Definition of term aspect

Tense refers to whether something happened in the past, is happening in the present, or will happen in the future. Aspect refers to whether that event is over or is on-going, regardless of when. Contrast

Julia ran a shop

Julia has run a shop

Julia was running a shop

Next July, Julia will have been running her shop for ten years

All of these refer to events in the past, although the last one extends from ten years ago through to next July. The first example is a simple past tense verb, ran. The second, has run, implies that the event is now over, and is known as the perfective aspect. Perfectives correlate with –ed forms. The third, was running, implies that the event was on-going at the point of time under discussion, and is known as the progressive aspect. Progressives correlate with –ing forms. The fourth, a progressive usage, shows how auxiliaries can stack up: [modal aux will + aux have + aux be + -ed], in this case.

All this might sound quite complicated, but native speakers have no trouble at all with aspect. There is nothing especially sophisticated or linguistically adept about mixing tenses and the various auxiliaries + base forms, –ed and –ing forms, or stacking up auxiliary verbs.

University College London's
The Internet Grammar of English links:

Tense and Aspect

Demonstration of term aspect in action

Read through the following text and identify the finite verbs, excluding modals, then click below to see the finite Verb Phrases revealed:

In the text below, the finite Verb Phrases are marked in blue.

Customers were pleased at first when l’Etrangère would provide them at a moment’s notice with a suitcase, or a fox fur, or a pair of dress-preservers, or some gloves; but when the moment came, as it generally did, when there was some trouble over a fitting, or the delivery of a frock on time, then the shop people thought: ‘And after all the trouble we have taken getting her a suitcase, dress-preservers, tooth-paste, and what-not, with no profit to ourselves …’ And the customer thought: ‘After all, I daresay I could have got that suitcase, dress-preservers, tooth-paste, or what-not much better at a proper shop, and they can’t be very real dressmakers or they wouldn’t do such a thing, and if they only had been real dressmakers my frock would have fitted.’ Meanwhile, Marian, Gipsy, and Julia would all be sitting up after hours frantically stitching, planning, and even eventually delivering the frock in a taxi so as to meet the requirements of a customer, who, quite unaware that a ‘little’ shop has no particular means of delivery, would remain as calm and unperturbed as though the gown had arrived in the natural course of events from Debenham & Freebody’s.

Hide finite Verb Phrases.

Click here to see the finite Verb Phrases revealed

Here is a table indicating the aspect of the finite verbs. I have excluded modal constructions as they are not tensed:

Past tense Non-past tense

Simple: came, did, was, thought, thought

daresay, has

[aux be + -ed]: were pleased

[aux have + -ed]: had been, had arrived

have taken

[modal aux + aux have + -ed]: (could) have got, (would) have fitted

[modal aux + aux be + -ing]: (would) be sitting, stitching, planning, delivering

The table looks relatively complex, mixing past and non-past tenses and various progressive and perfective constructions – yet the passage was short and easy to understand. My point is that it is normal for authors to use all the machinery of aspect.

Literary Exercise

In the following text, the speaker is a detective. First read the text and identify the finite verbs and consider their aspect. Then click below to see the finite verbs made explicit.

In the text below, the finite verbs are shown in blue.

The border people had nothing to say to us. Up on the windy mesa where the Tijuana Airport is I parked close to the office and just sat while Terry got his ticket. The propellers of the DC-3 were already turning over slowly, just enough to keep warm. A tall dreamboat of a pilot in a grey uniform was chatting with a group of four people. One was about six feet four and carried a gun case. There was a girl in slacks beside him, and a smallish middle-aged man and a grey-haired woman so tall that she made him look puny. Three or four obvious Mexicans were standing around as well. That seemed to be the load. The steps were at the door but nobody seemed anxious to get in. Then a Mexican flight steward came down the steps and stood waiting. There didn’t seem to be any loudspeaker equipment. The Mexicans climbed into the plane but the pilot was still chatting with the Americans.

There was a big Packard parked next to me. I got out and took a gander at the license on the post. Maybe someday I’ll learn to mind my own business. As I pulled my head out I saw the tall woman staring in my direction.

Then Terry came across the dusty gravel.

“I’m all set,” he said. “This is where I say good-bye.”

He put his hand out. I shook it. He looked pretty good now, just tired, just tired as all hell.

I lifted the pigskin suitcase out of the Olds and put it down on the gravel. He stared at it angrily.

“I told you I didn’t want it,” he said snappishly.

“There’s a nice pint of hooch in it, Terry. Also some pyjamas and stuff. And it’s all anonymous. If you don’t want it, check it. Or throw it away.”

“I have reasons,” he said stiffly.

“So have I.”

He smiled suddenly. He picked up the suitcase and squeezed my arm with his free hand. “Okay, pal. You’re the boss. And remember, if things get tough, you have a blank check. You don’t owe me a thing. We had a few drinks together and got to be friendly and I talked too much about me. I left five C notes in your coffee can. Don’t be sore at me.”

“I’d rather you hadn’t.”

“I’ll never spend half of what I have.”

“Good luck, Terry.”

The two Americans were going up the steps into the plane. A squatty guy with a wide dark face came out of the door of the office building and waved and pointed.

