Definition and Examples of Aspect in English Grammar

aspect in grammar
In sentence (a), the activity is ongoing and incomplete. That's the progressive aspect. In sentence (b), the activity has been completed. That's the perfect aspect.

Richard Nordquist

In English grammar, aspect is a verb form (or category) that indicates time-related characteristics, such as the completion, duration, or repetition of an action. (Compare and contrast with tense.) When used as an adjective, it's aspectual. The word comes from Latin, meaning "how [something] looks"

The two primary aspects in English are the perfect (sometimes called perfective) and the progressive (also known as the continuous form). As illustrated below, these two aspects may be combined to form the perfect progressive.

In English, aspect is expressed by means of particles, separate verbs, and verb phrases.

Examples and Observations

Perfect Aspect
The perfect aspect describes events occurring in the past but linked to a later time, usually the present. The perfect aspect is formed with has, have, or had + the past participle. It occurs in two forms:​

Perfect Aspect, Present Tense:
"History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created."
(William Morris, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, 1897)​

Perfect Aspect, Past Tense:
"At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice."

(Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969)

Progressive Aspect
The progressive aspect usually describes an event that takes place during a limited time period. The progressive aspect is made up of a form of be + the -ing form of the main verb.​

Progressive Aspect, Present Tense:
"She's loyal and is trying to wear her thin flippy hair in cornrows."
(Carolyn Ferrell, "Proper Library," 1994)

Progressive Aspect, Past Tense:
"I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything."

(Steven Wright)

The Difference Between Tense and Aspect
"Traditionally . . . both aspects [perfect and progressive] are treated as part of the tense system in English, and mention is made of tenses such as the present progressive (e.g. We are waiting), the present perfect progressive (e.g. We have been waiting), and the past perfect progressive (e.g. We had been waiting), with the latter two combining two aspects. There is a distinction to be made, however, between tense and aspect. Tense is concerned with how time is encoded in the grammar of English, and is often based on morphological form (e.g. write, writes, wrote); aspect is concerned with the unfolding of a situation, and in English is a matter of syntax, using the verb be to form the progressive, and the verb have to form the perfect. For this reason combinations like those above are nowadays referred to as constructions (e.g. the progressive construction, the present perfect progressive construction)."

(Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

present perfect progressive: God knows how long I've been doing it. Have I been talking out loud?

past perfect progressive: He had been keeping it in a safety deposit box at the Bank of America. For months she had been waiting for that particular corner location.

Present Perfect Progressive and Past Perfect Progressive
"The perfect aspect most often describes events or states taking place during a preceding time. The progressive aspect describes an event or state of affairs in progress or continuing. Perfect and progressive aspect can be combined with either present or past tense...Verb phrases can be marked for both aspects (perfect and progressive) at the same time: The perfect progressive aspect is rare, occurring usually in the past tense in fiction. It combines the meaning of the perfect and the progressive, referring to a past situation or activity that was in progress for a period of time."

(Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman, 2002)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Aspect in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Aspect in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Aspect in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).