the English perfect. (Was Re: maz-zot `asita)

peter_kirk at peter_kirk at
Thu Aug 5 01:25:07 EDT 1999

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your helpful explanation of the English perfect. I agree 
that in English, if the reference time is present we use the present 
perfect, if past the past perfect, and if future the future perfect. 
Hebrew seems to work similarly except that it does not distinguish 
between these three different perfects but uses X-QATAL for all three. 
For Hebrew X-QATAL with future perfect meaning, see the recent thread 
on "The form of weqatal", and especially my posting of 25 July "Re[6]: 
The form of weqatal". But then I am not claiming that the 
correspondence between English perfect and X-QATAL is exact, merely 
that it is sometimes a helpful starting point for understanding the 
Hebrew. There are likely to be some differences in cases like stative 
verbs and the anomalous English use of the perfect with the 
preposition "since".

X-QATAL indeed usually refers to a previously defined deictic 
reference time, which is by default (at least when linked with the 
conjunction WE-) immediately AFTER the reference time of the previous 
sentence (so that an event simultaneous with the previous sentence is 
treated as a flashback and uses WE-X-QATAL). X-QATAL is I think rare 
at the beginning of a discourse where a deictic reference has not yet 
been established. Of course Genesis 1:1 is probably X-QATAL, but 
BERE'SHIT is enough in itself to establish a reference time (but that 
might mean that God created the heavens and the earth BEFORE the 
beginning? Interesting! Or perhaps the meaning is "In the beginning of 
God's creating of...") In some cases X-QATAL may be used for 
background before the actual deictic reference time has been 
established, but it is certainly not an absolute rule that deictic 
reference must be established before it is used, as in sentences like 
"As he told us before, Peter thinks that..." or in this temporal 
context "Where is he? - He had been away, but yesterday he came home", 
which may be slightly odd English but is certainly not impossible in 

I see your example of "the progress in English from the present 
perfect to the past" as a case of shift of deictic reference time, 
from the present (my present situation, here but just returned from 
the Bahamas) to the past (my time in the Bahamas). As for "I've been 
searching for the dog", well, the search may not have been successful, 
but this implies that I am not at present searching and in that sense 
my period of continuous searching is complete. I don't know how Hebrew 
would handle this kind of situation, perhaps X HAYA QOTEL?

As for "stative", I am not sure of the correct terminology here. But 
(in general) a state is the result of some action, and the distinction 
between them is surely grammatical at least in a broad sense. Thus the 
form YIQTOL is fientive "he slays", but the form QATAL (which actually 
does not occur in BH) would refer to the state "he has slain" or 
equivalently "he is a murderer" (Arabic "qaatil" = "murderer"). Thus 
this very fientive verb appears to have a stative sense in the QATAL 
form. So a (hypothetical) sentence WEQAYIN QATAL )ET-HEBEL means not 
so much "Cain murdered Abel" as "Cain is/was/will be (in the state of) 
having murdered Abel" or "Cain is/was/will be Abel's murderer". Not 
quite the same as WEQAYIN QOTEL )ET-HEBEL which means "Cain 
is/was/will be murdering Abel". With so-called "stative verbs", the 
semantic distinction between QATAL and QOTEL partially breaks down, 
and so also does the morphological distinction, this is probably not 
coincidental. I hope that at least clarifies what I am thinking. Any 
other comments on this idea?

Peter Kirk

______________________________ Reply Separator _________________________________
Subject: the English perfect. (Was Re: maz-zot `asita)
Author:  mc2499 at at internet
Date:    04/08/1999 06:29

Dear Peter,

Forgive this interjection. It's summer!

>To say as you do that X-QATAL is not verb first is simply tautologous! 
>On my theory this is a marked form giving prominence to the subject, 
>and to the state it is in as a result of the past action of the verb, 
>i.e. I see X-QATAL as corresponding roughly to the English perfect.

To give yours truly's understanding of the English perfect, the aspect 
deals specifically with events/situations prior to the deictic point of 

This of course means that one has to establish the deictic reference, 
though with the present this is understood. Yet, once the deictic reference 
is shifted to the time implied by the perfect, it is no longer appropriate 
to use the perfect, because, naturally you want to talk about the deictic 
reference point, not before it.

Hence you find the progress in English from the present perfect to the past,

   I've just come back from the Bahamas. It was awful hot.

from the past to the past perfect and then once again to the past (after 
all the reference point is in the past and you're then talking about that 
point in time),

   I was down in the dumps at that time. My wife had left me. She just 
   packed her bags and went and joined the circus.

and from a future to a future perfect (though the future perfect is rarely 
used for establishing a deictic point)

   Next year I'm going to Iceland. I will have bought a fishing boat 
   by then.

Hopefully the prior nature of the perfect is clear. The perfect has nothing 
in itself to do with the completeness of an action -- the simple English 
verb deals with a complete action -- for it can be combined with the 

   How come your clothes are torn? I've been searching for the 
   dog out in the woods.

You say that you "see the X-QATAL as corresponding roughly to the English 
perfect". Is my interpretation roughly that English perfect you were 
referring to? If not, what exactly is the content of your use of the term?

>This of course nicely fits your Jonah example: "What have you done 
>[which has these present consequences]?" Or perhaps X-QATAL can be 
>considered analogous to a non-verbal sentence with a past (active) 
>participle: "X is having-QTL'ed", which goes somewhat towards Bryan's 
>idea of QATAL as stative.

Is "stative" really grammatical as the above seems to imply or is it more a 
semantic or morphological notion?



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