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

peter_kirk at peter_kirk at
Fri Aug 6 20:18:39 EDT 1999

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your contribution, though much of it seems to be of 
little relevance to Hebrew. See my comments preceded by "PK".

Peter Kirk

______________________________ Reply Separator _________________________________
Subject: Re: the English perfect. (Was Re: maz-zot `asita)
Author:  mc2499 at at internet
Date:    05/08/1999 23:27

Dear Peter,


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.

PK: I was using the term "perfect" as a traditional label for a set of 
English verb forms rather than in some technical sense, and therefore 
it is irrelevant that this may be a misnomer. I am also aware that 
there may be some subtle differences in the use of the perfect between 
my British English and American English.


         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.

PK: How about: "Why is his face so red?" - "He has been laughing."

          *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.

PK: I am not sure about your "idiomatic". This is a special usage 
which is perhaps commonest with "work", it can certainly be used with 
"live", possibly even with "run" and "write" in the professional 
sense: "The Olympic medallist has run in many places." "The author has 
written in many countries." The complement is generally used in such 
cases, but not always, e.g. "Mary has studied, she has worked, she has 
been a housewife and mother, and now she is retired." It may be good 
to realise that these are relatively unusual cases, but your stars are 
not fully justified, at least in British English.


>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.

PK: I see this as anomalous because sentences starting "I have lived 
here..." or "I have been living here..." generally imply that I am no 
longer living here, but if you complete with "since 1995" they 
suddenly mean that I am still living here now. But they also mean that 
if you complete with "five years", so in that sense the anomaly is not 
with "since".

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".

PK: Good question. To pick something at random, how about 1 Kings 

"And at the end of twenty years during which Solomon HAD BEEN 

>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.)

PK: I am thinking of the common sequence WAYYIQTOL X... WE-Y QATAL "X 
slew..., and meanwhile Y had slain...". The simple, sequential 
WAYYIQTOL estblishes a reference point (relative to what came before), 
the reader expects a new reference point for the next sentence but 
instead gets a flashback "Meanwhile back at the ranch..." Of course in 
English we don't always use a past perfect in such a case, but we can 


(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.)

PK: Ah well, Latin and Greek grammar have a lot to answer for. Maybe I 
am basing my idea of what is correct English a bit too much on the 
speech and writing of a generation which believed that correct English 
grammar was Latin or Greek grammar.

>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.)

PK: I would take these as all fientive, but don't take me as an 
expert. Yes, your idea of a change of state ties up with my thinking.

>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.)

PK: Eve: "What's Cain been doing today? And where's Abel?" Adam: 
"Cain's been murdering Abel." [Eve faints] ;-) I suppose Adam's words 
would be HAYAH QAYIN QOTEL )ET-HEBEL, or would they be QATAL QAYIN 
)ET-HEBEL? I'm not sure.

>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.

PK: I understand your problem. The distinction between fientive and 
stative verbs seems odd to me. But it does seem to be a real 
distinction in Hebrew at the morphological level, so it cannot be 
ignored. Maybe it needs to be dealt with in a different way from the 
traditional one. This may actually tie up with your "idiomatic" "Mary 
has worked in many places", which works because in this sentence 
"work" is perhaps quasi-stative, as are "run" and "write" in the 
professional sense "be a worker", "be a runner", "be a writer".

>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.

PK: Agreed, let's leave this for the real experts to comment.



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