Event Classes

Linguistics 322

Intermediate Syntax

Contents: eventuality | accomplishment | activity | achievement | event line | table of event verbs | transition

The first four classes are based on Vendler and are sometimes called the Vendler event classes. The last class, semelfactive, was discovered later. Seealso Brinton, The Development of English Aspectual Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

All propositions contain an eventuality, which is a lexical (incomplete) proposition. There are four classes of eventualities according to Vendler. The first is a state; opposed to a state are events. A state is an eventuality in which there is no perceptible change. For example:

    1.     Syntax is boring.

This is a statement; it merely describes a property of syntax (as experienced by some people) and it does not denote any change of state.

Opposed to states are events. Events do denote that something changes. Events are divided most often into three classes: activity, accomplishment, achievement. An activity does not denote a goal. Consider the following sentence:

   2.    Henry likes to paint.    

There is no goal here. Painting is an activity. Of course, a set of objects that Henry likes to paint is implied. If the object is expressed, the activity becomes an accomplishment:

   3.   Henry is painting the house.

Here, the house is the goal. Verbs that denote goals are called telic. Activity verbs are non-telic verbs.

Verbs that mark accomplishments and achievements are telic. The distinction between accomplishments and achievements is difficult to define. The following sentence denotes an achievement:

    4.   The ambassador arrived in Moscow.

The best characterization is that an accomplishment denotes a duration--either a telic duration or a non-telic one. The preoposition in denotes the goal (telic) and for does not (non-telic):

  5.      Henry painted the house for an hour. (non-telic)

  6.      Henry painted the house in an hour. (telic)

Achievements do not mark duration. Neither in nor for can modify an achievement marking duration:

   7.   *The ambassador arrived in an hour in Moscow. (the duration of arriving)

   8.   *The ambassador arrived for an hour in Moscow. (the duration of arriving)

Painting is something you can do for a period of time; arriving you can't. Note that if for NP follows the goal, it may refer to an intended stay:

    9.   The ambassador arrived in Moscow for an hour.

This means the ambassador intends to be in Moscow for an hour; it does not mean he spent an hour arriving there, which of course makes no sense. Similarly, in an hour may refer to the time he will arrive in reference to the speech event:

  10.     The ambassador will arrive in an hour.

Another distinction is found with the adverb almost:

 11.    Henry almost painted the house.

12.    The ambassador almost arrived in Moscow.

(11) is ambiguous. It means the Henry almost started to paint the house, but didn't apply any paint, or it means the he had been painting the house and was nearly complete when he stopped. The distinction becomes clearer when the verb start is used or when a quantifier is used:

13.     Henry almost started to paint the house.

14.     Henry painted almost all of the house.

(12) does not get this reading. It only means that the ambassador that the ambassador nearly arrived there but he didn't actually arrive.

type goal duration  habitual  stop + ____  finish + ____  amibuity w/ almost  carefully attentively deliberately obediently  'X-ed' implies 'X-ed' true for at all points of X.   'X-ed in time' implies has been 'X-ing' in time  imperative examples
 state  no goal

 OK: for a period of time

*in a period of time

 no  yes  no  no  no  ---  ---  no

 be hot, cold, tall, dark, young, thin, square, long, jagged;

feel, experience, see, think, love, hate.

 activity  no goal

 OK: for a period of time

*in a period of time

 yes  yes  no  no  yes  yes  ---  yes  walk, swim, fly, paint, write, eat, snore, breathe, sleep, dream, speak, sing, run, watch, snow, seek, sit (around)
 accomplishment  goal

