating the final boundary of the process.

  3. Gloria watched them too, and had forgotten where she was when a moderate uproar slowly broke out and slowly moved towards her.” (Interesting things, Amis) This activity’s ingressive aspectuality logically originates from the continuative by aktionsart verb combined with a preposition expressing the direction of the movement. Thus, initial point of the activity being postulated, but not its final one, we are in the presence of the ingressiveness / durativity formula we determined, Ingressiveness = Duration - Tn (final).

    2.3. Transitive / intransitive verbs

To briefly illustrate transitivity influence on meaning we shall quote a few exemplifying utterances of ours (following the model in Verkuyl 1972:48) sharing common meaning, though exhibiting aspectual differences:

  1. “Then she screamed” (appeared, jumped, walked, etc.).

  2. “Then she gave a scream”(made her appearance, took a jump, took a walk, etc.)

We reckon the first utterance demonstrates ingressiveness, the activity being described by above formula, whereas the second (transitivity) example shows conclusion of activity, and, consequently terminative aspect. (For details on similar nominal constructions see Kabakčiev 1993.)

2.4. Agentive / non-agentive verbs

Quite often, other factors like definite / indefinite article and determined number of activity objects being present, an agentive verb involves perfectivity (or end) of the process (Verkuyl 1972: 51). However, there are examples proving the statement should not be considered as absolutely valid, like: take measures, express thanks, settle matters, these phrases expressing perfectivity notwithstanding their composition of agentive verb + no article (Kabakčiev, 1993).

While discussing agentive verbs and the way they relate to perfectivity, we shall add human / non-human markers’ influence. Human activity doers are considered to most often express a unique and finished activity (Danchev 2001: 174).

2.5. Adverbs

Adverbs can often play a really vital role in aspect formation influencing perfective/ imperfective meaning, ingressiveness, punctuality, repetitiveness or terminativeness. That is why they are considered to be “the most powerful aspectual marker in English” (Danchev 2001: 173).

We shall adduce utterances, some of which excerpted again from our corpus linguistics, illustrating this adverbs’ role.

  1. So I went once to a dance, and twice to films with him.” (You Should Have Seen the Mess, Spark); Adverbs determine repetitive preterit value in this utterance which otherwise, would have been imperfectve.

  2. “The more sensational newspapers immediately took the opportunity of reviving all the old superstitious stories connected with the ill luck of certain Egyptian treasures.” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Christie); This example’s punctuality derives from the adverb; without its use aspectual meaning most probably would be interpreted as durative.

  3. Finally they found a solution to the problem; Adverbial use here puts an emphasis on conclusion of activity; The adverb being absent, why should not we replace conclusive meaning by duration as it is the case in the utterance “In three years’ time they found a solution to the problem.”

3. English preterit durativity. Types. Explanation

Having mentioned some basic features characterizing aspect formation factors, we shall proceed with presenting English preterit durativity and its different subtypes logically proceeding on the one hand from theoretical works aspect-related conclusions (some of the authors of which we have already mentioned) and on the other, from analysis and research on our corpus linguistics, including fiction and technical texts, some of which original and some, translated from French.

While examining preterit durativity we should always keep in mind the fact that English preterit functions in that use as perfective (the same form expressing the imperfect as well), that is, pointing out the end of the process it describes and its lack of present relevance.

In result of corpus research we determined the following types of preterit durativity in English: common, participial-simultaneous, adverbial, mobile, temporal-prepositional, lexically continuative, phrasal, plural and mixed.

We shall present in the following lines through supporting utterances essential features of above enumerated subcategories.

3.1. Common durativity

This value bears the name of common as it explicitly indicates the finished activity duration. It is frequently expressed through quantifiers like in (1) and (3), phrases comprising a time indication word and a preposition like in examples (2)-(5) or durativity expressions - (6). This subtype of studied category illustrates some of above mentioned various aktionsart - time prepositions, (2)-(5) and context, (6) interaction. As utterances below demonstrate it, had not authors used italicized phrases, verbs inherent durative meaning would participate in a different aspectual meaning formation.

  1. “The operation only occupied about three minutes.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  2. “He held out his hand, and for a moment speech failed him.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  3. “And for five long hours the little man sat motionless, blinking his eyelids like a cat, his green eyes flickering and becoming steadily greener and greener.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister)

  4. “He conferred with Poirot for a few minutes, and then went off briskly.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister)

  5. “Some of the talking made Mr Huws-Evans laugh for a long time at a time, and once or twice he nudged Gloria.” (Interesting Things, Amis)

  6. “The floor was left to Dr. Tosswill, who discoursed at length upon Egyptian antiquities.” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb)

    3.2. Participial-simultaneous durativity

This kind of preterit durativity is based on the assumption that in the case of at least two happening at the same time past and not current relevant activities, one of which expresses duration, all processes logically exhibit the same aspectual feature.

