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Vivid narrative use and the present perfect in spoken Australian English


Abstract and Figures

This article examines the use of the present perfect (PP) in Australian English using a corpus of stories told during radio chat-show programs and news reports. We find that the PP is used (i) as a narrative tense in spoken texts both with and without narrative present (NarPres); (ii) in sequences of clauses expressing temporal progression; and (iii) with some definite temporal adverbials denoting past time. Such uses are either unusual or unacceptable in other English varieties. A systematic comparison of contexts where NarPres and narrative PP are used in oral narratives reveals that the PP replaces the NarPres predominantly with verbs denoting events. Usage in news reports, where the narrative interpretation is not possible, suggests that a temporal ambiguity exists in the current interpretation of PP sentences. Analysis of lexical aspect shows that the majority of verbs used in the narrative PP are both durative and contain a process part, a fact that helps explain the sense of vividness achieved. At the discourse level, use of the PP enables the speaker to present situations as tightly connected. Such extensions in usage show a possible path for change for a category that is known to be historically unstable in its meaning
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Marie-Eve A. Ritz & Dulcie M. Engel
1. Introduction
‘English would be richer if this were possible [to say *they’ve come last Monday],
for as it is, we cannot in a single phrase combine the two pieces of information
about (i) their arrival at a specific time in the past and (ii) the current relevance of
this’ (Palmer, 1968: 75, cited in McCoard, 1978: 68).
In this paper, we explore the use of the present perfect (PP) in Australian
English, a variety that has become ‘richer’ in Palmer’s sense, as the present
perfect (PP) is being used in contexts where other varieties of English would
prefer a simple past (SP). Our data includes PP usage (i) as a narrative tense in
spoken texts both with and without narrative present (NarPres); (ii) in sequences
of clauses expressing temporal progression; (iii) with some definite temporal
adverbials (including adverbial clauses) denoting past time.
While we find use of the SP or the NarPres in all the above contexts in other
English varieties, use of the PP is not normally considered acceptable in (ii) and
(iii) and is unusual in (i) without NarPres. The present paper explores such uses
in detail, arguing that they have arisen out of widespread narrative usage of the
PP leading to ambiguities in the interpretation of sentences that contain it. To
make the case and to better reveal the semantics of the PP in Australian English,
we make explicit comparison between the NarPres and PP in narrative uses,
comparing their distribution with adverbs and in sequences expressing temporal
progression. We also examine narrative uses of the PP in relation to lexical
aspect, and find that the greatest majority of verbs contain a process part (i.e.
they are either activities or accomplishments). Analysis of such verb types in the
PP in discourse enables us to show how a ‘vivid narrative’ effect comes about.
Ultimately, this investigation of temporal and aspectual characteristics of the
Australian PP allows us to propose an explanation for its current uses.
We have used the term ‘vivid narrative use’ to describe devices that are intended
to locate hearers in a virtual present or to make them virtual observers of a
virtual present speech event. Indeed, many of our examples come from chat-
show programs on the radio: while the radio as a medium is limited in that it
cannot replay an action or situation in front of our eyes, narrative recounts in the
context of a chat-show program often strive to achieve a ‘verbal replay’. As
performers are keen to achieve an effect, they are hence more likely to make use
of devices that attract and sustain their listeners’ attention. The performers here
include both radio presenters and members of the public who phoned the radio
stations to tell their stories.
Our discussion will also (but to a lesser extent) include examples that have been
taken from radio news bulletins and police media releases, where we expect a
type of language that is more carefully planned (sharing features with both
written and spoken language; see Engel, 1999 for a discussion), and spoken
quotes transcribed in newspaper articles.
Before examining examples taken from these different sources, we start, in
section 2, by briefly reviewing theories that have proposed a representation of
the meaning of the standard (British) English PP as well as research that has
addressed the question of the differences between the PP and perfects in other
European languages. The latter has led to some possible explanations for the
variety of uses that can be found across languages, and to theories addressing the
question of the historical evolution of perfects. All this is relevant for the
phenomenon we are investigating.
Section 3 presents a temporal analysis of the different uses of the Australian PP:
in section 3.1, we start with an overview of the distribution of tenses in our
narratives corpus; in section 3.2, we present a set of examples all illustrating
narrative usage of the PP, and progressively departing from conventional usage;
in section 3.3, we look at PP usage in sequences expressing temporal progression
with and without explicit marking of such progression; in section 3.4, we discuss
the use of the PP in temporal clauses, and some combinations with past locating
adverbs. All these contexts reveal an extension in the range of uses of the PP. In
section 4, we examine the significant role played by lexical aspect in the
phenomenon under investigation, and show how both temporal and aspectual
factors combine to produce the effect intended by speakers. We conclude with an
analysis of a slightly longer text to discuss the role played by other tenses and
contextual elements in relation to narrative PP usage.
2. The semantics and pragmatics of perfects
Before presenting our Australian data, it will be useful to review theories that
have proposed representations of the meaning of perfects in English and in other
languages. We will briefly review the relevant literature here.
Early research on the English PP ascribes four different meanings to it (Mc
Cawley 1971, 1981, Comrie 1976): (i) The universal perfect or perfect of
‘persistent situation’ (as in ‘I have lived here for ten years’); (ii) the existential or
experiential perfect (as in ‘John has been to Alice Springs’); (iii) the perfect of
result or stative perfect (as in ‘Joanne has gone out’); (iv) The perfect of recent
past or ‘hot news’ perfect (as in ‘I’ve just spoken to James: he will come to the
Theories were developed in order to give a representation of the perfect that
could include all these types (see Mc Coard,1978, and Binnick, 1991, for detailed
presentations of these theories).
