Perfective, Imperfective, and Iterative

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Wed May 8 02:16:37 EDT 2002

Dear Alan,

It is true as Mark has said that iterativity is not an aspectual 
characteristic, but it is a function of two or more factors. However, 
There is a clear assymetry, and by looking at this you can find the 
linguistic reason why imperfective verbs seem more conductive to an 
interative function. The assymetry can be illustrated by the three 
English examples below.

1) Jill was knocking at the door.

2) Jill has knocked at the door.

3) Jill has knocked at the door for five minutes.

When a sentence is used by an author to communicate a message, it may 
be interpreted in different ways, i.e. a combination of words has a 
*potential* for different meanings. What then is communication? It is 
first and foremost *to make things visible*! The author's task is, by 
a combination of lexicon, Aktionsart, aspect, mood, grammar,and 
syntax, to help the reader to *see* the one meaning the author has in 
mind among the potential of meanings that the group of words can 

As to the examples above, 1) is imperfective while 2) and 3) are 
perfective. Now, what is made visible in 1)? Iteration! And what is 
made visible in 3)? Iteration! How is this done? In 1) iteration is 
signalled by the punctiliar Aktionsart + the imperfective aspect, but 
in 3) iteration is signalled by the punctiliar Aktionsart + the 
adverbial. And this is the assymetry, the combination of the 
imperfective aspect and a semelfactive verb can *alone* signal 
iterativity, but the combination of the perfective aspect and a 
semelfactive verb *alone* do not signal iterativity, but an extra 
element, such as an adverbial,as in 3), is neded. This is the reason 
why 2) is indifferent as to iteration. The action behind 2) may very 
well be iterative, but because of the perfective verb we cannot know 
whether Jill knocked repeatedly or just one time; this is simply not 
made visible by a perfective verb.

What is the reason for the assymetry? To understand that we need to 
get rid of imprecise methaphors used in aspectual definitions, such 
as "the imperfective aspect sees something from the inside and the 
perfective aspect from the outside". What actually does that mean? 
How is 1) seen from the inside and 2) and 3) seen from the outside? 
If aspect is a function of reference time and event time, i.e. the 
intersection of event time by reference time, aspect allways looks at 
something (makes visible) from the outside. The difference being the 
angle of the viewpoint, the breadth of the viewpoint, and the quality 
of the viewpoint. To understand the reason for the assymetry, please 
consider the imperfective example 4) and perfective example 5) below.

4) Jill is reaching the peak.

5) Jill has reached the peak.

"To reach the peak" is a punctiliar action, though with implied 
previous stages. What is made visible in 5), is that the the reaching 
the peak has been attained, but the natural interpretation of 4) is 
that Jill is in the preliminary stages, she is on the point of 
reaching the top. Why this "strange" interpretation where what is 
made visible is separated from the very event (of reaching the top)? 
The reason is the imperfective aspect; i.e. what the native speaker 
expects to be made visible by the use of that aspect!

What follows applies to English aspects. When reference time 
intersects event time at the nucleus (after the beginning and before 
the end) - this is the imperfective aspect - a small section of the 
ongoing event is made visible. When reference time intersects event 
time at the coda - this is the perfective aspect - only the 
termination point is made visible (both the previous action and the 
resultant state are implied but not made visible). This use of the 
aspects is known by native speakers of English even though most 
persons will not be able to give a definition of the aspects - the 
just "know" their uses.

An English speaker, therefore, will, when the imperfective aspect 
(the present participle) is used, intuitively expect that ongoing 
action (I exclude states here) is made visible. This is also the case 
when the Aktionsart is punctiliar (as in all examples above. So, in 
order to see ongoing action also in these cases, semelfactive verbs + 
the imperfective aspect will have an iterative, frequentative, or 
habitual interpretation but never a moentaneous interpretation. The 
only place to see ongoing action in instantaneous phrases such as 4), 
is immediately before the achievement, thus the interpretation "on 
the  point of reaching the top".

The breadth of intersection and the quality of the intersection (but 
not the angle of intersection) is similar in the English and the 
Greek imperfective aspects, so, we also expect that ongoing action is 
made visible when the Greek aspect is used. The imperfective examples 
above can therefore, by and large, be applied to Greek iteration as 
well as to the English counterpart. The quality of the intersection 
(but not its breadth or angle) is similar in the English and Greek 
perfective aspects, so, we do not expect ongoing action being made 
visible in either language. Thus the perfective examples above can be 
applied to Greek, as far as iterativity is concerned (but not as far 
as termination is concerned: The English perfective aspect signal 
completed actions, this may or may not be the case in Greek).

To understand the nature of iteration (and other factors) in Greek, 
we need, 1) an accurate definition of the Greek aspects, and 2) and 
ability to sort out which factors of language are semantic 
(uncancellable) and which are pragmatic, and by this know the 
combination of which factors that are causing which effects.



Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>This has been a good thread, and has prompted me to
>review my notes on how the iterative might function
>across aspectual (Imperfective and Perfective)
>I too have worked under the assumption that
>Imperfective verbs seem more conducive to an iterative
>function, but after some thought, I must admit I
>cannot find any linguistic reason.
>I'm not sure this has been mentioned...
>Iterative function has intervals wherein the action of
>the verb is absent, and then of course it resumes
>again. While the continuous function has no intervals
>of ceased activity. But then, this is really nothing
>more that defining terms, but there does seem to be a
>need to separate these functions of a verb. With this
>in mind about iterative function, I really am hard
>pressed to exclude the Perfective from allowing the
>iterative function.
>Looking at Wallace's Iterative Present really seems to
>have no more or less validity to it than the examples
>that Mark Wilson offered with his Iterative Aorists.
>In fact, I think Mark's correction of lines instead of
>dots is linguistically more correct. And by that I
>mean that the action of EACH EVENT of an iterative
>present is IN PROGRESS, not summary (as dots seem to
>imply). And because the iterative has intervals in
>which there is no action, both Imperfective and
>Perfective verbals would equally allow for such.
>Assuming the repeated events expressed by the
>iterative function numbered 3 in occurrence, there
>really would be little linguistic reason for not
>allowing the Imperfectives to express their IN
>PROGRESS aspect while the Perfectives express their
>SUMMARY aspect. At least this much seems plausible;
>what remains to be seen is if there will emerge any
>significant interpretational issues. I rather doubt it
>since I cannot find any significant issues with an
>iterative function of Imperfectives.

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