 *for a period of time

OK: in a period of time

  yes   yes  yes  yes  yes  no  yes  yrs  walk to NP, fly to NP, paint NP, write NP, eat NP, wash NP, tell NP, sing NP, bake NP, destroy NP, create NP, sit out NP.
 achievement: no agent  goal/no goal

 cannot mark duration

*for a period of time

*in a period of time

  yes  no  no  no  no  ---  no  no

 1. arrive, reach

2. succeed, pass, win, lose, gain, die, happen, acquire, find

3. say, claim, declare, aver, recognize

 achievement-agent  goal

 cannot mark duration

*for a period of time

  yes  forced yes forced yes  forced yes yes  no    yes  come, leave, step, stand up, sit down, step down, resign, land on.
 semelfactive (momentary); could be a subtype of achievement, but doubtful goal  cannot mark duration, cannot be used in present pure progressive  yes  no  no  no  no  no  no  yes   break, knock, hit, rap, shatter: (once); some of these verbs have a repetitive meaning in which case they are not semenlfactive.

Goal: marks a goal (end point of action)

Duration: for marks duration but no goal; in marks duration to the goal.

Habitual: Can mark a habiutal event in the unmarked form (no '--ing').

Stop + ______..: yes means that the type can occur as a complement of stop.

Finish + ______: yes means that the type can occur as a complement of finish.

Almost: yes = ambiguous reading.

Carefully, attentively, deliberately, obediently: yes means the verb can be modified by the adverbs.

 'X-ed' implies 'X-ed' true for at all points of X.: yes means the at any time during the activity it is possible to say that it is true if one says he has done the activity (see below):

16. Mary pushed the baby-carriage in the park .

implies Mary pushed the baby carriage at all points while in the park. This an activity; it is not an accomplishment.

17. Mary pushed the baby-carriage to the park.

does not imply that Mary pushed the baby-to the park (reached the goal) at all times while pushing the baby-carriage.

 'X-ed in time' implies has been 'X-ing' in time.

18. John painted the house in two hours.

implies he was painting the house in the two hours it took him to complete the task.

19. The ambassador arrived in Moscow.

does not imply that he spent an hourarivnin Moscow.

Imperatives are good for activities, accomplishments, and semelfactives, but not for states and achievements.

Although the end point might not be completed, an achievement cannot focus on the duration of this. Arrive is an achievement verb. One can say:

16.     The ambassador is now arriving in Kiev.

One cannot say:

17.     *The ambassador is arriving for five minutes in Kiev.

18.     *The ambassador is arriving in five minutes in Kiev.,

where for five minutes implies duration, and in five minutes refers to the time perdt too mlee the event.

However, it possible to place the durative PPs after Kiev in which case it does not modify the duration of the verb:

19.     The ambassador is arriving in Kiev for five minutes .

20.     The ambassador is arriving in Kiev in five minutes.

19. means that the ambassador will be in Kiev for five minutes. 20 means that five minutes after the speech event, the ambassador will arrive in Kiev.

21.    The ambassador arrives everyday at 4 p.m.

A habitual action; it is possible with achievement verbs with stop:

22.     The ambassador stopped arriving in Kiev at 4 p.m. (every day, and so forth)

23.     *The ambassador stopped arriving in Kiev. (once)

An achievement verb cannot occur as a complement of stop in a non-iterv meaning.

23.     *The ambassador finished arriving in Kiev.

An achievement verb cannot occur as a complement of finish.. Finish implied a duration.

24.     *The ambassador carefully arrived in Kiev.

25.     *The ambassador attentively arrived in Kiev.

An achievement verb cannot be modified by adverbs of referring to subject control.

25.     The ambassador is arriving.

does nto imply that the ambasador has arrived. (see push).

26.     The ambassador arrived in five minutes.

does not imply that the ambassador took five minutes to arrived.


Semelfactive verbs, also called momentary verbs or punctual verbs, are verbs whose event occurs once (in context) and last a hsort period of time, so short that the present progressive aspect cannot be used. By the time the event has occurred it is over and the past tense is necessary:

27.     *Someone is knocking once on the door.

28.     Someone just knocked once on the door.

29.     Someone is knocking on the door.

(22) indicates that someone has just knocked once on the door (hence past tense), and (23) indicates that someone is knocking repetitively on the door. In the iterature progressive form, it can have the semelfactive meaning:

30.     Tonight we are knocking (once) on doors; tomorrow we will be phoning them.

The present tense means that the process of the iterative semelfactives events is going on; it does not refer to an individual event here.