This type of durative shade is due to mainly two structures, the first one related to the use of a present participle in a participial adjectival clause, expressing by nature on-going and parallel activity to the process in the main sentence. This form can be accompanied as it is the case in (1) by the conjunction while, thus, making stronger stress on simultaneity. Preposition in together with gerund (or -ing-form) financing in utterance (6) sounds similar to while financing or while the expedition was financed, simultaneity being natural because of typical to this form mixture and interference of verbal and nominal characteristics. However, example (6) does not follow immediately after (1) as simultaneity, though present, is not as explicitly shown as in the first utterance which must, in our view, be considered possessing the highest simultaneity degree.

The second structure is based on the implementation of conjunctions while and as linking at least two going at the same time activities; most often, like in utterances (2)-(5), they express duration.

  1. “The American Secret Service, whilst doing their best to trace her, also kept an eye upon certain insignificant Japanese gentlemen living in Washington.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  2. “Almost nothing happened while the films were shown.” (Interesting things, Amis)

  3. As he walked Marthe home, she talked about Zagreus:...” (A Happy Death, Camus)

  4. “He took it in his own and held it. And as he did so, he felt the discreet pressure of her woman’s fingers, a gentle squeeze, which meant: “I forgive you and we’ll begin again.” (Bel-Ami, Maupassant)

  5. “A shade of bitterness crept into Lord Estair’s voice, as he replied:...” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister)

  6. “My husband managed to interest him in Egyptology, and it was his money that was so useful in financing the expedition.” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb)

    3.3. Adverbial durativity

This type of preterit durativity as its name reveals it, reinforces this very shade as it happens in example (5) or modifies another aspectual meaning into duration, like in utterances (1)-(4). We can state that only slowly in (1) possesses its true temporal dimensions; however, cautiously, thoughtfully, carefully and painfully logically exclude prompt or momentary happenings.

  1. “It was extinguished immediately and then the door was slowly opened.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  2. “A light appeared suddenly above the fan-light, and the door was opened cautiously a little way.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  3. “He shook his head thoughtfully.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister)

  4. “Mersault washed his hands very carefully.” (A Happy Death, Camus)

  5. “Maître Hauchecorne, economical as are all true Normans, reflected that everything was worth picking up which could be of any use, and he stooped down, painfully, because he suffered from rheumatism.” (The Piece of String, Maupassant)

    3.4. Mobile durativity

This type of durativity is based on a movement-expressing verb combined with a preposition explicitly showing either the final boundary of an oriented path or this one of a non-oriented, random or accidental line, thus, creating in result of presuming the fact that each body executes the A → B movement in a certain time period, aspectual meaning of duration. Amongst quoted utterances, examples (1)-(3) are based on oriented way expression, putting forward final point of path whereas (4) and (5) bring forth a complicated (4) and circular trajectory which does not point out so obviously final point although it does exist. We can state that example (5) due to movement’s circular form which is revealed by context, does not unambiguously show whether the path was once or several times covered, this fact, not preventing durative meaning understanding.

  1. “We were taken across the camp to a large tent.” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Christie)

  2. Finally, we drove up to the front door of a tall house, standing a little back from the road in its own grounds. (The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Christie)

  3. “He was conveyed across the Channel by destroyer.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Christie)

  4. “We were whirled rapidly through the London streets.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Christie)

  5. “Mum and Dad had gone to bed, and I looked round our kitchen which is done in primrose and white.” (You Should Have Seen the Mess, Spark)

    3.5. Temporal-prepositional durativity

This type of durativity is based on a principle similar to this one of above presented mobile durative aspectuality, now the final explicitly shown boundary being not spatial, but temporal. Time preposition till (examples (1)-(3)) accompanying clearly stated final activity, unambiguously points out duration necessary to underlined in bold activities’ execution. We consider utterance (4), though presenting features which may relate it to adverbial-simultaneous durativity subtype, temporal-prepositional, due to adverbial particle up in swallowed up, proving definitely end of process. This way, the phrase as the long string of carriages was swallowed up should be interpreted as until the long string of carriages was swallowed up.

  1. “Pulling on the rope, we descended slowly till we reached the second floor.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  2. “The meal went on till dusk.” (Madame Bovary, Flaubert)

  3. “Instead of following her, her husband sent to St Victor for cigars and smoked till day-break, drinking rum and kirsch, a mixture unknown to the company, which raised him yet higher in their esteem.“ (Madame Bovary, Flaubert)

  4. “One of them was approaching with a continuous wailing sound which grew louder and louder ... and Duroy watched as the long string of carriages was swallowed up by the tunnel.” (Bel-Ami, Maupassant)

  5. 3.6. Lexically continuative durativity

    1. Typical lexically continuative durativity

This type of durativity is based on the one hand on durative aktionsart as it is the case in example (1), and on the other, on nouns or adjectives inherently possessing durative hues as in utterances (2)-(6). Thus, phrases like in a moment of national crisis, whole afternoon, long and tender kiss or even nouns like day logically possessing certain duration, contribute to this meaning creation.

