telicity (verbs)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Woman crossing the finish line at a race.

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In linguistics, telicity is the aspectual property of a verb phrase (or of the sentence as a whole) which indicates that an action or event has a clear endpoint. Also known as aspectual boundedness.

A verb phrase presented as having an endpoint is said to be telic. In contrast, a verb phrase that is not presented as having an endpoint is said to be atelic.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "end, goal"

Examples and Observations

"Telic verbs include fall, kick, and make (something). These verbs contrast with atelic verbs, where the event has no such natural end-point, as with play (in such a context as the children are playing)." —David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 4th ed. Blackwell, 1997

Testing for Telicity
"One reliable test to distinguish between telic and atelic verb phrases is to try using the gerund form of the verb phrase as direct object of complete or finish, which refer to the natural point of completion of an action. Only telic verb phrases can be used in this way. . . .

['What did you do last night?'] - 'I finished {repairing the roof / *repairing}.' (Repair the roof is a telic VP while repair is atelic.)
It was 11:30 p.m. when I completed {writing the report / *writing}. (Write the report is a telic VP while write is atelic.)
He {stopped / *finished / *completed} being their leader in 1988. (Be their leader is an atelic VP.)

Unlike finish and complete, the verb stop refers to an arbitrary endpoint. It can therefore be followed by an atelic verb phrase. If it is followed by a telic one, stop is by implicature interpreted as referring to a provisional endpoint preceding the natural point of completion:

I stopped reading the book at five. (implicates that I had not finished reading the book when I stopped reading it)"

(Renaat Declerck in cooperation with Susan Reed and Bert Cappelle, The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006)

Verb Meaning and Telicity

"Because telicity is so dependent on clausal elements besides the verb, it could be debated whether it is represented in verb meaning at all. In order to explore that debate, let's start by comparing watch and eat. Examples (35) and (36) provide a minimal pair, in that the only element that differs in the two sentences is the verb.

(35) I watched a fish. [Atelic-Activity]
(36) I ate a fish. [Telic-Accomplishment]

Since the sentence with watch is atelic and the sentence with eat is telic, it seems we must conclude that the verb is responsible for the (a)telicity of the sentence in these cases, and that watch is by its nature atelic. However, that easy conclusion is complicated by the fact that telic situations can also be described with watch:

(37) I watched a film. [Telic-Accomplishment]

The key to whether each of these situations is telic or not is in the second argument--the verb's object. In the atelic watch example (35) and the telic eat example (36), the arguments look identical. Go a little deeper, however, and the arguments do not seem so similar. When one eats a fish, one eats its physical body. When one watches a fish, it is more than the physical body of the fish that is relevant--one watches a fish doing something, even if all it is doing is existing. That is, when one watches, one watches not a thing, but a situation. If the situation that is watched is telic (e.g. the playing of a film), then so is the watching situation. If the watched situation is not telic (e.g. the existence of a fish), then neither is the watching situation. So, we cannot conclude that watch itself is telic or atelic, but we can conclude that the semantics of watch tell us that it has situation argument, and the the watching activity is coextensive with . . . the argument's situation. . . .
"Many verbs are like this—their telicity is directly influenced by the boundedness or telicity of their arguments, and so we must conclude that those verbs themselves are unspecified for telicity." —M. Lynne Murphy, Lexical Meaning. Cambridge University Press, 2010

"Telicity in the strict sense clearly is an aspectual property which is not purely or even primarily lexical." —Rochelle Lieber, Morphology and Lexical Semantics. Cambridge University Press, 2004

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Nordquist, Richard. "telicity (verbs)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). telicity (verbs). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "telicity (verbs)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).