Current theories are still divided as to how the PP should be best represented:
Reichenbach’s (1947) analysis is still considered useful in capturing the unique
meaning of the PP, especially as it contrasts with simple tenses. In this
framework, the PP is differentiated from the simple past (SP) and the present on
the basis of the position of the event time (E), the reference time (R) and the
speech time (S) on the temporal axis. In the case of the PP, E precedes R and S
which are co-temporal (E – R,S), whereas in the case of the SP, E and R are co-
temporal and precede S (E,R – S) and in the case of the present all three points
are co-temporal (E,R,S).
More recent unified analyses of the Standard English PP have included further
aspectual information while building on the idea that the PP expresses the
‘current relevance’ (see Comrie, 1976) of a past situation: these represent PP
sentences as denoting a post-state which follows a past event. The post-state goes
up to and includes the moment of speech. Moens (1987) and Moens and
Steedman (1989) call this post-state a ‘consequent’ state, Parsons (1990) and
Kamp and Reyle (1993) a ‘result’ state. Although his analysis is somewhat
different, Klein (1992, 2000) talks about a ‘post-time’ (we return to Klein’s
analysis in more detail below). From yet a different perspective, Portner (2003)
proposes that the PP be semantically characterised, following Reichenbach, as
denoting an eventuality that is dissociated from its reference time like other
perfects. From a pragmatic perspective, on the other hand, a PP sentence is
regarded as presupposing that the eventuality it describes is in the ‘Extended-
Now’ established by the context; it also introduces a ‘modal presupposition’, that
is, it presupposes a relation of epistemic necessity between the general question
that is debated in the discourse (i.e. the topic), and its answer (Portner, 2003:500).
Others, however, have argued that no unified analysis can predict the range of
uses and meanings of the PP which is thus considered to be ambiguous.
Sandstrøm (1993) argues for two different analyses depending on whether the
VP used in the PP sentence denotes a state or an event. Declerck (1991) considers
that PP sentences can have an indefinite or a continuative interpretation: in the
former case, the situation denoted by the sentence does not go up to the time of
utterance, whereas in the latter it includes it.
A full discussion of arguments supporting the differing views presented above is
well beyond the scope of the present paper, but we agree with the view that the
so-called universal reading of the perfect only obtains when states are used in
combination with durative adverbials, as in ‘Joanne has lived in Adelaide for ten
years’, where the state denoted by the VP can be viewed as overlapping the
reference time. We follow here Bauer (1970), Dowty (1979) and more recently
Portner (2003) who have argued that the behaviour of states in the perfect is not
different from their behaviour in other contexts, and therefore that no ambiguity
should be attributed to the perfect in these cases.
The question of whether the perfect denotes a completed event, and whether it is
an aspect as well as a tense, has attracted very different views. At one extreme,
Huddleston (1988:77) argues that ‘Perfect aspectual meaning involves a situation
resulting from the completion of an earlier situation...’ At another, McCoard (1978:11)
emphatically states: ‘… we shall not refer to the perfect as an aspectual category: in this
book, the perfect is NOT a marker of aspect.’ (emphasis in the original). McCoard
(ibid) argues that ‘The ‘completion’ reading of a perfect is really borrowed from
outside…’, that is, from languages with a true aspectual opposition between a
perfect and a ‘non perfect’ category.
Here, we will assume as a starting point that verbs denoting events, and in some
cases states too, signal to the hearer that the eventuality in question has reached
its culmination or final boundary (depending on whether the VP is telic or not).
We will however discuss this point again in section 4.
A puzzling feature of the PP in standard English that distinguishes it from its
equivalent in other Germanic and in Romance languages is that combinations
with definite past adverbials are not considered to be grammatical (Klein’s
‘present perfect puzzle’, 1992). This constraint is also a peculiarity of the present
form of the perfect specifically, and does not apply to past perfect and future
perfect sentences, which can have two readings, as exemplified by (1) a – (2) b:
(1) a. Jo had (already) left her office (when I arrived/at six).
(1) b. Jo had left her office at six and had arrived home at seven.
(2) a. Jo will have (already) left her office (when I arrive/at six).
(2) b. Jo will have left her office at six and will have arrived home at seven.
Binnick (1991) points out that PP sentences exhibit the same ambiguity: an
‘anterior’ reading can be obtained in cases where the PP is combined with past
adverbs (which are permitted as long as they are not definite; e.g. adverbs of
recency like ‘just’, adverbs like ‘before’, used with experiential PPs); a
‘permansive’ reading can be obtained in examples like ‘Jo has left’, where the
situation of Jo having left is still in force at S. The only difference is that no
DEFINITE adverbials are permitted with the PP. So how can we explain this
somewhat odd behaviour of English perfects?
Klein (1992) offers a pragmatic explanation for it, starting with the observation
that past and future perfect sentences cannot be modified by two definite
adverbials, as shown for instance by 3:
(3) ?At six Jo had left at three.
Indeed, (3) implies that there may be other times than six o’clock where Jo had
left at another time than three. Such an interpretation is pragmatically odd as ‘the
explicit specification of time span only makes sense if some other possible time spans are
thereby excluded’. (Klein, 1992: 544). Returning now to PP sentences, the same
pragmatic principle applies: PP sentences say something about the time of
utterance (TU), not the time of situation (Tsit), and Klein introduces the notion of
topic time (TT) to capture this distinction, defining it as ‘…the time span to
which the claim made on a given occasion is constrained.’ (Klein, 1992:535)..