  1. “I had to wait in their living-room, and you should have seen the state it was in!” (You Should Have Seen the Mess, Spark)

  2. “Now that war and the problems of war are things of the past, I think I may safely venture to reveal to the world the part which my friend Poirot played in a moment of national crisis.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Christie)

  3. The day we were purchased," continued the rope, "happened to be one of those delightful May days when all things, animate and inanimate, that exist under the sun, are entirely happy." (The Bucket and the Rope, Powys)

  4. He slept a part of the day and the whole next night. (A Happy Death, Camus)

  5. During the whole afternoon she was left to her reflections.” (Boule de Suif, Maupassant)

  6. “Then he realized that she liked him and had perhaps liked him for a ling time; and as they were standing face to face, he clasped her tightly to him and solemnly planted a long and tender kiss on her forehead.” (Bel-Ami, Maupassant)

    1. Lexically continuative-prepositional durativity

This type of durativity is based on the use of slow movement-expressing verbs, accompanied by direction movement preposition, like in examples (1)-(3) or non-oriented path preposition as it is the case in utterance (4). Prepositions as well as general context, mutually indicating final boundary of process, bring forth duration; otherwise, final point being absent and continuous aktionsart being present, aspectuality would have been interpreted as ingressive.

  1. “With a sigh of satisfaction, Poirot tiptoed back into the flat.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  2. “Finally, I got up, and strolled as noiselessly as I could to the window.” (The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Christie)

  3. “Mr Dendy crept out of the bundle and hid in the lane, snarling like a bitten dog.” (The Bucket and the Rope, Powys)

  4. “An expression of conscious heroism spread over Poirot’s face.” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Christie)

    3.7. Plural

This type of durative aspectuality is based on plurality of activities’ objects, this way logically extending processes time period’s length, as it is shown through the following examples.

  1. “He started by groans and lamentations and ended by shrieks, gesticulations and invocations ...” (The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Christie)

  2. “But Patrice, dressed in his best and with his hat in his hand, watched the arrangements.” (A Happy Death, Camus)

    3.8. Mixed

This type of durativity is mixed, that is, it sometimes combines several different aspect-formation principles amongst above presented ones. In following utterances, examples (1) and (2), durativity results from mutual action of lexical and participle-simultaneous subtypes; in (3) we can state joint action of lexical and plural subtypes; (4) exhibits lexical-prepositional subtype emphasized by precise description of itinerary; (5) demonstrates cooperation between lexical-prepositional, adverbial and mobile aspectuality; example (6) encompasses movement description (kind of lexical durativity) and participial-simultaneous one.

  1. “She arranged herself at the table like one of the models who showed off jewellery on TV, and purposely took a long while deciding what to have when the waitress came, though she’d known ever since passing Bevan & Bevan’s that she was going to have mixed grill, with French fried potatoes.” (Interesting Things, Amis)

  2. While Mr Johnson and Mr Dendy were talking, she coiled and uncoiled me, and then, in her girlish amusement ... she made a running noose of me, slipped it over our master’s head, and pulled it tight.” (The Bucket and the Rope, Powys)

  3. During her convalescence she spent many hours wondering what to call her daughter.” (Madame Bovary, Flaubert)

  4. “After dining in a cheap restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe, he sauntered slowly back to his room along the outer boulevard and sat down at his table to work.” (Bel-Ami, Maupassant)

  5. “At twelve o’clock precisely, we crept cautiously into the coal-lift and lowered ourselves to the second floor.” (The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Christie)

  6. “Just then a tall man who’d been standing close by took off his beige mackintosh hat with a drill-like movement, keeping his elbow close to his chest.” (Interesting Things, Amis)

4. Conclusion

In the current article we tried to concisely demonstrate really varied, multilateral and, accordingly, exciting nature of English preterit durative aspectuality. Its richness (this very quality characterizes other above enumerated aspectual preterit values as well) stems from English aspectuality cumulative essence imposing at least two different factors’ joint functioning such as durative aktionsart and: local/temporal prepositions, adverbs or adverbial expressions, plurality, participles and simultaneity, durativity possessing nouns. We hope the paper contributes through presented new durativity insights, into deepening of research into intriguing combinations between aspect formation factors at other aspectuality levels too.




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© Boryana Ruzhekova-Rogozherova
© E-magazine LiterNet, 02.11.2007, № 11 (96)