Lexical aspect

The lexical aspect or aktionsart (German pronunciation: [ʔakˈtsi̯oːnsˌʔaɐ̯t], plural aktionsarten [ʔakˈtsi̯oːnsˌʔaɐ̯tn̩]) of a verb is a part of the way in which that verb is structured in relation to time. Any event, state, process, or action which a verb expresses—collectively, any eventuality—may also be said to have the same lexical aspect. Lexical aspect is distinguished from grammatical aspect: lexical aspect is an inherent (semantic) property of an eventuality, whereas grammatical aspect is a (syntactic or morphological) property of a realization. Lexical aspect is invariant, while grammatical aspect can be changed according to the whims of the speaker.

For example, eat an apple differs from sit in that there is a natural endpoint or conclusion to eating an apple. There is a time at which the eating is finished, completed, or all done. By contrast, sitting can merely stop: unless we add more details, it makes less sense to say that someone "finished" sitting than it does to say they "stopped" sitting. This is a distinction of lexical aspect between the two verbs. Verbs that have natural endpoints are called "telic" (from Ancient Greek telos, end); those without are called "atelic".


Zeno Vendler (1957) classified verbs into four categories: those that express "activity", "accomplishment", "achievement" and "state". Activities and accomplishments are distinguished from achievements and states in that the former allow the use of continuous and progressive aspects. Activities and accomplishments are distinguished from each other by boundedness: activities do not have a terminal point (a point before which the activity have taken place and after which cannot continue – for example "John drew a circle") whereas accomplishments do. Of achievements and states, achievements are instantaneous whereas states are durative. Achievements and accomplishments are distinguished from one another in that achievements take place immediately (such as in "recognize" or "find") whereas accomplishments approach an endpoint incrementally (as in "paint a picture" or "build a house").[1]

In his discussion of lexical aspect, Bernard Comrie (1976) included the category semelfactive or punctual events such as "sneeze".[2] His divisions of the categories are as follows: states, activities, and accomplishments are durative, while semelfactives and achievements are punctual. Of the durative verbs, states are unique as they involve no change, and activities are atelic (that is, have no "terminal point") whereas accomplishments are telic. Of the punctual verbs, semelfactives are atelic, and achievements are telic. The following table shows examples of lexical aspect in English that involve change (an example of a State is 'know').

Punctual Durative
Telic Achievement
(to release)
(to drown)
Atelic Semelfactive
(to knock)
(to walk)
Static State
(to know)

Another categorization is that described by Moens and Steedman based on the idea of the event nucleus[3]

Event nucleus







See also


  1. Lin, Jimmy (2004). "Event Structure and the Encoding of Arguments: The Syntax of the Mandarin and English Verb Phrase" (PDF). p. 19. Retrieved 12 November 2008.
  2. Carlota Smith, The parameter of aspect, Kluwer 1991
  3. Moens, M. and M. Steedman (1988). "Temporal ontology and temporal reference". Computational Linguistics.
  • Binnick, R. I. (1991) Time and the Verb: A Guide to Tense & Aspect. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506206-X
  • Comrie, B. (1976) Aspect: An Introduction to the Study of Verbal Aspect and Related Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-21109-3
  • Vendler, Z. (1957) Verbs and Times, The Philosophical Review 66(2):143-160. ISSN 0031-8108

Further reading

  • Dahl, Östen (1985) Tense & Aspect systems. Blackwell. PDF here.
  • De Swart, H. and Verkuyl, H. (1999) Tense and Aspect in Sentence and Discourse. Reader, ESSLLI summer school, Utrecht. Aug. 9-13, 1999.
  • Filip, H. (2012) "Lexical Aspect", in: Binnick, R. I. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Moens, M. (1987) Tense, Aspect and Temporal Reference. PhD Thesis, Centre for Cognitive Science, University of Edinburgh.
  • Smith, C. S. (1997) The Parameter of Aspect (2nd ed). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Verkuyl, H. J. (1993) A Theory of Aspectuality: The interaction between temporal and atemporal structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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