Passing grammar notes: Comrie (1976) on tense and aspect

These are just some passing thoughts—nothing serious or revolutionary—on Bernard Comrie’s little monograph on aspect.

1. On the introduction

From the perspective of what’s been said in Koine Greek grammar, two points could be made. The language about temporality and time with reference to the verbal system is problematic for those who have rejected the category of tense. That is to say, it is often characterized in terms of time not being grammaticalized, rather than characterized as tense not being grammaticalized. But Comrie’s definition of aspect (which is extremely standard for the category) is quite explicit on this point. Time is not tense. Both aspect and tense are temporal. Both involve time. Regardless of whether one accepts tense in Greek as grammaticalized or not is irrelevant.[1] To say that time is not grammaticalized is inaccurate, distracting and wrongheaded.

Additionally, Comrie clearly fall into the camp of linguists who view the category of aktionsart as being quite distinct from the category of aspect. This is not discussed at length in the introduction, but I do look forward to his discussion of this issue later on in the book.

2. On the main body

Chapter one surveys the basic terminology of aspect and is extremely helpful. I confess that it has been a while since I last read this monograph and have, up to this read through, generally recommended that Comrie’s book was too dated to be viewed as a useful introduction today. So I was surprised and pleased to be corrected and reminded of just how well of a job Comrie does at dealing with these issues.

Things get a little complicated with Comrie’s discussion of the term punctual and durative in chapter two. These are terms used in the old Greek grammars of the past couple centuries. Comrie describes these terms are distinct from perfective and imperfective and this fact is likely to cause confusion to those familiar with older grammatical works, where the terms are essentially synonymous much of the time. I’m not so sure that the old grammarians used such terms in the manner that Comrie defines them. At the same time, Comrie’s discussions of telicity and the difference between stativity and dynamicity in this chapter are simply a delight to read.

Chapter three discusses the meaning of the perfect and assumes a purely aspectual approach. Comrie does not seem to allow for the possibility of a perfect form to only be tense, rather than aspect. Notably, Porter’s discussion of the Greek perfect seems to flow directly out of Comrie’s. In fact, overall, having now read Verbal Aspect several times now, there is little in Comrie’s monograph that doesn’t somehow continue in Porter’s dissertation. It appears that while there are only a handful of actual citations to Comrie (its hard to know for sure how many with the lack of a author index) in Verbal Aspect, the spirit of Comrie’s work permeates the entirety of the work. On a number of occasions, I can directly see Comrie’s ideas being developed and built on in Porter, almost as if it was precisely the reading of Aspect that drove him to write on the subject for Greek. And again, nowhere is this more evident than in Comrie’s chapter on the Perfect. It should be emphasizes that this is most definitely not a bad thing. It is rather useful way to find a thesis/dissertation topic and Comrie is a very good place to start. It would be useful if there were more Koine Greek dissertations that had such beginnings. I’ve said a couple times that if anyone wanted to write descriptive linguistic thesis or dissertation, they would do well to simply choose a chapter from a Timothy Shopen’s three volume set: Language Typology and Syntactic Description.

[1] For the record, I view Ancient Greek as having tense and have found arguments to contrary, thus far, quite unconvincing.