Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Vendler: "Verbs and Times" (1957)

As with his paper on quantifiers, I read this paper in Linguistics in Philosophy (1967), but it first appeared in Philosophical Review in 1957. It's also floating around the internet here and there.

The Aspectual Garden

The paper is essentially a presentation of a taxonomy of verbal aspects.

Vendler makes a distinction between verbs that express states, and verbs that don't. Among those that don't, he distinguishes between those that have no clear end goals, and those that do.

Among processes with end goals, he distinguishes between those that consist only of a change of state, and those that consist both of an extended process and a change of state.

Here is his taxonomy with the names he uses:
  • States are extended processes which involve no action and produce no change;
  • Activities are extended processes which involve action but still produce no change;
  • Accomplishments are extended processes which culminate in a change of state;
  • Achievements are punctual events which consist of a change of state.
In my textbook on semantics, these classes are described by sorting them first according to the static/dynamic dimension, and then by plugging the dynamic verbs into the four cells of a table with a telic/atelic dimension and a durative/punctual dimension.

The result of this analysis is that Vendler's "achievements" are split into two classes: punctual atelic semelfactives and punctual telic achievements. Activities would then be the durative atelic processes, and accomplishments would be the durative telic ones. All static verbs are still lumped together in one big class called states.

This alternative model is taken from Carlota Smith's The Parameter of Aspect (first edition, 1991).

Diagnostics for the Classes

Vendler's taxonomy involves three different dimensions of difference. He himself proposes a number of tests that can distinguish the two poles of each dimension.

The Progressive Test

The easiest distinction to make is the one between static verbs and everything else. As Vendler notes, only dynamic verbs accept progressive forms (p. 99), so one can't say things like
  • *I am resembling …
  • *I am owning …
  • *I am resenting …
For the same reason, one can also not answer the question
  • What are you doing?
with a static sentence.

The Completion Time Test

Since telic processes have an implied end state, it makes sense to ask how long such a process took (to accomplish). For atelic processes, this frequently makes less sense (p. 100–101):
  • I takes me forever to write an email. (durative, telic)
  • *It took me all afternoon to sit in my chair. (durative, atelic)
  • It took the bomb an hour to explode. (punctual, telic)
  • ?I took me an hour to cough. (punctual, atelic)
However, this test is not very reliable, since one can also construe the atelic verb as designating a desired end state of some other process. For instance, if I want to sneeze but can't, the sentence it takes me a long time to sneeze sound less weird.

A bit of googling shows that people occasionally do write things like that. The verb sleep also provides a good problematic example.

The Temporal Extension Test

Reversely, one can ask for the amount of time spent on an atelic process, but not a telic one:
  • *I wrote an email for an hour. (durative, telic)
  • I sat in my chair all afternoon. (durative, atelic)
  • *The bomb exploded for an hour. (punctual, telic)
  • I coughed for an hour. (punctual, atelic)
However, this test also rules out atelic processes that can not easily be "ground" into repeated actions:
  • *I took a breath for an hour. (punctual, atelic)
  • ?I sneezed a single time for an hour. (punctual, atelic)
  • *He died throughout 1918. (punctual, atelic)
The test can thus only reliably be used to distinguish between telic and atelic processes in the durative case. In the punctual, things might go wrong.

The Homogeneity Test

Although durative telic processes have a completion time, this completion time cannot be interpreted as a temporal extension. If it took me an hour to reach the summit, that doesn't mean that I was engaged in an activity called "reaching the summit" in that whole period (p. 104).

This difference can also be exploited in a test:

I wrote my first draft between 9 and 12                 
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––  (invalid?)
I wrote my first draft between 10 and 11.                

I ran aimlessly around between 9 and 12             
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––  (valid)
I ran aimlessly around between 10 and 11.            

I realized how wrong I was between 9 and 12                 
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––  (invalid)
I realized how wrong I was between 10 and 11.                

I coughed loudly between 9 and 12              
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––  (valid)
I coughed loudly between 10 and 11.             

However, this test isn't perfect either. While it does select precisely the atelic processes in these cases, the test might actually reject paradigmatically telic processes like write a letter or draw a circle. It is not always clear that the time interval pertains to the end point of the process rather than the process as a whole.

The Twice Test

Vendler doesn't mention this, but it should be mentioned that although we can almost always "grind" punctual processes into durative ones, we can counteract this tendency by insisting one counting the events in questions:
  • I blinked twice.
  • I blinked for an hour.
  • ?I blinked twice for an hour.
To see to what extent this test is able to separate durative from punctual verbs, we can try to plug sleep into the same frame:
  • I slept twice.
  • I slept for an hour.
  • I slept twice for an hour.
Is this last sentence acceptable? If so, we have a working diagnostic; if not, we have a problem.

The Spot Test

Although punctual processes can almost always be "ground" into durative ones, it is difficult for a punctual verb to have a durative complement. Concretely, Vendler notes the difference (p. 114):
  • I saw him run.
  • I saw him cross the street.
  • *I spotted him run.
  • *I spotted him cross the street.
This observation, however, does not sit easily with the fact that you can realize how wrong you were or, even worse, that you can realize how wrong you always were.

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