Tense and Aspect: 5. The Retrospective Aspect. Part 2

5jj

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Tense and Aspect: 5. The Retrospective Aspect. Part Two

Continued from here:
https://www.usingenglish.com/forum/threads/287544-Tense-and-Aspect-5-The-Retrospective-Aspect-Part-1

5.3. Retrospective-Durative


This form, traditionally known as the present/past perfect continuous or progressive, may be unmarked, I have been working, or marked, I had been working. Typical lists in grammars of the uses of the forms include:

unmarked:


  1. Temporary situation with present consequence: I’m filthy; I’ve been cleaning out the attic.
  2. An action filling a time period that extends up to the present moment: Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours.
  3. Repeated/continuous action with present consequence: I’ve been teaching for many years (so I know what I’m talking about).
  4. Action begun in the past and still continuing: John’s been working here since January.

marked:


  1. Past temporary situation with consequence at a past time: He had been drinking heavily, and it showed in his speech.
  2. An action filling a time period that extends up to a past moment: Wendy had been working on her accounts, but she put them away when Stan arrived.
  3. Repeated continuous past action with later consequence: He had been preparing for this for years. He was ready.
  4. An action begun before a past moment, and continuing through that moment: The president had been speaking for three hours when Martin fell asleep.
  5. Past counterfactual hypothetical situations. If you had been listening, you would know the answer.


5.3.1. Retrospective-Durative ‘Rules’

It is simpler to consider all these utterances, and all other retrospective-durative utterances, as being covered by these two ideas:

We use the retrospective aspect when we look back from one point in time to a situation that began at a previous time and is connected in some way to the time from which we are looking.

We use the durative aspect when we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.

For the marked form, we add this idea:

We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation, in vividness, reality or directness.

Now let us consider again sentences [13] to [21]:

13. I’m filthy; I’ve been cleaning out the attic.

Clearly the speaker is looking back from the present moment, when s/he is filthy, to the situation that led to her/hid filthiness. That situation is the cleaning out of the attic, an action which had duration.

I was cleaning out …, while not impossible, is unlikely in BrE. The marked form distances the action in time, and so removes the retrospective idea that would relate the past action to the present state.

I have cleaned out…, is possible, but also not so likely as the durative form. By not stressing the duration of the action, which ties the action more closely to the person performing it, the speaker is presenting the present relevance of the whole action, the cleaning out of the attic. The focus is more on the present state of the attic than on that of the speaker.

The alternative forms mentioned in the last two paragraphs reinforce a point made several times in these threads: in many situations, a speaker has a free choice between tenses/aspects. There is often no ‘prescribed’ tense/aspect for any given situation. Corpora and Ngrams may show one to be (far) more common than any other(s); that does not mean to say that the others are incorrect or unnatural.

14. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours.

The sitting began six hours ago and has continued up to the present moment, so was sitting, placing the sitting in the past, is not appropriate. Has sat is possible, but it lacks the emphasis on the duration of the sitting.

Incidentally, we cannot tell from those words whether Emma stops sitting as, or just before, the speaker utters them, or continues sitting. Context will make that clear:

14a. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours. I hope she takes a break
soon. (Emma is still sitting at the computer.)

14b. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours. I’m glad she’s decided to
taking a break. (Emma is not still sitting at the computer.)


15. I’ve been teaching for many years (so I know what I’m talking about).

16. John’s been working here since January.

Unlike the sitting in [14], the actions of teaching and working have not gone on without breaks – one works/teaches only so many hours a day and weeks a year. That, however, is part of the semantic content of the words themselves, and does not affect the overall implications of the use of the form. Context tells us whether or not the subjects of the verbs are actually teaching/working at the moment the utterance is made; this is not part of the implications of the aspect.

In both [15] and [16], the non-durative aspect is also possible; it simply places less emphasis on the duration of the actions.

17. He had been drinking heavily, and it showed in his speech.
18. Wendy had been working on her accounts, but she put them away when Stan arrived.
19. He had been preparing for this for years. he was ready.
20. The president had been speaking for three hours when Martin fell asleep.

A detailed analysis of [17]-[20] is not necessary. They are similar to the unmarked forms. The difference is simply that the time point of reference is now time-distanced, i.e., it is past time.


  1. If you had been listening, you would know the answer.

Here, as with [12], the speaker is looking back from the present time on a past situation, the listening. This is already distanced in time (The speaker did not listen). The speaker uses the marked retrospective form to show additional distancing in reality (the hypothetical non-actualisation of the not dropping out ), and the Durative form to suggest the limited duration of the not-listening around the time-point spoken of.

We can now combine the ideas of the retrospective and durative aspects:

We use the retrospective-durative aspect when we look back from one point in time in to a situation that began at a previous time and is connected in some way to the time from which we are looking, and we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.