Thus, sentences in the SP have their TT at Tsit, whereas sentences in the PP have
their TT including the TU. Moreover, the TT for PP sentences has a definite
position on the time axis (and this is also the case for the present tense). It is
therefore odd to make a claim about the definite ‘presentness’ of a situation
while locating it in the past in a definite fashion at the same time. This explains
the unacceptability of (3) as well as PP sentences such as ‘John has arrived
yesterday’. The concept of topic time will be useful to us when we consider
further comparisons between present and present perfect in section 3.
The adverbial constraint that governs usage of the PP in English does not apply
to equivalent perfect constructions in a number of other European languages (in
both the Germanic and Romance families). Vet (1992) views the variety across
such languages in terms of a historical progression that moves from the more
conservative English PP to the Dutch voltooid tegenwoordige tijd (VTT) and finally
to the French passé composé (PC), which is the most innovating of the three
languages considered. In Dutch, past definite adverbials are allowed with the
VTT but relation with other events is not permitted (and thus we do not find the
VTT used to express narrative progression). In French, both are possible. The
view here is that a true perfect changes to assume the functions of a past
Schwenter (1994) looks at varieties of South American and Peninsular Spanish,
the former being more conservative with respect to the use of the perfect
construction. What distinguishes the two sets of varieties is that in the latter the
PP is used as a hodiernal past. Schwenter proposes that it is the increased use of
the ‘hot news’ perfect that ultimately leads to this extension. He argues that
overuse of the perfect in hot news contexts has led hearers to reanalyse the form
as simply marking recency.
His explanation is that the hot news perfect is different from other types of
perfects because the link that is otherwise established with the time of speech ‘is
more tenuous’ and thus the past situation is presented ‘for its own sake and not
in relation to another situation’ (Schwenter , 1994:1003). This use makes the
Peninsular Spanish present form of the perfect more similar to a past perfective.
Schwenter also comments on the use of the PP in English, and notes differences
between dialects (American English being more conservative than Scottish
he adds that ‘The British English Perfect has not, however, assumed
the more grammaticalised hodiernal past perfective functions that its Peninsular
Spanish counterpart has’ (Schwenter, 1994:1019). We will see that the situation is
different in Australian English, although narrative, rather than hodiernal
functions seem to be the driving force behind the extensions observed in the use
of the PP in this variety.
Thus perfects form a rather unstable category and tend to change over time. The
result of such change has often been considered to result in an ambiguous
category. The French PC for example is analysed by most scholars as having two
meanings, that of a perfect and that of a past perfective. While we do not dispute
this view, we will be interested here in approaches that have given a unified
representation of various stages of development of perfects, exemplified by
language specific categories, as they will be pertinenent to our discussion of
Australian English examples.
De Swart and Molendijk (2000) argue for a unified representation of the PC and
consider that a common basic representation of perfects in English, Dutch and
French is adequate. Their argument can be summarised as follows: E – R,S
(following Reichenbach) can be used to represent present perfects in the three
languages considered. In English, we have additional constraints: (i) E cannot be
in a temporal relation with a moment other than R or S, or (ii) with another
event. The latter is the only constraint in operation for the Dutch VTT, and none
of the constraints apply to the French PC.
With respect to the use of the PC in narrative, the analysis De Swart and
Molendijk propose suggests that S and R move together . They argue that two
consecutive PC sentences do not necessarily express narrative progression. The
eventualities these sentences refer to can overlap, be related in a temporally
indeterminate way or be interpreted as having occurred in the reverse order to
that in which they are presented in the narrative sequence. What enables the
hearer/reader to infer a certain order for the two eventualities is not the PC itself
but rather other information such as that given by adverbials, the meaning of the
VPs, rhetorical relations and world knowledge. Thus, according to De Swart and
Molendijk (2000:1), the PC has become a ‘temps verbal […] temporellement
neutre’ (a verbal tense that is temporally neutral) (see also Ritz, 2002, for
arguments in favour of a unified representation of the PC).
Klein (2000) also proposes a uniform analysis of the meaning of the German
Perfekt, which like the PC and the VTT can correspond to both an English PP and
a SP. For Klein, there are two possible readings of a sentence in the Perfekt, but
these readings are simply a consequence of a structural ambiguity: all sentences
in the Perfekt have their TT either including or following the TU (noted FIN
but never preceding it; they all involve the application of a temporal operator
POST, whose function is ‘to assign post-times to the interval to which it is
applied’ (Klein , 2000:369). The difference between the two readings then comes
from the properties of the interval to which POST is applied: (i) POST can be
applied to the entire sentence, for instance with the form [SUBJ PRED], we obtain
a new sentence, [POST[SUBJ PRED]]; (ii) or POST can be applied only to the VP,
in which case the resulting sentence basis is [SUBJ POST PRED]. Thus, to take
Klein’s example, the sentence whose base form is ‘der Stuhl umkipp’ (‘the chair
topple over’), we can interpret its Perfekt form as referring (i) to the post-time of
the whole event (the chair having toppled over), or (ii) to the post-time of
toppling over as applied to the chair. If the chair does not exist any longer (eg. it
has been burnt), then the only available interpretation is (i). The difference in the
case of the English PP is that only (ii) is possible and, in the context just described
where the chair has been burnt , we have to use the SP. This analysis enables
Klein to retain a representation where S is the TT for Perfekt sentences containing
a past locating adverb. It will be useful to keep this analysis in mind when we
consider similar combinations in our Australian data in section 3.2.2.
In conclusion, perfects in European languages have developed in different ways,
and are all used to varying degrees in contexts where English uses a SP. In
Reichenbach’s framework, SP has R at E, leading to a possible analysis of these
perfects as being ambiguous between two readings, one where R is at S and one
where R is at E. However, as we have seen, some analyses have led to more
unified representations of these perfects and to the view that R is at S in all
instances of use. With regard to standard uses of the English PP, several
important features characterising its meaning and use have been identified:
(i) a PP sentence is not about the situation referred to by the VP itself;
rather, it is about what lies after this situation
(ii) the time referred to, or time under discussion includes S;
(iii) combinations with definite past adverbials are not considered to be
grammatical in standard British English.
