Dec 13, 2017 in Education

Tense and Aspect System in English and Arabic


This paper aims to study aspect and tense achievement among indigenous Arabic students who are learning English as a second language, L2. The main purpose of the paper is to give a clear picture of aspect and tense structure in both Arabic and English. The paper is divided into four parts. Characterization of aspect and tense makes distinct lexical, grammatical, tense and time-tense aspects of the English language. The second scrutinizes aspect and tense schemes in Arabic and English, and a comparative analysis is presented and supported with several examples. The third division explores role of language transfer on the attainment of L2, illustrates theories and forecasts that occur in case of Arabic English L2 learner attaining aspect and tense. The fourth part evaluates the Aspect Hypothesis relating to Arabic and English. The paper aims to expose the challenges of learning English as a second language as opposed to learning it as a first language. The subjects here are Arabic students.


In learning English, Arabic speakers encounter grammatical problems that arise when interpreting tenses. To understand the differences between the languages, learners need to comprehensively understand the Arabic context in which the verb form occurs. This enables one to choose a suitable tense for the form.

The perfective and imperfective elements of both English and Arabic have similar semantic interpretations, the aspectual markings on achievements. Both languages have grammatical aspects with English having four while Arabic has three. The English grammatical aspects are further sub-divided into sub-categories.

Scholars have advanced towards the difficult areas of aspect and tense, which symbolize a rich topic for them with slightly varying terminological methods. What is labelled by conventional grammarians as different types of ‘tense’ is divided into two separate categories by contemporary linguists, which are: Tense, which is only concerned with WHEN something took place or was the issue; Aspect, which is to do with features such as completeness and duration of proceedings or circumstances of affairs (Hogeweg, Helen & Hoop, 122).

1. Tense

Comrie defined tense as “grammatical expression of time”. It has been defined in a number of ways within the text. It is defined by Jespersen (1962:1) as “the linguistic expression of time-relations, so far as they are designated in the form of verbs”. Cook (1981:83) describes tense as "a semantic category which indicates present, past, or future time'.

1.1 Tense Distinctions

 English has two tenses as exemplified by: she takes, she took, she likes she liked. These are plausibly referred to as the ‘past’ and ‘present’. Other categories of verbs such as the progressive and the perfect amongst others are attained by the utilization of the auxiliaries have and be(Lyons, 1977:678; Nasr, 1963:54; Quirk et al, 1972:84; Smith, 1978):

  • past (read)
  • present (reads)

Lyons (1968:306) suggested that this tense distinction is best regarded as a contrast of 'past' versus 'non-past':       

Moreover, Quirk et al (1972:87) argue that "there is no obvious future tense in English corresponding to the time/tense parallel for present and past".

1.2 Tense and Time

Tense are used to create sense of time. I am sitting (now), she cried (past), she has been crying (continuously) She will cry (the future). Depending on the time aspect it is intended, tenses take many forms (King, 1983:102; Leech, 1971:1; Quirk et al, 1972:58):

- It can refer to future (King, 1983:102; Quirk el al, 1972):

1. (a) School starts tomorrow.

(b) If you call me, I will tell you about the party.

- It can refer to past event (Mazyad, 31):

2. Aspect

The expression “aspect” delegates the perception made on the interior sequential constitution of circumstances, and thus “aspects” differentiate various ways of observing the interior sequential organisation of the same circumstances (Comrie,3: Bybee, 157). Aspect is situation- interior and is not deictic, as it is not involved in the relation of time of circumstances to another time position. Aspects can be communicated lexically by the lexical semantics of the verb that are innate as well as its   contact with indirect and direct differences and adjuncts also known as lexical aspect, or morphosyntactically by the use of verbal conclusions and periphrastic structures, referred to as view point aspect or grammatical aspect(Shirai & Salaberry 2002), 

2.1 Lexical Aspect

Also named ‘situational aspect’ (Smith, 1983, 1997). This is furthermore referred to as innate aspect, circumstantial aspect and VP aspect. It makes reference to the innate semantic aspects of a verb. The most popular categorization of verbs whose basis is their intrinsic characteristics is initiated by Vendler (1957) in which verbs may be classified into attainment, achievement, state and activity.

Semantic Features of Vendler Lexical Aspectual Categories

2.2 Grammatical Aspect

Grammatical aspect makes reference to the methods in which the chronological aspects of a situation are observed autonomous of its being related to any particular reference time (Bickel, 1997, Comrie, 1976; Robison, 1995, Smith, 1983,1997) Therefore , it is used to refer to non- tense differentiation articulated by grammatical indicators such as inflections or auxiliaries (Andersen, 1991: 308, Bertinetto, 1994: 392; Shirai and Andersen, 1995: 744):

 (a) masha           Ahmad          i1a       al-madrasati

went-PERF                  Ahmad-NOM             to-PREP                      the-school-GEN

“Ahmad walked to school”.

