Tense, Aspect, and Voice

Linguistics 322

Intermediate Syntax


The grammatical category of tense in English is a bipolar relation based on the feature [±Past]. [+Past] (the so-called present tense) refers to any eventuality that occurs before the speech event (the moment of speaking) and [-Past] to any other eventuality. The present tense includes eventualities which may happen in the future. In English, future is not a grammatical category (tense). Certain modal auxiliaries such as will and shall point to the future, but they do not constitute tense.

What constitutes aspect is a matter of definition. Most linguists call the progressive from in English aspect. The progressive is formed with the auxiliary verb be and the ending -ing:

(!)    Henry is reading a book.

In a bipolar feature system, the progressive is [+Prog], and the non-progressive is [-Prog]. The non-progressive is unmarked:

(2)    Henry reads a book.

Not all linguists agree that the perfect is an aspect. The perfect construction is formed with the auxiliary verb have and a set of endings which are most frequently -ed ,-t, -d, or -en:

(3)    Henry has read a book.

(4)    Henry has written an article.

(5)    Henry has burned his manuscript.

The function of the perfect is to relate a past action as relevant to the present or to another eventuality.

Voice is distinct from tense and aspect. Voice is the most complex construction conceptually. English has two voices: the active and the passive. In bipolar terms: [±passive]. Only transitive verbs can be marked in the passive voice. All verbs with the exception of a few idioms occur in the active voice. The passive voice is marked with the auxiliary verb be and the ending -ed ,-t:, -d, or -en::

(6)     The book was read by Henry.

(7)     The book was written by Henry.

(8)     Henry's manuscript was burned.

Tense, aspect, and voice are logical modifiers of the verb. Formally, they function as operators. Operators have special properties which may cause movement. (See transformational processes). There are two types of operators: strong and non-strong (weak). Strong operators cause movement in the syntax; non-strong operators do not. In English tense operators are non-strong and do not cause movement. In languages like German, they do cause movement. The question operator (see sense and reference.htm) is nearly always strong in English. Operators are modifiers that have reference but no sense. Operators are grammatical--they are often called grammatical categories. Non-operators have sense--they are lexical and include adjectives, adverbs, and degree words.

Go to question operator to read about questions in English.

The underlying from of tense is based on the head T (tense). T may take a VP as its complement as in sentence (2) repeated here as (9):

(9)     Henry reads a book.

Up until the late 80's the subject is generated as a specifier of T; we now consider such forms to be adjoined to TP:


Note that there is no phonological (morphological) form assigned to to T:[-Past]. This formed cannot be determined until T is adjoined to V. It is the host that determines which class of tense and aspect operators will be adjoined to them. What follows now is very controversial. We could claim that T is lowered to the closest acceptable host for tense, which in this case is V. However, we will claim that the grammatical features of T are copied to V, which T must govern. V must function as a host for the grammatical features of tense. Neither NP, N, AP, A, PP nor P can function as a host for tense in English:



The above structure represents lowering. Will take a slightly different approach below.

Chomsky rants and raves against lowering, although he had adopted it in 1989. His solution requires more machinery that I am prepared to introduced at this point. At S-structure (surface structure) T is a trace. This is illegal. A trace cannot c-command its antecedent. It is here where the problem of lowering occurs. In 1989 Chomsky found a way go get around this. It involves raising in Logical Form (LF). Raising in LF is to be covered later. Chomsky, however, has not explicitly addressed the issue of copying features downward, which we will do here.

The features of aspect, perfect, and voice are similarly copied. They too leave illegal traces. The only problem left is ordering. In English, tense dominates perfect which dominates progressive which dominates passive:

(10).     Tense > Perfect > Progressive > Passive.

This hierarchy determines the word order in such a sentence as:

(11).     The students have been being tested for an hour now.

Tense consists of a binary pair: [±Past]. [+Past] refers to an eventuality that occurred before the speech event. [-Past] includes the present and the future as they do not occur before the speech event.

There is one true aspect in English: the progressive aspect. It consists of a binary pair: [±Prog]. [+Prog] is always spelled out with the suffix '-ing'. [-Prog] has no form. If a sentence does not contain the auxiliary verb be plus a verb with the suffix '-ing' it is [-Prog]. [+Prog] indicates that an eventuality is in progress; it is taking place. It has not been completed. [-Prog] marks nothing but usually indicates an eventuality that is not currently taking place.

The perfect is binary as well: [±Perf]. [+Perf] marks one event as relevant to another event:

(12).    Have you finished the paper yet?
(13).    I haven't finished it yet.

[+Perf] is marked by the non-progressive morpheme and the auxiliary verb have. [-Perf] is not marked in English. The lack of the perfect construction signals an eventuality that is not relevant to any particular point in time (as far as the speaker is concerned).

Voice is binary also: [±Pass]. [+Pass] is the feature we use to designate the passive voice, [-Pass] to designate the active voice. [+Pass] is marked by the non-progressive morpheme and the auxiliary verb be. Only transitive verbs may occur in the passive voice. All verbs occur in the active voice.

The non-progressive morpheme is a set of allomorphs that have a double function. It is used to from the passive voice or the perfect. In the former the auxiliary verb be is used; in the latter the auxiliary verb have is used:

(14). John has bought a new car.
(15). A new car was bought by John
(16). A new car has been bought by John.

Sentence (16) is marked with both the perfect and the passive voice. The forms in red are perfect, the forms in blue are passive.

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