(iv) the standard PP is not normally used in sequences of clauses
expressing temporal progression.
The characteristics summarised under (i) – (iv), however, are of a rule-based
nature and paint a simplistic picture of a reality that is far more complex and
much less clear-cut. While it is important to describe what we take as ‘standard’
usage in a way that captures the meaning of a linguistic category in a general
fashion, the notion of standard itself is problematic, particularly with regard to
English and its varieties. First, it is well known that PP usage differs across
English varieties. (a well studied contrast is that between American and British
English; see for example Vanneck (1958), Labov & Waletzky (1967), Dusková
(1967), Gathercole (1986), Meyer (1995), Elsness (1997), Biber et al (1999),
Schlüter (2000) who all found less frequent usage of PP in American English than
in British English as well as a different functional load in the two varieties).
Second, studies that have examined PP usage in varieties such as British English
and American English, may give the impression that each of these standards is a
monolith, rather than just one of many social and regional varieties used within a
particular geographical space. The overwhelming majority of studies are based
on a norm approximating a national standard. Even those studies based on
, while acknowledging differences in register, style and medium, do not
tend to discuss regional or social variation within the national boundaries.
In British English, examples of combinations of PP with past adverbials have
been noted, although they have been considered to be rare enough not to be of
significance (see for example Trudgill (1978: 13), or Fryd (1998), who provides
written and spoken media examples). Other non-standard uses of the PP such as
in radio football commentaries, after-match discussions on radio, radio news
reports, and newspaper football reports have recently been noticed as well,
although no systematic investigation of such usage has been carried out, as far as
we are aware. In a newspaper editorial, McKie (2002) refers to these instances as
exemplifying what he calls ‘the re-enactment perfect’ and is worried that ‘the
practice may spread’.
Such concern is not new, as generally speakers display
negative attitudes to change, considering it to betray ‘sloppiness’ or
‘bad/ungrammatical usage’. While we won’t attempt here to predict the fate of
the PP in any variety of English, the above comments serve to illustrate the fact
that it is indeed difficult to characterise the meaning of THE English PP in a way
that is both formally precise and descriptively adequate. Linguistic change is
continuous and not homogeneous -indeed, at any particular time, one may
observe different ‘stages’ of evolution of a given category in different speech
communities where the same language is spoken, or across different media,
styles or registers. Nonetheless, the characteristics summarised in (i) – (iv) above
give us some basis for understanding some of the constraints governing standard
usage of the PP in some (perhaps idealised) British English variety.
The literature covered in this section also shows that a great deal of the
discussion concerning both the meaning and the evolution of perfects has
revolved around comparisons between SP and PP (or their equivalents in
different languages). What has been less often explored, it seems, is the relation
between PP and the present. Yet, all theories acknowledge the importance of the
link between event and speech time in the case of PP sentences. It is this latter
relation that will be of chief interest in this paper, as the Australian data we have
collected so far suggests that the PP is at least as much a rival to the present as it
is to the SP. We will return to the semantics and pragmatics of the PP while
discussing our Australian examples, and we turn to these now.
3. The PP in Australian English
Before we examine examples in more detail, it is important to describe our
corpus and give an overall view of our findings.
Our spoken corpus was extracted from a total of 33 hours of radio recordings.
There were two main periods of data collection, January – March 2000 and
January – February 2004, although a few items were collected outside these
periods. Table 1 gives an overview of the part of our transcribed corpus
containing non-standard instances of PP:
Table 1:
Description of transcribed corpus
Type of data
Number of words
News* + media releases (incident reports)
*News items include items selected from radio news bulletins and from newspaper articles.
Except for one example, all newspaper extracts are quotes (i.e. transcribed spoken language).
Our examples come from two types of radio stations: national and local. These
stations also represent commercial and non-commercial varieties. More
specifically, Triple J Radio Sydney, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
youth station, represents the national, non-commercial type. It is a station aimed
at young people (15-30) and is alternative rather than popular. It generally
promotes Australia and Australian values. It is considered to be an intelligent
station, with programmes that are not conventional or conservative. In terms of
the social class it is aiming at, it is the middle class. Because it targets young
people, its style is very informal. The other radio stations (96 fm, 92.9fm, 94.5fm
and Nova radio station) are locally based in Perth, Western Australia and are all
commercial radio stations. They aim at a wider range in terms of age in terms of
class too: working class and middle class, both educated and uneducated.
We now turn to overall findings showing the relative proportion of tenses used
to relate past events in narratives
Table 2:
Tenses used to relate past eventualities in narratives told on Australian radio stations
Raw number
Simple past
Present perfect (total)
Vivid narrative present perfect
Narrative present
As table 2 shows, the SP is the most frequently used tense in narratives, with
57.7% of verbs relating past eventualities in this tense. Interestingly, the
percentage of verbs in the PP is substantially higher than that of verbs in the
narrative present, and in particular, vivid narrative usage of the PP is more
frequent than usage of narrative present (21.7% and 12.6% respectively, in other
words, instances of narrative PP represent 63.3% of the total number of instances
of verbs in the narrative present and narrative PP combined). The percentage of
verbs in the narrative PP out of all verbs in the PP amounts to 79.2%, that is,
more than two thirds of verbs in the PP are used in a narrative sense in the
stories told by radio presenters and members of the public on air.
