Tense and Aspect: 4. The Durative Aspect, Part 2


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Tense and Aspect: 4. The Durative Aspect - Part 4

Continued from: ​https://www.usingenglish.com/forum/...-Durative-Aspect-Part-1?p=1697914#post1697914

4.3. Stative and Dynamic Verbs

It is often claimed that dynamic, action or event verbs, which convey the idea of an event, process or occurrence are frequently used in the durative aspect. Such situations have a (frequently unspecified) beginning and end, and therefore have duration, which can be limited. Even for actions that appear to have a very short duration, the durative aspect can be used to convey the idea of repetition. Stative verbs, however, which depict relatively unchanging situations such as perception, possession, emotions, measurements, descriptions, are not normally used in the durative aspect.

It is true that the states denoted by such verbs as BE, HEAR, KNOW, OWN, LOVE, WEIGH, CONTAIN, are not normally referred to as being of limited duration. The beginning and end of them is unimportant or indeterminable. Thus we would not normally expect to encounter:

6. *I am knowing Marketa very well.
7. ?Peter is having a new Volkswagen.
8. ?Gisèle is being French.
9. ?This Tokay is tasting good.
10. Mary is weighing 60 kilos.

However two important points need to be noted.

The first is that there are very few exclusively stative verbs. There are many verbs that are often used statively but can also be used dynamically. For example SMELL can statively mean have an odour [11a] or dynamically get the odour of :

11a. This milk smells sour.
11b. Look at that cat. It's smelling the roses.

Other so-called stative verbs can also be used dynamically. Thus given the right context [7] [8] and [10] become possible as:

7a. The sales reps have been allowed to choose their cars for next year Peter is having a new Volkswagen and Mary is having a Ford.
8a. Richard wanted to finish off the meal with cheese and biscuits, but Gisèle is being French. She's serving the cheese before the dessert.
10a. Mary is weighing 60 kilos of potatoes for the voyage.

The second important point is that speakers can, if they wish, choose to stress the limited duration of a state and utterances such as [9a] become possible:

9a. I normally drink only dry wines but this Tokay is tasting good with that rich pudding.

Such uses may be relatively rare but they are completely in line with the simple 'rules' we have learnt about the tenses and aspects so far. The unmarked tense is the default form and the durative aspect is used when we choose to stress that the situation referred to has duration and that the duration is limited. Presenting lists of verbs that are rarely used in the progressive/continuous as some writers do[1], is not helpful.

4.4. The Durative Aspect 'Rules' - marked

To the 'rule' we established for the unmarked durative aspect, We use the durative aspect when we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation denoted has duration, and that the duration is limited, we simply add what we already know to be true of simple tenses: We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation in vividness, reality or directness.

We will now consider some examples of the marked durative.

12a. I was watching TV at 10.30.
12b. I was watching TV when George got home
12c. I was watching TV from the moment I got indoors to the time I went to bed.

All three sentences show the aspect being used for the same reason: to express the limited duration of a situation distanced in time. In [12a] the situation began before a stated time, in [12b] before the time of an action. The situation continued up to or beyond that time; context and/or co-text will make this clear as the sentences below show. The actual starting and finishing times of the situation are not stated though real-life knowledge tells us that the situation did start and finish. In [12c] these times are explicitly stated.

12a.i. I was watching TV at 10.30. As the clock chimed I remembered that I had an early meeting next day so I switched of the TV and went to bed.
12a.ii. I was watching TV at 10.30. I remember hearing the clock chime and thinking that I'd go to bed as soon as the film ended.
12b.i. I was watching TV when George got home. He isn't interested in football so I switched off and made us a cup of tea.
12b.ii. I was watching TV when George got home. He joined me on the sofa and we hardly spoke until the film ended.

While the use of the marked durative can show a longer action 'framing' a shorter one this does not have to be the case:

13a. Sally was writing a report while Barry was preparing lunch.
13b. While Sally wrote a report Barry prepared lunch.
13c. Sally wrote a report while Barry was preparing lunch.
13d. While Sally was writing a report Barry prepared lunch.

