Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Aspectual Asymmetries in the Mental Representation of Events: Role of Lexical and Grammatical Aspect

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Aspectual Asymmetries in the Mental Representation of Events: Role of Lexical and Grammatical Aspect

Article excerpt

Temporal information is important in the construction of situation models, and many languages make use of perfective and imperfective aspect markers to distinguish between completed situations (e.g., He made a cake) and ongoing situations (e.g., He is making a cake). Previous studies in which the effect of grammatical aspect has been examined have shown that perfective sentences are often processed more quickly than imperfective ones (e.g., Chan, Yap, Shirai, & Matthews, 2004; Madden & Zwaan, 2003; Yap et al., 2004; Yap et al., 2006). However, these studies used only accomplishment verbs (i.e., verbs with an inherent endpoint, such as bake a cake). The present study on the processing of Cantonese includes activity verbs (i.e., durative verbs with no inherent endpoint, such as play the piano), and the results indicate a strong interaction between lexical aspect (i.e., verb type) and grammatical aspect. That is, perfective sentences were processed more quickly with accomplishment verbs, consistent with previous findings, but imperfective sentences were processed more quickly with activity verbs. We suggest that these different aspectual asymmetries emerge as a result of the inherent associations between accomplishment verbs and the bounded features of perfective aspect and between activity verbs and the unbounded features of imperfective aspect. The sentence stimuli from this study may be downloaded from

We construct situation models as we listen to narratives, using various cues such as temporal and spatial information, agent intentionality, and causality, among many others (e.g., Ferretti, Kutas, & McRae, 2007; Morrow, 1985, 1990; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). With respect to temporal information, aspectual cues (e.g., the -ed vs. -ing contrast in sentences such as She knitted a sweater vs. She was knitting a sweater) are known to play a very important role in cognitive representations (e.g., Carreiras, Carriedo, Alonso, & Fernández, 1997; Givón, 1992; Hopper, 1979; Magliano & Schleich, 2000). However, previous processing studies have not always clearly distinguished between lexical and grammatical aspect. In the present study, we will highlight their differences and examine how they interact in the course of sentence processing.

Two Types of Aspect

Aspect refers to different ways of viewing the temporal characteristics of a situation (Comrie, 1976). There are two major types of aspect: lexical and grammatical aspect. Lexical aspect refers to situation types denoted in the verb (phrase) that are distinguished on the basis of temporal properties, such as dynamism, durativity, and telicity. Dynamism contrasts with stativity and is defined in terms of whether or not energy is needed to maintain a given situation. Durativity contrasts with instantaneity and is defined in terms of how long or how briefly a situation persists. Telicity is defined in terms of whether an event involves a natural endpoint. If a verb is not telic, it is atelic.

Vendler (1967) distinguished four major lexical aspect categories, or verb types, which can be defined with these three features (see Table 1). A stative verb (e.g., love) describes a nondynamic situation that is viewed as continuing to exist unless some external force makes it change. An activity verb (e.g., run) describes a dynamic and durative situation that has an arbitrary endpoint (i.e., it can be terminated at any time). In contrast, an accomplishment verb (e.g., make a chair) describes a situation that is dynamic and durative but has a natural endpoint involving a change of state, after which the particular action cannot continue. Finally, an achievement verb (e.g., die) describes a situation that can be reduced to a point on a time axis (i.e., it is instantaneous and punctual).

Grammatical aspect refers to grammaticalized linguistic devices, often in the form of inflections and/or auxiliaries (e. …

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