A closer look at NarPres usage shows that 71 % of instances of VPs in this tense
denote a state (42.6% a progressive state, and 28.4% a non-progressive state, the
latter chiefly involving use of the copula ‘be’). Examples (4) – (6) illustrate these
different types:
(4) HES STANDING right behind me. He’s walked in,…
(5) ITS quite a hot day and he’s come out of the shed a few hours later…
(6) …everybody just JUMPS OUT the side…
While verbs in narrative present in ‘he’s standing’, and ‘it’s a hot day’ in (4) and
(5) respectively refer to a state describing the background, the verb used in (6),
‘jumps out’, foregrounds the event (see eg. Vetters, 1992). Given the
predominance of NarPres usage as exemplified in (4) and (5) in our corpus, these
figures suggest that it is the type exemplified by (6) that is being replaced by the
narrative PP. We take a closer look at the types of events represented by PP verb
phrases in section 4.
Some tenses are not represented in table 2 as they did not relate past
eventualities. Such tenses include generic present (typically used to convey some
evaluation made by the speaker) and near future (although near future in a past
context can also be considered a narrative tense, we have not included it here as
the number of instances was quite small, and futurity was not the concern of the
present analysis).
Examples of standard use of the PP included comments made by the speaker (as
in ‘I think I’VE SAID this before’), generally sentences where the topic time was
clearly the time of speech (for example: ‘no he [the speaker’s dog] HASNT QUITE
PICKED UP all the subtleties of the game ‘go fetch’ yet, he’s getting there.’) and PP
usage in reported speech (for instance ‘so he’d go ‘Darryl, I HAVENT MET you,
pick a card’).
We now turn to the analysis of specific examples. Although it is perhaps difficult
to separate temporal information from aspectual features of verbs, we address
each in turn before discussing how the combination of both creates the vivid
effect we are investigating.
3.1. Narrative uses: temporal analysis
In this section, we present a set of examples that illustrate progressively more
marked usage of the PP, and discuss each in turn. We have used Klein’s
terminology (introduced in section 2) to describe the temporal characteristics of
verb forms here as the pragmatic notion of ‘topic time’, or ‘time under
discussion’ is well suited to our examples and reflects more transparently the
prominence given to the present in instances of narrative PP usage.
To begin, the following example, where a body painter describes a past
experience, illustrates ‘standard’ narrative usage:
(7) I did a friend the other day for a CD cover. He was to be all blue. So he's
standing there in his shorts and I'VE DONE him, even inside his ears. (The
Weekend Australian magazine, 19.8.00)
The first two clauses make it clear that the situation described is past. The third
clause uses a NarPres: the TT, is to be interpreted as being at TU and is included
in the progressive state denoted by the VP. The fourth clause in the PP is
conjoined to the third, and uses the same TT. We find a number of similar
instances of narrative use of the PP in stories told on radio chat-shows, as the
next example illustrates. As mentioned above, such uses have the effect of
drawing the listener in:
(8) I looked over my shoulder, he’s standing right behind me. He’S WALKED in,
y’know the doors that separate the classrooms, he’S COME in the one behind
me, they all started laughing. (Triple J radio Sydney, 28.2.00)
Again, in this example a clause in the NarPres follows a clause in the SP before a
narrative PP is used. Of course, there is nothing unusual about these uses apart
from the fact that – just as with the NarPres - they are characteristic of informal,
conversational speech. What is noteworthy however is the number of examples
in our corpus that make use of this effect in contexts where speakers of other
varieties of English might use a present tense rather than a PP. The following
extract describing autograph signing (also used in Engel & Ritz, 2000: 134)
illustrates the point:
(9) a. I’d done enough and she said ‘can you sign this’ and I said ‘oh, okay, one
final signing, I promise, and will you go away? And she said ‘yeah, yeah’. So
I’VE GOT a texta
, I’VE HELD her head straight and I’VE WRITTEN on her
forehead ‘Hi Mum, I’ve tried drugs for the first time’. (Triple J radio Sydney,
Compare with what is a plausible paraphrase making use, instead, of the
NarPres :
(9) b. I’d done enough and she said ‘can you sign this’ and I said ‘oh, okay, one
final signing, I promise, and will you go away? And she said ‘yeah, yeah’. So
I GET a texta, I HOLD her head straight and I WRITE on her forehead ‘Hi Mum,
I’ve tried drugs for the first time’.
Comparing (9a) and (9b) we see that the narrative effect is essentially similar in
cases where a NarPres and a narrative PP are used. In (9a), the PP clause is not
preceded by a clause in the NarPres (thus contrasting with the pattern in (7) and
(8) above) and this feels a bit odd in a past context, especially if it is part of a
sequence where narrative progression is expressed. Perhaps where NarPres is
used, it signals that we are going to talk about the past in a more vivid way, so a
following PP is not so strange. However, if a PP follows a SP directly, it brings
the PP/SP contrast to the fore rather than signalling a more vivid style. This is
even more obvious when the SP and PP clauses are linked by an adverbial like
‘then’, as in (10):
(10) …I just wanted to get out of the building as soon as possible. And THEN,
about four of them HAVE COME UP to me and one guy’s on crutches, and I’m
thinking ‘well, physical assault, hello. I’ve never been beaten up before but
why not, it’ll be a great story.’ (Triple J radio Sydney, 7.3.00)
Here we start with a clause in the SP, followed by a new sentence in the PP
introduced by the adverb ‘then’. We will return to the semantics of ‘then’ in more
detail in section 3.3. What is interesting to note at this point is that the PP clause
is here followed by two clauses in the NarPres. Thus we get an impression that
the PP serves the same narrative function as the NarPres.