    (b) kaana     Ahmad yamshii ila  al-madrasati

was-PERF-aux            Ahmad-NOM             walk-IMPERF to-PREP          the-school-GEN

“Ahmad was walking to school”.

    (c) masha     Ahmadun         fi  al muntazahi

walked- PERF Ahmad-NOM  in-PREP the-park-GEN

“Ahmad walked in the park”.

(a) illustrates a total event that has an objective, or usual ending, and the information that the objective was achieved (perfective). (b) shows an element of the same sort of occurrence, but does not inform that the objective was achieved. However, it is implied that the occurrence was taking place with no information about its start or completion, leaving uncertainty about its end (imperfective). (c) shows an entire occurrence that does not include an objective, and the information that the event was completed. Therefore, the endpoint of the occurrence is subjective rather than innate (imperfective). Consequently grammatical aspect provides a full view in both (a) and (c), but only a limited view in (b).  Thus, in both languages the perfective aspect observes a situation in its totality with a start and finish, while the imperfective observes only a fraction of a circumstance with no endpoint.

3. Tense and Aspect in English

Tense-aspect structure in English includes two morphologically distinguished tenses, past and present. There is no existing indicator of a future tense on the verb in English; an event’s futurity may be disclosed by the use of auxiliary verbs  “shall” and “will”, by a form that is present, as in “we go to Newark tomorrow”, or in some other way (Alzaidi, 25).  The two forms of aspects are also known as BE + ING and HAVE + EN, correspondingly, which prevents use of what may be unfamiliar vocabulary

The following sentences are used to illustrate the facts

(a) I was going to school when I met the old lady

            (Speaker viewpoint in middle of action)

(b) Though I have travelled all over the world, I have never been to China

            (Speaker viewpoint at end of action)

Tenses may also have other supplementary and illocutionary forces in their modal components. For example:

           (a) You are being silly now. (You are doing it deliberately)

            (b) You are not having chocolate with your eggs! (I forbid it)

            (c) I am having lunch with Irene tomorrow. (It is decided)

In English other aspectual differences are articulated with different constructions. A past habitual is Used to + VERB, as in the case of “I used to go to town”, while going to /gonna + VERB is seen to be a prospective, a future circumstance giving prominence to a present objective or anticipation, as in “I’m going to go to London next year” (Modality, 24).

It is important to note that aspectual structures of some dialects of English for example African-American fist language English and that of the Creoles that originated from English vocabulary like the Hawaiian Creole English are different compared to Standard English (Lyons 23).

In Arabic, tense and aspect are expressed as either perfect or imperfect. Perfect tense is called Almadi while the imperfect tense is called Almudari. The disparity between Arabic perfectiveness and imperfectiveness is not however a sole aspect.

Suffixation is used to differentiate perfective tense and prefixation is used to differentiate a brad range of prefixes and suffixes (Binnick, 78). Variations of first, second and third persons exist to denote singular, dual and plural forms of the person and to distinguish between genders. 

4.1 Grammatical Aspects in Arabic

Arabic verbs have two major grammatical aspects, perfective and imperfective aspects. Almadi (past verb) shows events that have already taken places. However it does not factor in the relationships that exist. Wasala means ‘he arrived.’ It does not indicate a past event with reference to a current event. However, it is more of an aspect marker (Ouided, 35). The aspect in this regard is in consideration of the sequence of the past tense.

The verb of similarity (Almudari’) in Arabic language is referred by this name due to its resemblance to the active participial noun. It is considered to denote the event in the future or the present without committing a particular aspectual sense that go beyond the incompleteness suggested by the tense.

 Yaktubu means will write/ is writing/ writes

4.2 Aspectual Arabic

McCarus's (1976) claimed that Arabic verbs are said to behave in much the same way as their English counterparts. Vendler (1967) and Dowty (1972) aspectual classes are similar to the Arabic ones. McCarus's (1976) classification is based on potential progressive meaning in the Imperfect and the range of possible meanings of the active participle.

Some of the Arabic words are translated below:

            Verb                                                               Participle

            wasi’a/yasa’u               'be spacious'                waasi’ 'spacious'

            ba’uda/yab’udu                        'be distant'                    ba’iid 'distant'

            hasuna’/yahsunu           'be good'                      hasan 'good'

            sa’uba’/yas’ubu                       'be difficult'                   sa’b 'difficult                                                    

4.2.3 Acts

Like their English counterparts, act verbs in Arabic are processes that have a terminus or an implied goal. They may have progressive meaning in the Imperfect but only perfective meaning in the active participle (Suleiman, 72):

12. albintaani             taktubaani                        risaalatan

the-girl-dual-NOM    write-IMP-dual-fem        letter-ACC

‘The two girls are writing a letter’.