“Climb aboard,” I said. “I know you didn’t kill her. That’s why I’m here.”

He braced himself. His whole body got stiff. He turned slowly, then looked back.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “But you’re wrong about that. I’m going to walk quite slowly to the plane. You have plenty of time to stop me.”

He walked. I watched him. The guy in the doorway of the office was waiting, but not too impatient. Mexicans seldom are. He reached down and patted the pigskin suitcase and grinned at Terry. Then he stood aside and Terry went through the door. In a little while Terry came out through the door on the other side, where the customs people are when you’re coming in. He walked, still slowly, across the gravel to the steps. He stopped there and looked towards me. He didn’t signal or wave. Neither did I. Then he went up into the plane, and the steps were pulled back.

I got into the Olds and started it and backed and turned and moved half-way across the parking space. The tall woman and the short man were still out on the field. The woman had a handkerchief out to wave. The plane began to taxi down to the end of the field, raising plenty of dust. It turned at the far end and the motors revved up in a thundering roar. It began to move forward picking up speed slowly.

The dust rose in clouds behind it. Then it was airborne. I watched it lift slowly into the gusty air and fade off into the naked blue sky to the south-east.

Then I left. Nobody at the border gate looked at me as if my face meant as much as the hands on a clock.

Hide explicit finite verbs.

Click here to see the finite verbs in the above text made explicit.

What is the effect of the finite verbs in the text above? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


There was a big Packard parked next to me, parked is a past participle –ed form (the words which was have been elided). There are many [to + base form]s, but they are not finite (remember: a finite verb is marked for person, number and tense). In the sentence If you don’t want it, check it or throw it away, and in the sentence Climb aboard, the verbs check, throw and climb are imperatives. In the sentence He didn’t signal or wave I have ignored wave, as the finite verb didn’t is elided.

The aspect of the finite verbs is as follows:

Past tense Non-past tense

Simple: had, parked, sat, got, was, carried, was, made, seemed, were, seemed, came, climbed, was, got, took, pulled, saw, came, put, shook, looked, lifted, put, stared, told, said, said, smiled, picked, squeezed, had, got, talked, left, came, waved, pointed, braced, got, turned, looked, said, walked, watched, reached, patted, grinned, stood, went, came, walked, stopped, looked, did, went, got, started, backed, turned, moved, were, had, began, turned, revved, began, rose, was, watched, fade, left, looked, meant

is, is, say, ’s, ’s, have, have, ’re, get, have, have, know, ’s, ’m, ’m, ’re, have, are, are, ’d, ’ll learn, ’ll spend

[aux be + -ing]: were turning, was chatting, were standing, was chatting, were going, was waiting, were pulled

m going, ’re coming

[aux be + ed]:

m set

[main V + -ing]: stood waiting

[aux do + base form]: didn’t seem, didn’t want, didn’t kill, didn’t signal

don’t want, don’t owe, Don’t be

[modal aux + base form]:

ll learn, ’ll spend

[aux have + -ed]: hadn’t (‘left the money’ elided)

There are a total of 115 finite verbs, of which 93 are simple verbs, and 20 are compound Verb Phrases expressing progressive and perfective aspect (I’ve omitted I’d rather you hadn’t from this count). This is a ratio of 83% simple to 17% compound. The range of different auxiliaries + base form, + -ed and + –ing is not particularly surprising, but the ratio is unusual. One might expect a more even spread.


The passage relates lots of small actions without an omniscient narrator telling us why. Thus when the speaker leaves, he gets into his car, starts it, backs, turns, and moves off. You have to do all this to turn a car around to face the other way, but we are not simply told that he turned the car around, or just that he drove out of the airport, but that he backed, turned, and moved. Why so much precise detail?

The speaker is a detective, and what we are told are the things he observes. He doesn’t know whether the individuals waiting on the airfield are going to turn out to be significant, and neither do we. We don’t know what they are talking about, because he can’t hear them. He doesn’t know why the pilot lingers, or why the tall man carries a gun case, or if it matters, so neither do we. The simple aspect merely relates events, whereas perfectives and progressives allow us to make inferences about events completed and events on-going. Only in the passages of conversation is there a more even spread of perfectives, progressives and simple aspect.

The denouement comes with Terry’s admission that he killed a female, but this is followed by another four paragraphs where all that happens is that Terry boards, the plane takes off and the speaker drives away. Chandler is expert in handling suspense – setting up passages of waiting, or nothing much happening, in an active way so that the reader is involved in figuring out the significance. He gives us time to ponder why the speaker allows Terry to leave. Is he inept? Or doesn’t he believe him? We must read on to find out.

Teaching Point

Using the full range of aspect is quite usual; restricting aspect to one construction only is likely to sound marked in some way. In the case of Chandler’s text, the simple aspect is used to limit the reader to the information available to the detective. It makes for a hallmark of style – indeed, one which other crime writers appreciated, and Chandler had reason to complain of plagiarism.

Dress-preservers, otherwise known as dress-shields, were a desirable piece of kit before the invention of deodorant: OED: dress-shield n. a piece of waterproof or other material fastened under the arms of a woman’s bodice to protect it from perspiration.

Illustration of lady with Dress-preserver under her arm.