Example (11) is perhaps even further away from standard uses: we see a
temporal progression from the SP to future in the past, to the narrative PP and
finally to the NarPres:
(11) …he decided that he was going to install a sensor light for the garage…So
he’S INSTALLED this sensor light…so he’S PUT it in and then he[?’s] spent the
next three nights trying to beat his own sensor light, tiptoeing around…, he’s
tiptoeing around, running one way… (Triple J radio Sydney, 2.3.00)
Here the narrator effectively skips the installation of the sensor light: the first
sentence sets the scene where the decision to install was made (and the
installation itself is a future in the past); the second sentence then jumps to a time
when the installation has been completed. In this way, the hearer is directed to
those times that are most relevant for the unfolding of the story, while other
event times (here the installation of the light) are not explicitly introduced.
Examples (7) to (11) show a progression from less marked narrative uses of the
PP in informal speech (7 & 8) to uses which retain the same narrative ‘flavour’
but extend to the point where combinations with adverbials are involved, and
links with other events are made (9 - 11). Although we only recast example (9)
using NarPres, (10) and (11) would also appear more standard if NarPres rather
than PP were used.
It is useful at this point to give an idea of the extent with which the NarPres is
used in our stories: less than half of the stories (42 out of 86) contain instances of
NarPres, with only 70 clauses in the narrative PP (22%) being directly preceded
or followed by a NarPres. In other words, the PP is able to introduce a narrative
tone by itself, which suggests that the time of speech is indeed a salient feature of
its meaning. The fact that the time of utterance is the TT, or time under
discussion for both the present and the PP could explain the fact that both tenses
are able to introduce a narrative tone.
Examples 7 and 8 above illustrate this fact as the PP clauses are followed by a
NarPres, confirming the narrative tone, but it is the clauses in the PP that are
used to make the switch to the present time sphere.
If PP usage in our corpus shares some similarities with NarPres usage, how far
do these similarities go? In order to try and answer this question, we will
systematically compare the distribution of both tenses, starting with an
examination of sequences of PP expressing temporal progression and
combinations with explicit markers of such progression.
3. Use of the PP in sequences expressing temporal progression and combinations
of adverbials
The total number of explicit adverbials not normally used with the PP in other
varieties of English across our entire corpus is 48, thus representing 12.9% of all
non-standard uses of this tense.
We have 60 instances of PP usage expressing temporal progression, either
implicitly or explicitly in our 86 oral narratives. This figure takes into account
sequences of at least two clauses in the PP expressing a progression in time (of
which we have 43 instances), and PP clauses containing an adverbial signalling
temporal progression such as ‘then’, ‘the next morning’, ‘a few hours later’, for
instance, followed by a PP (17 instances). Example (9a) presented in section 3.1
illustrated progression in time with no explicitly signalling: we understand that
the order in which the events actually occurred is the same as the order in which
they are presented (following Grice’s (1975) maxim of ‘manner’, or the unmarked
relation of narration, see eg. Asher et al. (1995). Another example is given below,
this time with explicit marking of temporal progression with the adverbial ‘then’:
(12) ‘And THEN HES TAKEN him up into his arms, he’S ROCKED it and held it
like it was his own child and THEN TAKEN him off to the ambulance’ Mr
Fitzgerald said (The West Australian 12.4.00) (Quote from a police officer
describing the rescue by a police constable of a baby from a house on fire.)
‘Then’ picks up anaphorically the reference time introduced by the previous
clause and locates the eventuality
denoted by the clause of which it is part in
relation to this reference time (Glasbey, 1993). Thus, ‘then’ refers to a time that is
completely independent of the moment of speech, and for this reason its
combination with a PP is not normally possible in English.
Thompson (1999) presents a discussion of the semantics of ‘then’ which is very
useful for our purposes here. Thompson (1999:139) characterizes ‘then’ as “…an
overt marker of time linking in tense structure.” She notes that when ‘then’ is in a
clause-initial or clause-medial position we get a reading where the event in the
clause preceding that containing ‘then’ and the event in the ‘then’ clause are
ordered chronologically. However, if ‘then’ is in a clause-final position, we
interpret the second event as overlapping with the first
Thompson’s semantic explanation for these two interpretations, in a
Reichenbachian framework, is that the ordered reading corresponds to Reference
times being linked whereas the ‘overlap’ reading corresponds to Event times
being linked. We can relate this to the restrictions that normally exist with PP
usage: the Reference time being at S for all PP sentences, no ordering is possible;
and as E cannot be related to other events, we cannot get a reading where there is
overlap of the two events. These constraints rule out both (13) and (14) (adapted
from Thompson, 1999:124):
(13) *Mary has spoken to the reporters. Then Bill has photographed her.
(14) *Mary has spoken to the reporters. Bill has photographed her then.
While, as explained above, the majority of instances of temporal progression are
not explicitly marked in our corpus, ‘then’ is the most common temporal
adverbial combined with the PP and expressing temporal progression, with a
total of 14 occurrences (out of the total of 17, the others being ‘the next
morning/day’, or ‘three hours later’). All instances of PP clauses containing
‘then’ have the adverb in a clause-initial or clause-medial position. Thus, if we
accept Thompson’s account, the reference time of each clause is linked with that
of the preceding one. We noted earlier that the time under discussion being at the
time of utterance in PP sentences, no ordering of reference times presented in PP
sentences is normally possible. But of course if the time of utterance is to be
understood in a narrative sense, it can move ahead in time as each sentence is
uttered, just like in cases where a NarPres is used.
Let us therefore consider the equivalent of our ‘then’ example (12) recast in
(15) ‘And then he takes him up into his arms, he rocks it and holds it like it
was his own child and then takes him off to the ambulance’ Mr Fitzgerald
As this example shows, the NarPres is perfectly compatible with ‘then’. More
generally, the NarPres can express narrative progression with or without the
help of adverbials.