13. al-bintaani           katibataani                         risaalatan

the girl-dual              write-A.PART-dual-fem    letter-ACC

‘The two girls writing a letter’

‘The two girls have written a letter’.

4.2.4 Achievements

Achievements are instantaneous events that result in a change and have inherent endpoints

14. (a)   darabat                                  al korata

             kicked-PERF-3fsg      the-ball-ACC

            'She kicked the ball'.

      (b)   kasara                                    alzujaja

             crushed-PERF-3msg  the-glass-ACC

            'He crushed the glass'.

Suleiman (1999) claims that it is a prominent tendency among elementary-and-intermediate-level Arab learners of English to mark [+punctual] and [+telic] achievement verbs with PAST form neglecting the target tense.

4.2.5 Accomplishments

Accomplishments in Arabic, as in English, involve features of activity aspect with an 'incremental theme' (Dowty, 56; Tenny, 29). The incremental theme includes a direct object or a goal, which measures out the event described by an activity verb (Suleiman, 75):

15. (a)    karaa‘                                   ams

             read-PERF-3msg       yesterday

            ‘He read yesterday’.

     (b)   karaa‘                         kitaban             ams

            read-PERF-3msg        book-ACC      yesterday

           ‘He read a book yesterday’.

In (a), the predicate is activity aspect, whereas in (b) it is accomplishment aspect. The direct object kitaban ‘book’ measures out the event described by the activity verb karaa, thus the inherent lexical aspect is changed from activity in (a) to accomplishment in (b).

Suleiman (1999) argues that accomplishments in Arabic, like achievement verbs, have inhere endpoints, and are therefore [telic], but they are different in that accomplishments are durative; they are [-punctual]. Moreover, both achievements and accomplishments in Arabic are compatible with past tense and progressive markings. (Suleiman, 32)

5. Contrastive Analysis of Tense and Aspect in English and Arabic

Gass & Selinker (1994, 59): “Contrastive analysis is a way of comparing languages in order to determine potentiel errors for the ultimate purpose of isolating what needs to be learned and what does not need to be in a second language learning situation.”

An example in English is provided, as well as its Arabic equivalent:

16. He drank tea every day last week.

Kaana yashrabu alshaya kula yawmin  alusbua al maadi

was-PERF-aux-3msg  drink-IMP-3msg the-tea-ACC everyday last week

'He was drinking tea every day last week'.

Moreover, verb forms in Arabic are used to articulate purposes varying to those of their counterparts. Therefore, not less than two verbal forms in Arabic are used to express a verbal form in English. (Lado,  46). In this sense, it is argued by Ellis (299) that the complication of   learning a new language relies on the distance between the target language and the primary language. In the case that the two languages are quite similar, learning is aided; where they are very distant from each other, learning is impeded. This view is subscribed to by Corder (1967).  This out of date system of transfer is replaced by an inventive one, as proposed by Vainikka and Young-Scholten (1994), who assert that  what is transferred in early phases of L2 achievement are just lexical classes as well as their projections, but not functional classes.

6. Aspect Hypothesis

Does studying English as a second language have aspectual properties on a learner ? The Aspect Hypothesis (AH) proposes that a verbs lexical, or inherent aspect affects how L2 users assign tense to it. Andersen (1989); Bardovi-Harlig (1994, 1998); Andersen & Shirai (1994, 1996); Li & Shirai (2000) have researched the effect of lexical aspect on acquisition of second language tense system. Lexical aspect is the aspectual properties which are not characterized by derivational morphology or which are not characterized morphologically.

The aspect hypothesis grammatical morphology in the course of a learner (Klein et al, 2) or the emergence of past-tense verbal morphology is guided by lexical aspect of verb predicates.

6.1 Aspect Hypothesis in relation to English and Arabic

Previous research on the Aspect Hypothesis (AH) revealed that second language or L2 learners are responsive to lexical aspect when utilizing grammatical indicators, correlating perfective-past indication with telic verbs, and atelic verbs with imperfective past marking ( Andersen, 1991; Andersen & Shirai, 1994). However, it is disclosed by some studies that in the primary phases of learning, L2 learners may allocate a default past tense form for all lexical aspect classes, signifying that new learners may not at first be confined to the AH (e.g., Salaberry, 1999).


This paper presents an uncomplicated effort to reveal more about tense and aspect in both languages. At this point two major issues particularly draw attention; firstly the function and effect of language transfer, and secondly aspect hypothesis and its legitimacy to Arab L2 learners.

Tense and Aspect in both languages (English and Arabic) have been analyzed comparatively. It was suggested that the concept of time is universal, while tense is not (Suleiman, 123). Grammatical aspect and inherent lexical aspect were also analyzed. Grammatical aspect, or viewpoint aspect in Smith's (1983, 1997) terms “the way the speaker views the temporal features of a situation independent of its relation to any reference time”.

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