Aspects

When we think about using grammar to talk about time, most of us will think about tenses. However, tenses aren't the only way to discuss time - we can also use aspects. Aspects tell us important time-related characteristics of a sentence, such as the completion or duration of an event/action. After all, it's important to know if the train has arrived, is arriving, or whether it will be arriving before you get to the station!

Aspects Aspects

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Contents
Table of contents

    Aspect meaning

    Let's take a look at the definition of aspect in grammar:

    Aspect is a property of a verb that expresses how the action/state/event indicated by the verb takes place over time. In other words, aspect gives us extra information that tells us whether the verb is ongoing, repeated, completed, or even habitual.

    There are two main elements of aspect in the English language called the progressive aspect (a.k.a the continuous aspect) and the perfective aspect. When neither aspect is present in a sentence we call it the simple aspect. When we combine both the progressive and perfective we form the perfective progressive aspect.

    Therefore, we classify aspects into four types;

    • The simple aspect

    • The progressive (continuous) aspect

    • The perfective aspect

    • The perfect progressive (continuous) aspect

    We can combine aspects with the tenses to create the verb tenses. We will explore these different verb tenses further in the article and learn how to form them.

    Aspects examples

    First, let's look at some examples of aspects so we can compare and contrast the different types. These examples are all in the present tense.

    Present simple tense- 'the monkey eats peanuts'.

    Present progressive tense- 'the monkey is eating peanuts'.

    Present perfect tense- 'the monkey has eaten peanuts'.

    Present progressive perfect tense- 'the monkey has been eating peanuts'.

    In these examples, the different aspects express important time-related characteristics. Even though all of the sentences are in the present tense, the aspect itself tells us whether the monkey is in the ongoing process of eating peanuts, whether they have finished eating peanuts, or whether it is a habitual action.

    Aspects Image of monkey eating a peanut StudySmarterFig 1. Right now, the monkey is eating peanuts

    Aspects and tense

    Aspects are used alongside tense to tell us when and how something is happening. We combine the 4 aspects with the 3 tenses to create the 12 verb tenses.

    Just to recap: in English, there are three main tenses.

    • Past

    • Present

    • Future

    We combine the 4 aspects with the 3 tenses to 12 different verb tenses, each of which defines a certain time-related characteristic of a verb. These 12 verb tenses are shown in the table below:

    AspectSimpleProgressive (continuous)PerfectPerfect progressive (continuous)
    Tense
    Pastpast simplepast continuouspast perfectpast perfect continuous
    Presentpresent simplepresent continuous present perfectpresent perfect continuous
    Futurefuture simplefuture continuousfuture perfectfuture perfect continuous

    The terms 'progressive' and 'continuous' are often used interchangeably. When discussing aspects on their own, it's more common to use the word 'progressive' i.e. the progressive aspect. However, when talking about tenses in the UK, it's more common to use the word 'continuous' i.e. the present continuous tense.

    What are the four different aspects?

    Let's look at the aspects in more detail, including exactly what they are, further examples, are how we use them. We will also combine them with tense to cover all of the verb tenses!

    The simple aspect

    The simple aspect simply states that an action or state of being (i.e. the verb) has taken/is taking/will take place. It can also express a habitual action. In other words, it states a fact.

    When we combine the simple aspect with tense we get the three verb tenses; the past simple, the present simple, and the future simple.

    • The past simple tense e.g. 'James ate a giant peach. James was full'.
    • The present simple tense e.g. 'James eats a giant peach. James is full'.
    • The future simple tense e.g. 'James will eat a giant peach. James will be full'.

    The simple aspect does not tell us whether action is ongoing or complete as it does not contain either the progressive or perfective aspects. It simply states the fact that an action or state occurs in the past, present, or future. We can also use the simple present to express habit e.g. we could say that 'James eats giant peaches' which suggests a general habit (who are we to judge James' hobbies?).

    The terms 'simple present' and 'present simple' are synonymous, meaning that the word order is not important. We can say 'past progressive' or 'progressive past' and so on, it's completely up to you!

    The progressive (continuous) aspect

    The progressive aspect expresses that the action or state of a verb is ongoing and uncompleted.

    When we combine the progressive aspect with tense we get three verb tenses; the past progressive, the present progressive, and the future progressive ( or the past continuous, the present continuous, and the future continuous).

    • The past progressive tense e.g. 'I was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef'.
    • The present progressive tense e.g. 'I am swimming in the Great Barrier Reef'.
    • The future progressive tense e.g. 'I will be swimming in the Great Barrier Reef'.

    Each of these actions is ongoing in the past (was swimming), ongoing in the present (am swimming), or will be ongoing in the future (will be swimming). At no point do we state that the swimming has finished.