This being said, not all examples can be recast in a NarPres: we would not expect
use of the NarPres in the context of a news bulletin or a written media release.
Consider the following example, together with a recast using NarPres; the text
was posted on a Police Media Release website
and also broadcast on the news
on the same day:
(16) a. The victim in this case is a 15-year-old Wattleup boy who was on his
way to school, […]. As he reached the steps leading to the shops he HAS BEEN
TAPPED on his shoulder. AS HE HAS TURNED AROUND a young man HAS
PUNCHED him to the face and a wrestle/fight HAS TAKEN PLACE DURING WHICH
the victim HAS DROPPED his wallet. The offender HAS GRABBED the wallet and
RUN OFF, removing the money and dropping the wallet as he ran. (M. Gough,
Sergeant, Police Media, 29.6.2004; 94.5fm radio, Perth, 29.6.04)
(16) b. ?As he reached the steps leading to the shops he IS TAPPED on his
shoulder. AS HE TURNS AROUND a young man PUNCHES him to the face and a
wrestle/fight TAKES PLACE DURING WHICH the victim DROPS his wallet. The
offender GRABS the wallet and RUNS OFF, removing the money and dropping
the wallet as he ran.
Such tense mixing is typical of spoken narratives, and we do not expect it in
more carefully planned language. Studies of oral narratives have revealed
patterns of use of NarPres within the complication (Labov & Waletzky, 1967) of
the story, which describes the sequence of events that are most important to the
narrative (Fleishman, 1990). We have analysed such segments elsewhere (Ritz &
Engel, in preparation). What is important to note for now is that NP usage is not
random, that it occurs in particular sections of a narrative, and that therefore we
would not expect it in alternation with SP in factual recounts given in news
bulletins. It seems therefore that use of the PP in our original example (16 a)
cannot be understood to be narrative; rather, the police officer seems to have
selected some events in the recount in order to make them more salient. How
should we represent the PP in such uses? The PP looks like it is used in the same
way as the SP, and thus could be viewed as having its TT at TSit in such
instances. However, there is a clear contrast between SP and PP in the above text,
so the contribution made by the PP is different to that made by the SP, a
difference that is not captured if we view both as having TT at TSit. One possible
representation for such instances of PP usage is one where TT is at the real TU
again, not a metaphorical one as in the case of our oral narratives : the
writer/newsreader is telling us that we are now in the post-time of certain events
having occurred in a particular sequence, thus making these events more salient.
Example (16) is also interesting from the perspective of the types of adverbials
used: temporal clauses introduced by ‘as’ and ‘during which’, signalling
temporal simultaneity and inclusion, respectively, rather than progression.
Generally, the category of temporal clauses (introduced with the above, together
with ‘when’ and ‘while’) form the largest category of adverbials used with the PP
with 19 examples.
3.4. Temporal subordination
Declerck (1989) finds that the PP can only be used in ‘when’-clauses to express
simultaneity on a continuative interpretation, or repetition on an indefinite
interpretation, but once again we find examples in Australian English which do
not strictly conform to these observations.. We illustrate the phenomenon with
two examples, one taken from our oral narratives (17 a), the other from our news
corpus (18 a), each with a recast using NarPres:
(17) a. I just […] rang up one morning, said ‘I’m not too well so I won’t be in
today’ and went waterskiing, and got burnt. So of course WHEN I’VE GONE
into work THE NEXT MORNING they said, y’know, ‘how’re you feeling? (92.9
FM radio Perth, 7.3.00)
(17) b. I just […] rang up one morning, said ‘I’m not too well so I won’t be in
today’ and went waterskiing, and got burnt. So of course WHEN I GO into
work THE NEXT MORNING they said [say], y’know, ‘how’re you feeling? (92.9
FM radio Perth, 7.3.00)
Here again, substitution with a NarPres works well. However, this is not the
case if the text comes from a news report:
(18) a. WHEN the alarm HAS GONE OFF, the burglar HAS CLIMBED on the roof.
(92.9 FM radio Perth 2.3.98)
(18) b. ? WHEN the alarm GOES OFF, the burglar CLIMBS on the roof. (92.9 FM radio
Perth 2.3.98)
If we accept Declerck’s generalisations, (18 a) could be interpreted either as
consisting of two indefinite PP clauses (in which case, they describe a repeated
set of events, i.e., ‘when’ is used in the sense of ‘whenever’), or of two
continuative PP clauses (both sharing S as their reference time). However, the
context makes it clear that neither interpretation is possible. The events described
are presented in a news bulletin; they are not repeated events, but rather are part
of one single newsworthy incident. On a ‘continuative’ interpretation, the
burglar would still be on the roof at the time at which the news bulletin is being
broadcast, and the alarm would still be sounding. This is obviously not the case
at the time of utterance, but what could be the case is that the newsreader is
presenting the events again from the perspective of TU, saying that we are NOW
in the post-state of them having occurred. What has shifted is what/who the
post-state applies to: it does not apply to the alarm nor to the burglar, but rather
to the newsreader and the listeners who are in the post-state of these particular
events having taken place. In this way, a closer connection to the speech event is
made, just like with narrative uses, but with a twist: TT is at TU as with standard
PP usage. We return to this possible analysis after examining combinations of the
PP with definite past adverbials.
3.3. Past locating adverbs and the Australian PP
Having looked at adverbials that express some temporal relation between
situations, we now turn to locating adverbials, which form the least common
type of adverbial combined with the PP in our data. We have included some
examples here as they do occur nonetheless, however we only find them in news
reports and police media releases, and have collected 13 examples so far.
