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

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Fri Aug 6 00:27:50 EDT 1999

Dear Peter,

As I have attempted to display in the past, I should not make linguistic
comments on the list, for I *don't* have linguistic skills in Hebrew to
sustain any coherent discourse. I will endeavor here to make some
meaningful noise, as you have responded substantially to my earlier post.
(I didn't go through your letter sequentially, so some of the latter
comments were written before earlier ones.)

I posted originally, because I'm rather sure that "perfect" is a misnomer
for the way we use that aspect of the English verb. If you can answer
affirmatively to the question, "does the verb refer to a specified or
implied (ie known to both speaker and listener) point of reference?" then
you cannot use the "perfect" in English.

The unmarked form of the verb refers to the referenced time. At the same
time the unmarked form of a completable verb is the finished aspect,
whereas the continuous is the contrasting unfinished or unfinishable. In
dealing with inherently unfinishable actions we tend to give a
quantification to allow us to use the unmarked form:

         He ran up the stairs.
         She wrote a letter.
         Mary worked all day.

Naturally, these verbs without quantifiability are strange in the unmarked
         He ran.
         She wrote.
         Mary worked. (Not the idiomatic "Mary worked in a kitchen.")

With an effort you can give them some context, but they are abnormal.
Giving verbs in sequences requires a notion of completeness to each action:

         Mary worked for an hour, then ran upstairs and wrote a letter.

You cannot use the English perfect in ordered sequences because such
sequences imply referring to a shifting deictic point for each member of
the sequence.

You can use the example verbs quite easily in the continuous without adding
any complement:

         He was running.
         She was writing.
         Mary was working.
         *Peter was making.

The complement, an object, is necessary with "make", but some verbs are
somewhat grammatically ambiguous:

         He laughed.
         He was laughing.

They imply different things, the first connoting a somehow complete act.
Put it in the perfect though and things change:

         *He has laughed.
         ?He has been laughing.

The first seems unacceptable, the second a little dubious.

          *He has run.
          He has been running.
          *She has written.
          She has been writing.
          *Mary has worked.     (Idiomatic, "Mary has worked in many places.")
          Mary has been working.

Without complement the unmarked forms are unacceptable in the perfect,
whereas the continuous, ie the non-complete forms of the verb, are fine. It
would seem that the unmarked form requires termination of some sort.

>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. 

I think the important thing is that the English perfect deals with
situations *prior* to the referenced "time perspective". (English just has
a grammatical way to locate that time perspective: two grammatical tenses
and various forms of a periphrastic future.)

>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".

In English this isn't anomalous though. "Since" implies a limitation of
before now, the deictic point being clearly now.

Let me ask you about the correspondence between the English perfect
continuous and the X-QATAL: is there one? Can X-QATAL ever be translated as
a perfect continuous? If not it is only the unmarked form that contrasts
with the continuous that is the important aspect, what I call the "simple".

>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). 

How has the previous sentence established that reference point -- or,
better, in what form is its verb? X-QATAL would seem to be analogous to the
English simple, dealing with the complete action or process referred to by
the verb. (We tend to use simple verbs in sequencing.)

>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! 

Cute. As I later realized, I think your idea of perfect is that contained
in the English simple (in contrast with the continuous).

>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..." 

This "as he told us before" implies a shared understanding of the deictic
reference (and if necessary let me jog your memory).

>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, 

(Definitely, moving from before present into the past.)

>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. 

It's really quite simple (though I could have chosen a better verb):

I've         present        now (time reference)
been         perfect        before (whatever the time reference is)
searching    continuous     unfinished    

As I see it, these different verbal elements in English are consistent in
any combination used. If a non-state verb is taking place now, it cannot be
finished, so one has to use the continuous form of the verb. The opposition
here is: simple (ie complete) versus continuous (ie incomplete). The
opposition involving the perfect is: simple (ie at the reference point)
versus perfect (ie before the reference time). ["Simple" here means unmarked.]

    Mother (bursting into son's room):
            "You haven't done your homework."
    Son:    "I've been watching TV."

The mother of course is interested in the finished results, thus uses the
simple, not continuous, form of the verb. The son replies with what has
taken up all his time. It wouldn't make sense in the context to say, "I've
watched two serials and I'm on my third now."

(Incidentally, I believe this notion of priorness is inherent in the
perfect in Latin as well, though as it has come into Italian, the present
form has changed significance and has shifted to a recent past, so "ho
visto" could be translated as "I saw" or "I've seen" depending on the
grammatical situation.)

>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. 

I'm not either now, while checking up the significance of "fientive" in
past posts, I came across Rolf having argued for its non-semantic nature.
Hmmm. I don't buy it, but I'm not able to deal with the argument at the

>(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", 

It took me a while to grasp the meaning of the category, "fientive", which
is used a lot on this list: it has such a wide significance, I wonder about
its utility. However, most of my linguistics texts are several thousand
kilometres away, so I couldn't check it up. But I get the idea that all
actions that cause a state change [including location] or are factitive can
wear the label. I guess it's the process part of a verb. Are all these
fientive? (The door opened. The towel dried. He broke the cup. She learnt a
new word. They fell over. The dog drank the water.)

>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". 

How about "has/had/will have achieved the murder of Abel"? -- by
implication, in English, as your final version above puts it, *but by
implication*. (I'd guess that your perfect is my simple as contrasted with
the continuous.)

>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, 

It's strange for me here. I'd consider, through my ignorance, that QATAL
and QOTEL deal not with a semantic distinction, but a grammatical one. A
verb that is a state ("state", being to me a semantically primitive idea to
me), plays havoc with verb grammar because verb forms tend to have
developed to deal with something happening.

>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?

It might be better, if I have clarified my one major grammatical point
about English, that I shut up again and leave the grammatical discussion to
those who are able to talk about Hebrew.



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