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22.1: Introduction- perfect vs. perfective

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    The terms perfect and perfective are often confused, or used interchangeably, but there is an important difference between them. The contrast between the perfect (e.g. have eaten) and perfective (ate) in English is illustrated in the examples in (1). In some contexts there seems to be very little difference in meaning between the two, as illustrated in (1a–b). In other contexts, however, the two are not interchangeable (1c–e). For example, the perfect cannot be used with certain kinds of time adverbials which are fine with the perfective (1c–d). We will discuss this very interesting restriction in §22.3.

    (1)    a. I just ate a whole pizza.

            b. I have just eaten a whole pizza.

            c. Last night I ate/#have eaten a whole pizza.

            d. When I was a small boy, I broke/#have broken my leg.

            e. Gutenberg discovered/#has discovered the art of printing.1

    Notice that the English perfect can be combined with imperfective (specifically progressive) aspect, as in (2). This shows clearly that perfect and perfective are distinct categories, because perfective and imperfective are incompatible and could not co-occur in the same clause.

    (2)    a. I have been standing in this line for the past four hours.

            b. Smith has been paying a lot of visits to New York lately. (Grice 1975)

            c. Nixon has been writing an autobiography.

    There is a large measure of agreement about the basic meaning of the perfective. As stated in Chapter 20, it is an aspectual category which refers to an entire event as a whole, or as completely contained within Topic Time. In contrast, the meaning of the perfect has been and remains a highly contentious issue.

    We will begin our discussion in §22.2 by illustrating four or five well-known uses or readings of the perfect. Whether or not all of these uses can be explained in terms of a single core meaning remains one of the issues in the controversy. In §22.3 we examine a much-discussed puzzle concerning the co-occurrence of time adverbials with the English present perfect. In §22.4 we will review some of the properties of the various readings which have been cited as evidence supporting the claim that the English present perfect form is in fact polysemous. In §22.5– §22.6 we examine the properties of perfect markers in two non-Indo-European languages.


    1 McCoard (1978).


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