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22.4: Arguments for polysemous aspectual senses of the English Perfect

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    As noted above, McCawley (1971; 1981b), Michaelis (1994; 1998), and Kiparsky (2002) have argued that the various aspectual uses of the English perfect are in fact distinct polysemous senses. In this section we discuss some of the evidence that has been proposed in support of this hypothesis.

    McCawley observed that the existential reading presupposes that a similar event could happen again, i.e., is currently possible. “In particular, the referents of the NP arguments must exist at [the time of speaking], and the event must be of a repeatable type” (Kiparsky 2002). The examples in (16b–c) are odd because the subject NPs are no longer alive at the time of speaking. Example (17) is odd because the described event clearly cannot happen again.

    (16)    a. I have never tasted fresh durian.

              b. #Julius Caesar has never tasted fresh durian.

              c. #Einstein has visited Princeton. (spoken after he died)5

    (17)    #Fred has been born in Paris.6

    Leech (1971: 33) notes that the perfect form in (18a) would be appropriate if the Gauguin exhibition is still running, so the addressee could still attend. Once the exhibit has closed for good, however, only (18b) would be felicitous. McCawley (1971: 107) points out that other circumstances could also make (18a) infelicitous, for example if the addressee has “recently suffered an injury which will keep him in the hospital until long after the exhibition closes.”

    (18)    a. Have you visited the Gauguin exhibition?

              b. Did you visit the Gauguin exhibition?

    The examples in (16a–b) and (18a) show that the “current possibility” requirement is a presupposition, because it applies even to negative statements and questions. They also give us reason to believe that this presupposition is better stated in terms of current possibility than repeatability, since neither sentence assumes that the event has happened in the past.

    Jespersen (1931: 66–67) notes that the choice between perfect and perfective can be significant because of this presupposition: “The difference between the reference to a dead man and to one still living is seen in the following quotation [19] which must have been written between 1859, when Macaulay died, and 1881, when Carlyle died (note also Mr. before the latter name).”7

    (19)    Macaulay did not impress the very soul of English feeling as Mr. Carlyle, for example, has done. [attributed to McCarthy]

    Kiparsky points out that the presupposition of current possibility does not attach to the recent past (or “hot news”) reading, as illustrated in (20). He cites this contrast as evidence that the existential and “hot news” readings are in fact distinct senses.

    (20)    a. Fred has just eaten the last doughnut.8

              b. Einstein has just died.

    A second argument is based on the observation that the various readings listed above do not all have the same truth conditions. Kiparsky notes that sentence (21) is ambiguous between the existential vs. universal (or persistent situation) readings, and that these two readings have different truth conditions. The universal reading asserts that at all times from 1977 to the present, the speaker was in Hyderabad; it is false if there were any times within that period at which he was elsewhere. The existential reading asserts only that there was at least one time between 1977 and the present moment at which the speaker was in Hyderabad. We could easily construct a context in which the existential reading is true and the universal reading false. This suggests that we are dealing with true semantic ambiguity, rather than mere vagueness or generality.

    (21)    I have been in Hyderabad since 1977.

    Third, the various readings have different translation equivalents in other languages. Kiparsky notes that some languages which have a perfect, e.g. German and modern Greek, would use the simple present tense rather than the perfect to express the universal reading.9 In addition, some languages (e.g. Hungarian and Najdi Arabic) have a distinct form which expresses only the existential/experiential perfect. Mandarin seems to be another such language; see §22.6 below.

    A fourth type of evidence is seen in the following play on words (often attributed to Groucho Marx, but probably first spoken by someone else) which seems to demonstrate an antagonism between the (expected) “hot news” sense and the (unexpected) existential sense of the perfect:

    (22)    I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

    Authors supporting the polysemy of the perfect have also pointed out that the various readings have different aspectual requirements. The universal reading, in contrast to all other uses of the perfect, is possible only with atelic situations. This would include states or activities (23a–b), coerced states such as habituals (23c), and accomplishments expressed in the imperfective (thus involving an atelic assertion, 23d). Telic situations like those in (24) cannot normally be expressed in the universal perfect. In contrast, the perfect of continuing result illustrated in (5) is possible only with telic events (achievements or accomplishments).

    (23)    a. I have loved Charlie Chaplin ever since I saw Modern Times.

              b. Fred has carried the food pack for the past 3 hours, and needs a rest.

              c. I have attended All Saints Cathedral since 1983.

              d. I’ve been writing a history of Nepal for the past six years, and haven’t had time to work on anything else.

    (24)    a. #Fred has arrived at the summit for the past 3 hours.

              b. #I have written a history of Nepal for the past six years.

    This correlation between situation type and “sense” of the perfect is clearly an important fact which any analysis needs to account for; but by itself it does not necessarily prove that the perfect is polysemous. We have already seen several cases where a single sense of a tense or aspect marker gives rise to different interpretations with different situation types (Aktionsart), so this is a possibility that we should consider with the perfect as well. Here we leave our discussion of the English perfect, in order to examine the uses of the perfect in two other languages.


    5 Example (16c) is from Chomsky (1970).

    6 Kiparsky (2002).

    7 Jespersen also points out that topicality can affect the use of the perfect: “Thus we may say: Newton has explained the movements of the moon (i.e. in a way that is still known or thought to be correct, while Newton explained the movements of the moon from the attraction of the earth would imply that the explanation has since been given up). On the other hand, we must use the preterit in Newton believed in an omnipotent God, because we are not thinking of any effect his belief may have on the present age” (Jespersen 1931: 66). The “effect on the present age” is relevant because the Topic Time of the present perfect is the time of speaking. Topicality also seems to be responsible for the contrast which Chomsky (1970) noted between Einstein has visited Princeton, which seems to imply that Einstein is still alive, vs. Princeton has been visited by Einstein, which can still be felicitous after Einstein’s death.

    8 Kiparsky (2002).

    9 See also Comrie (1976), Klein (2009).


    22.4: Arguments for polysemous aspectual senses of the English Perfect is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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