    The past progressive tense is also a great way to set the scene for another action. For example, 'I was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef when I spotted a big shark' or 'he was reading the paper when he heard a knock on the door'.

    We can recognise the progressive aspect from the suffix -ing (i.e. ending of a verb).

    We formulate the progressive using the verb to be (e.g. was/am/is/will be) + the verb root (e.g. swim, eat, dance) + the suffix -ing.

    Looking at inflections helps us to work out which tense or aspect a sentence is written in. Inflections express the grammatical properties of a word by modifying its structure/formation. The suffix -ing in the progressive tense is an example of an inflection, showing that the verb is ongoing and uncompleted.

    Aspects Image of the great barrier reef StudySmarterFig 2. I was snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef when I saw a shark

    The Perfective Aspect

    The perfective aspect expresses that an action is complete. The action is normally linked to a specific point in time in the past, present, or future.

    The perfective aspect can also be known as the 'perfect aspect' or the 'complete aspect'.

    When we combine the perfect aspect with tense we get the three verb tenses; the past perfect, the present perfect, and the future perfect.

    • The past perfect tense e.g. 'We had watched a whole season of Friends in 3 days'.
    • The present perfect tense e.g. 'We have watched a whole season of Friends over the past 3 days'.
    • The future perfect tense e.g. 'We will have watched a season of Friends by tomorrow'.

    As you can see in these examples, the past perfect looks back on the excessive watching of the TV show from a point of time in the past, the present perfect looks back from the present moment, and the future perfect looks back at a point in the future from a time further on in the future.

    We can form the perfect aspect using 'had', 'has', or 'will have' + the past participle of the verb (e.g. watched, been, saw).

    The Perfect Progressive perfect

    The perfect progressive aspect expresses an ongoing (progressive) action or state that was/is/will be completed at a later point in time (perfect).

    When we combine the perfect progressive aspect with tense we get the three verb tenses; the past perfect progressive, the present perfect progressive, and the future perfect progressive.

    • The past perfect progressive aspect e.g. 'the dog had been eating chocolate ice cream'
    • The present perfect progressive aspect e.g. 'the dog has been eating chocolate ice cream'
    • The future perfect progressive aspect e.g. 'the dog will/would have been eating chocolate ice cream'

    As you can see in these examples, the past perfect progressive tells us that the very unhealthy dog started eating and finished eating ice cream in the past. The present perfect progressive tells us that the dog started eating ice cream until the present time. The future perfect progressive tells us that the dog will start eating ice cream that will/would continue until a point in time in the future.

    We form the perfect continuous using the auxiliary have/has/had (depending on the tense) + the auxiliary 'been' (the past participle of 'to be') + the progressive -ing verb (e.g. eating, drawing).

    The perfect progressive can also be referred to as the 'perfect continuous'.

    Aspects - Key Takeaways

    • Aspect tells us important time-related characteristics of a sentence such as whether the verb is ongoing, repeated, or completed.

    • The four aspects are: simple, continuous, perfective, and perfect continuous.

    • The simple aspect simply states that an action or state has taken/is taking/will take place.

    • The progressive aspect expresses that the action or state of a verb is ongoing and uncompleted.

    • The perfective aspect expresses that an action is complete. The action is normally linked to a specific point in time in the past, present, or future.

    • The perfect progressive aspect expresses an ongoing (progressive) action or state that was/is/will be completed at a later point in time (perfect).

    • Tense is combined with aspect to create 12 verb tenses.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Aspects

    What is aspect?

    An aspect is a verb form that tells us important time-related characteristics of a sentence, such as whether the verb is ongoing, repeated, or completed.

    What are the 4 aspects in English Language?

    The four aspects are: simple, progressive (continuous), perfective, and perfect progressive (continuous).

    What is the simple aspect in English Language?

    The simple aspect simply states that an action or state has taken/is taking/will take place.

    What is an example of aspects?

    Here is an example of the 4 aspects in the present tense:
    • Present simple tense- 'the monkey eats peanuts'.
    • Present progressive tense- 'the monkey is eating peanuts'.
    • Present perfect tense- 'the monkey has eaten peanuts'.
    • Present progressive perfect tense- 'the monkey has been eating peanuts'.

    What is the progressive aspect in English Language?

    The progressive aspect expresses that the action or state of a verb is ongoing and uncompleted.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Is the following sentence an example of the progressive aspect? ‘The pigs are flying through the sky’.

    Is the following sentence an example of the progressive aspect? ‘The dog ate a bowl of cereal’.

    Is the following sentence an example of the progressive aspect? ‘Joan will be baking a cake tomorrow’.

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