The role of perfective aspect in the interpretation of NPs


Ewa Rudnicka-Mosiądz (Wrocław )


In natural languages noun phrases (NPs) may refer to kinds as well as to particular objects or individuals. Carlson (1977) was the first to argue for the universal (generic) interpretation of NPs in the former case and the existential (non-generic) one in the latter. The growth of interest in these issues has been at least partially due to many cases of ambiguity between the two readings. Therefore, linguists have always struggled to discover and formulate criteria that would allow to distinguish between the two uses of the same NP. It has been noticed from the very beginning that the reading of NPs is as much dependent on the features of their morphosyntax, like case or definiteness, for instance, as on the morphosyntactic properties of their verbal predicates such as tense, progressivity, and aspect (cf. Carlson 1977, Dahl 1995, Krifka 1995, Delfitto 1998).


In this paper we are going to demonstrate that there are systematic correlations between temporal and aspectual properties of  predicates and the universal vs. existential interpretations of their subject NPs. Krifka et al (1995: 12) note that the progressive form of the English VP gives rise to the existential interpretation of  the subject NP (cf. (1), their (27c)).


(1) Italians are drinking wine.

   (x;y[x are Italians; y is wine & x drink y]


We will claim that in Polish it is the perfective aspect that forces the existential reading of  subject NP (cf. (2) and (3)).


(2) Włosi       wypiją                   wino .

Italians     drink-FUT-PERF  wine

'Italians will drink wine.'

       (x;y[x are Italians; y is wine & x will drink y]

    (3)  Włosi       wypili                    wino.

Italians     drink-PAST-PERF   wine

'Italians have drunk wine.'

            (x;y[x  are Italians; y is wine & x have drunk y]


We are going to defend the hypothesis of minimal marking tendency first postulated by Dahl (1995: 415), and then also argued for by Delfitto (1998: 1), who asserts that "...natural languages exhibit a sort of minimal marking tendency in generic contexts, that is, temporal and aspectual markers tend to be reduced to a minimum when predicates are interpreted generically." Progressive is clearly the marked member of the progressive /non-progressive pair in English, while it is generally assumed (cf. Binnick 1991: 52) that it is  perfective which  is the marked member of the aspectual pair in Slavic. Our data support the minimal marking tendency, since in both English and Polish marked forms of VPs restrict the interpretation of their subject NPs to the existential (that is non-generic) one. On the other hand, the minimal marking tendency explains otherwise highly unexpected pairing of  progressive and perfective forms. Semantically progressive shows the affinity with imperfective, while perfective with non-progressive.


Our observation brings in additional piece of evidence in favor of the belief that the interpretation of NPs depends as much on their own properties as on the ones of their VPs.  It also supports the idea of the cross-linguistic minimal marking  tendency in generic contexts encouraging further studies of the interpretation of NPs at the syntax-semantics interface.




Binnick, R.I. 1991. Time and the Verb. A Guide to  Tense and Aspect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Carlson, G. 1977. "A Unified Analysis of the English Bare Plural." Linguistics &Philosophy.


Dahl, O. 1995. "The Marking of the Episodic/Generic Distinction in Tense-Aspect Systems." In G. Carlson and J. Pelletier. eds. The Generic Book. Chicago.


Delfitto, D. 1998. Aspect, Genericity and Bare Plurals. Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS.

Krifka, M. et al. 1995."Genericity: an introduction." In G. Carlson and J. Pelletier. eds. The Generic Book. Chicago.