We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation, in vividness, reality, or directness.
 

5jj

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It's possible that these threads may turn into articles in this section of the site Below is my attempt at the retrospective-durative aspect thread. Any suggestions for improvement, cutting, etc, will be most welcome.
Tense and Aspect: 6. The Retrospective-Durative/Perfect Progressive Aspect.


This form, traditionally known as the present/past perfect continuous or progressive, may be unmarked, I have been working, or marked, I had been working. Typical lists in grammars of the uses of the forms include:

unmarked:


  1. Temporary situation with present consequence: I’m filthy; I’ve been cleaning out the attic.
  2. An action filling a time period that extends up to the present moment: Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours.
  3. Repeated/continuous action with present consequence: I’ve been teaching for many years (so I know what I’m talking about).
  4. Action begun in the past and still continuing: John’s been working here since January.

marked:

5. Past temporary situation with consequence at a past time: He had been drinking heavily, and it showed in his speech.
6. An action filling a time period that extends up to a past moment: Wendy had been working on her accounts, but she put them away when Stan arrived.
7. Repeated continuous past action with later consequence: He had been preparing for this for years. He was ready.
8. An action begun before a past moment, and continuing through that moment: The president had been speaking for three hours when Martin fell asleep.
9. Past counterfactual hypothetical situations. If you had been listening, you would know the answer.

6.1. Retrospective-Durative ‘Rules’

It is simpler to consider all these utterances, and all other retrospective-durative utterances, as being covered by these two ideas:

We use the retrospective aspect when we look back from one point in time to a situation that began at a previous time and is connected in some way to the time from which we are looking.

We use the durative aspect when we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.

For the marked form, we add this idea:

We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation, in vividness, reality or directness.

Now let us consider again sentences [1] to [9]:


1. I’m filthy; I’ve been cleaning out the attic.

Clearly the speaker is looking back from the present moment, when s/he is filthy, to the situation that led to her/his filthiness. That situation is the cleaning out of the attic, an action which had duration.

I was cleaning out …, while not impossible, is unlikely in BrE. The marked form distances the action in time, and so removes the retrospective idea that would relate the past action to the present state.

I have cleaned out…, is possible, but also not so likely as the durative form. By not stressing the duration of the action, which ties the action more closely to the person performing it, the speaker is presenting the present relevance of the whole action, the cleaning out of the attic. The focus is more on the present state of the attic than on that of the speaker.

The alternative forms mentioned in the last two paragraphs reinforce a point made several times in these articles: in many situations, a speaker has a free choice between tenses/aspects. There is often no ‘prescribed’ tense/aspect for any given situation. Corpora and Ngrams may show one to be (far) more common than any other(s); that does not mean to say that the others are incorrect or unnatural.

2. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours.

The sitting began six hours ago and has continued up to the present moment, so was sitting, placing the sitting in the past, is not appropriate. Has sat is possible, but it lacks the emphasis on the duration of the sitting.

Incidentally, we cannot tell from those words whether Emma stops sitting as, or just before, the speaker utters them, or continues sitting. Context will make that clear:

2a. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours. I hope she takes a break soon. (Emma is still sitting at the computer.)

2b. Emma has been sitting at that computer for six hours. I’m glad she’s decided to take a break. (Emma is not still sitting at the computer.)


3. I’ve been teaching for many years (so I know what I’m talking about).

4. John’s been working here since January.

Unlike the sitting in [2], the actions of teaching and working have not gone on without breaks – one works/teaches only so many hours a day and weeks a year. That, however, is part of the semantic content of the words themselves, and does not affect the overall implications of the use of the form. Context tells us whether or not the subjects of the verbs are actually teaching/working at the moment the utterance is made; this is not part of the implications of the aspect.

In both [3] and [w], the non-durative aspect is also possible; it simply places less emphasis on the duration of the actions.

5. He had been drinking heavily, and it showed in his speech.
6. . Wendy had been working on her accounts, but she put them away when Stan arrived.
7. He had been preparing for this for years. he was ready.
8. The president had been speaking for three hours when Martin fell asleep.

A detailed analysis of [5]-[8] is not necessary. They are similar to the unmarked forms. The difference is simply that the time point of reference is now time-distanced, i.e., it is past time.

9. If you had been listening, you would know the answer.

Here, the speaker is looking back from the present time on a past situation, the listening. This is already distanced in time (The speaker did not listen). The speaker uses the marked retrospective form to show additional distancing in reality (the hypothetical non-actualisation of the not dropping out ), and the durative form to suggest the limited duration of the not-listening around the time-point spoken of.

We can now combine the ideas of the retrospective and durative aspects:

We use the retrospective-durative aspect when we look back from one point in time in to a situation that began at a previous time and is connected in some way to the time from which we are looking, and we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.

We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation, in vividness, reality, or directness.
 
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