In linguistics, the grammatical aspect of a verb is a grammatical category that defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in a given action, event, or state (in a given situation). Commonly the distinction is in how the speaker views the situation, either as unitary and bounded ("I ate") or as on-going and unbounded ("I was eating"): The distinction here is not in the situation itself, but in the speaker's portrayal of it. Other common aspectual distinctions include whether the situation is repetitive or habitual ("I used to eat") or has continuing relevance ("I have eaten"). Any one language will have at most a subset of the attested aspectual distinctions made in the world's languages.
Aspect can be a difficult concept to convey and understand intuitively. Because they both convey some sense of time, aspect is often confused with the closely-related concept of tense. While tense relates the time of a situation to some other time, commonly the time of speaking, aspect conveys other temporal information, such as duration, completion, or frequency, as it relates to the time of action. Thus tense refers to temporally when while aspect refers to temporally how. Aspect can be said to describe the texture of the time in which a situation occurs, such as a single point of time, a continuous range of time, a sequence of discrete points in time, etc, whereas tense indicates its location in time.
The concept of aspect is best illustrated by example. Consider the following sentences: "I eat", "I am eating", "I have eaten", and "I have been eating". All are to some degree in the present tense, as they describe the present situation, yet each conveys different information or points of view as to how the action pertains to the present. As such, they differ in aspect.
Grammatical aspect is a formal property of a language, distinguished through overt inflection, derivational affixes, or independent words that serve as grammatically required markers of those aspects. For example, the K'iche' language spoken in Guatemala has the inflectional prefixes k- and x- to mark incompletive and completive aspect; Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, zài-, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative stative, durative progressive, and experiential aspects, and also marks aspect with adverbs; and English marks the continuous aspect with the verb to be coupled with present participle and the perfect with the verb to have coupled with past participle. Even languages that do not mark aspect morphologically or through auxiliary verbs, however, can convey such distinctions by the use of adverbs or other syntactic constructions.
Grammatical aspect is distinguished from lexical aspect or aktionsart, which is an inherent feature of verbs or verb phrases and is determined by the nature of the situation that the verb describes.
Grammatical aspect may have been first dealt with in the work of the Indian linguist Yaska (ca. 7th century BCE), who distinguished actions that are processes (bhāva), from those where the action is considered as a completed whole (mūrta). This is the key distinction between the imperfective and perfective. Yaska also applies this distinction to a verb versus an action nominal.
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