Semelfactives are good with imperatives:

31.     Knock on the door just once!

An accomplishment verb implies a goal. It focusses on the duration leading up to the end point of the event. The goal is reason for the accomplishment. Activity verbs do not do this. For example:

31.    Milly pushed the baby-buggy through the park.

32.    Milly dismantled the baby-buggy in the park.

Push in (8) is an activity; it is not an accomplishment. It does not denote a goal. Through the park is not a goal. (9), on the other hand, does denote a goal--the baby-buggy is the goal of dismantling. There is an interesting implication in the progressive aspect (click to go to aspect):

33.    Milly was pushing the baby-buggy through the park.

34.    Milly was dismantling the baby-buggy in the park.

In (33) it is implied that Milly pushed the baby-buggy at any point in time of pushing. (34) does not denote this. The baby-buggy is not dismantled until the event is completed. That is, halfway through dismantling the baby-buggy, you cannot say:

 35.     *Milly had dismantled the baby-buggy when she was half done dismantling it.

Push may also be an accomplishment; a goal is required:

36.    Milly pushed the baby-buggy to the store.

Here, to the store is a goal. Sleep is an activity that can never be extended to an accomplishment:

37.     Betty sleeps all day.

38.     Betty sleeps to noon everyday.

Here to noon is not a goal of sleeping. It refers to the duration of sleeping.

Another test for accomplishment verbs is that the past tense form modified by in + NP-temoral implies that the progressive from is true:

39.     John painted the house in two hours.

implies that at any point in time two hours preceding the completion of painting the house, John was indeed painting the house. This is not true for achievement verb. 'In+NP' does refer to the duration of the event.

40.     John stopped/finished painting the house.

Accomplishment verbs may occur as the complement of both stop and finish.

41.     John carefuly painted the house.

The adverb carefully and similar adverbs may modify an activity.

Activity - accomplishment - achievement:


In and for are prepositions marking duration. The marking of duration is optional for accomplishments; impossible for achievements. A semelfactie verb is simultaneous with G.

Transitions from one class to another.

Many verbs can shirt from class to another depending on their transitivity status. For example, if an activity verb takes a direct object marked and a goal is implied, the verb becomes an accomplishment. Note that the house is a patient:

43. John painted all day. (activity)

44. John painted the house all day (activity, no goal implied)

45. John painted the house in an hour. (accomplishment, in an hour implies a goal)

46. John finished painting the house. (accomplishment, finish implies a goal)

47. John painted the house today. (an accomplishment if completion is implied)

If completion is not implied, then it is an activity. The implication would be discourse determined.)


48. Mary pushed the baby buggy. (activity)

49. Mary pushed the baby buggy all day. (activity)

50. *Mary pushed the baby buggy in an hour. (Here, the theme cannot be the goal).

(51).     Mary pushed the baby buggy to the ice-cream parlour. (accomplishment, to NP implies a goal.

(52).     Mary finished pushing the baby buggy. (an accomplishment)

This is the case in the unlikely reading that pushing a baby buggy is in itself a goal; that is, there is something to gain from pushing the baby buggy as opposed to some other object.

Some activity verbs cannot take a direct object:

(53).     Jason slept all day. (activity)

(54).     *Jason slept NP all day.

Achievement verbs that take on a direct object become accomplishments:

(55).     Milly won last night (*in 5 minutes). (achievement)

(56).     Milly won the game last night (in 5 minutes). (accomplishment).

Most achievement verbs of the motion class cannot take direct objects:

(57).     *Les arrived NP.

(58).     *Mary stepped NP. (Mary stopped toward the door).


Contents: eventuality | accomplishment | activity | achievement | event line | table of event verbs | transition

Course Outline 322 | Course Outline 405 | course.outline.481.