The writing and preparing are distanced in time. As they occurred in the past we know that the situations denoted are limited in duration (the duration does not extend to the present); the durative aspect therefore emphasises the duration more than the limitation. In [13a] the speaker emphasises the fact that the situations of writing and preparing extended over a period; in [13b] there is no such emphasis, merely a reporting that these situations actualised at the same distanced time. In [13b] and [13c] the suggestion is that the situation referred to using the durative aspect filled a longer time-period than the one referred to in the non-durative aspect. In these two sentences we can talk of one action 'framing' another.

14. Mary was sneezing all morning.

We saw in [3] above some situations have very short duration. The use of the durative aspect made the situation of hopping in [3] and makes the situation of sneezing in [14] of longer duration. Of necessity this must involve repetition. In [14] the repetition is distanced in time.

15. I was meeting Joan yesterday evening so I couldn't have dinner with Henry.
16. I was meeting Joan later this evening but she called to say she couldn't make it.

In both [15] and [116] there is some kind of arrangement. distanced in time extending from the time the arrangement to meet was made to the time of the meeting. The fact that in [15] the arranged meeting took place before the moment of speaking and in [16] it was to take place after the moment of speaking is irrelevant; in both sentences it was 'future' to the making of the arrangement. It is also untrue to say that when the arranged happening was before the present moment then it always happened. It is possible to say:

17. I was meeting Joan yesterday evening but she called to say she couldn't make it.

I once again make the point that context and co-text including in speech tone and expression can change the meaning of a sentence. This is not usually confusing for learners - it is almost certainly true of their own language/culture. It is confusing only when learners are told that a tense or aspect always (or often or sometimes) conveys certain ideas or that in certain situations only one tense or aspect is possible. This is simply not true. As we have seen and will continue to see each tense or aspect has one underlying idea. In most situations speakers/writers have a choice of tense/aspect to express (sometimes only slightly) different ideas. We can illustrate this with:

18. I am writing a book.

If we have nothing but these words and know nothing of the context in which they were uttered we simply cannot know what the speaker wished to convey. If. however, we know that the words were uttered in response to one of the following questions we know far more:

18a. You've been at that computer all day. What are you doing?
18b. We don't see much of you these days Tim. What are you doing now you're retired?
18c. What are you doing with yourself when you retire next month?

Although [18] conveys a different message in response to each of these questions they all share the idea of limited duration and time reference is clear from the context.

Just as one form can convey different idea so one broad idea can be expressed by different forms as with

16. I was meeting Joan later this evening but she called to say she couldn't make it.

There is no obligation on the speaker to use the durative form. They may choose to use such forms as was going to meet had planned/intended/arrange/etc to meet was scheduled/supposed/etc to meet or other forms/ The speaker has free choice of whichever shade of meaning they wish to convey. This is a matter of grammar of choice not grammar of fact.

[1]Below are mentioned some of the writers who present lists of verbs not used in the durative aspect. They say rarely used rather than not used or qualify their not used with normally, typically or generally, but do not mention that the use (or lack of use) of this aspect is completely in line with the way the aspect is always used.

Aarts (2011.266), Aitken (1992.12), Carter and McCarthy 2006.600-604, Chalker (1984.76 ,94-95), Leech ([1971] 2004.25-32). Parrott (2000.95-6). Sinclair et al (1990. 45), Thomson and Martinet ([1960] 1986.156)


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The use of the durative aspect made the situation of hopping in [3] and makes the situation of sneezing in [14] of longer duration. Of necessity this must involve repetition.[1960] 1986.156)

Yes. I completely understand what you mean but I'm not too struck on the way you've expressed the bold part, if you don't mind my saying. I don't think 'necessity' is the best way to say it.

I think the sneezing example is a very good one to show how meaning comes from the way that durative grammatical aspect 'frames' punctual lexical aspect.

There are two ways available to make sense of Mary was sneezing all morning with grammatical aspect alone. We could understand that the sneezing was one very slow 6-hour-long action, where Mary was stuck in some kind of timewarp. The other is that the action was repeated over the course of the morning. There's nothing in the grammar that rules out for a hearer the first interpretation, but it is obviously ridiculous outside of a very imaginative science-fiction context. I think we can say that what does lead us to the latter interpretation is our view of the lexical aspect of the verb sneeze as punctual. And we only know that sneeze signifies a punctual event from our experience of people doing it. So what happens is that we make sense of the sentence by inferring a repetition of points in time framed by a durative period of time.

The point of this post is more to add to what you've said than quibble over the way you've said it. It's quite obvious what you mean.