(19) …after a spiteful game between the two clubs on Sunday, the Lions HAVE
LODGED an official complaint with the league YESTERDAY. (96 FM radio Perth,
(20) Speight gunmen HAVE ALREADY MURDERED an unarmed policeman DURING A
RAMPAGE THROUGH Suva LAST MONTH…’ (The Australian, ‘Army sorry for
bid to kill Speight’, 13/6/00 p.1)
Comparing PP usage with narrative present once more, we note that the latter
can be used with a range of adverbs, including past adverbs such as ‘yesterday’,
‘last Thursday’ etc. as shown by the following two examples taken from
newspapers where they were used as captions underneath a photograph of the
situation depicted:
(21) Mr Keating MEETS Emperor Akihito YESTERDAY. (The Australian, 23.9.1992;
cited in Suwono, 1993)
(22) United States President George Bush SPEAKS to workers at an army tank
plant in Lima, Ohio, ON THURSDAY during a tour of the state to promote a
crucial tax-cut package. (The West Australian, 26.4.03, ‘Determined Bush
takes aim at tax-cut critics’, p.28)
Such uses are interesting as they combine information about the situation as
present (the reader is viewing the photograph at the time of reading) as well as
past (with the use of the adverbials). They provide a good analogy for our
examples of vivid narrative PP usage: the PP provides the photograph, the
adverbs specify the time location. However, as we saw in section 1, a PP sentence
is not strictly about the situation itself, but about the time that follows it. So how
can we account for similarities and differences between NarPres and narrative
Chung & Timberlake (1985) note that explanations for the narrative use of the
present have usually involved the notion of markedness: the present tense is the
‘unmarked’ tense, thus can be used to replace other more ‘marked’ tenses such as
the past tense. In their view, however, this does not explain the vividness that
such narrative uses produce, and indeed, markedness is not enough to account
for the sense of immediacy that the use of a present in the place of a past tense
achieves. Chung & Timberlake (1985: 213) offer the following explanation:
It is more reasonable to view it [the historical present
] as a specialised strategy
for selecting the tense locus. On this view, the historical present might be
characterized as reflexive tense, in that the tense locus for each event is the frame
of the event, and the locus moves forward with each new frame that is selected in
the narration.’
The present and PP have common characteristics, i.e. they both have a TT that
includes TU, and the difference could be attributed to the fact that, in the case of
the PP, the ‘tense locus’ goes beyond the frame of the event itself, and includes a
post-time as well. As we will see in section 4, if the VP denotes an event that is
durational, narrative use in a context that is clearly past leads to several
possibilities of reinterpretation.
Before we examine lexical aspectual characteristics of verbs in more detail, we
summarise the commonalities and differences between NarPres, SP, standard
English PP (PP) and Australian English PP (AE PP) in table 5:
narrative progression x
with clause initial ‘then’ x
with past adverbials x
Table 3. summary of environments where NP, SP, PP and AE PP can be found
As we can see from table 3, the environments in which NarPres occurs are the
same as those in which SP occurs, as NarPres replaces SP in past contexts. As the
Australian English PP is also used in these contexts, there is a potential
ambiguity here as to what the TT, or time under discussion is, especially where
no overt signalling of narrative tone is provided by the speaker.
Nonetheless, PP clauses contrast with SP clauses in contexts where NarPres
would be another (more usual) substitute for such uses. If PP sentences (or
narrative sequences) work felicitously as NarPres sentences, then this tells us
that the PP is in some important ways like the NarPres. However, just as with
examples involving use of ‘then’, combinations with definite past adverbs and
the PP cannot always be recast felicitously as NarPres sentences.
Indeed, ‘yesterday’ in (19) and ‘last month’ in (20) cannot be understood as
specifying a TT that coincides with a metaphorical TU located in the post-time of
the TSit. It does not make much sense to paraphrase (19), for example as
‘yesterday, the Lions were in the post-time of having lodged an official complaint
with the league ’. This is partly due again to the fact that such an example
illustrates planned language use (as we would normally expect in a news report),
thus the vivid narrative usage common to chat shows is not expected. In
addition, an interpretation of (19) in which ‘yesterday’ re-specifies TU (in a past
context) would be pragmatically odd as it would imply that at the real TU, the
situation may be different. We are more likely to understand the sentence to
mean that ‘we are now in the post-time of the club arguing yesterday that…’.
Such an interpretation amounts to having the PP do precisely what Palmer
describes in the quote given at the beginning of this paper. It enables us to have
TU as a topic time, yet allows for further specification of TSit.
Example (20) lends support to such an interpretation with the use of ‘already’
(denoting a period that includes TU) and ‘last month’ (locating TSit in the past of
One possible way of representing the analysis proposed here for examples (19)
and (20) above is to follow Klein’s analysis of the perfect operator (in German)
taking wide scope over the sentence: if POST is applied to a whole sentence, say
(19), ‘the club argue last night’, we obtain:
[POST[THE CLUB ARGUE YESTERDAY]], with the post-state including TU
which corresponds to the paraphrase we gave for this sentence (i.e. ‘we are now
in the post-state of the club arguing yesterday that…’. On a narrative
interpretation, corresponding to ‘yesterday the club are in the post-state of
arguing…’, POST would have the verb in its scope as follows:
[THE CLUB[POST[ARGUE]]], with the post-state including a metaphorical TU,
further modified by ‘yesterday’.
However, we said that this second representation did not correspond to an
interpretation that we easily give to (19).
Of course, we do not mean that the Australian PP is used in the same way as the
German Perfekt. In particular, the contrast between SP and PP is not
conventionally established, and remains a stylistic effect used predominantly in
oral narratives. However, we can see some similarities, and understand how
things can evolve further.
In our final section, we examine the contribution made by lexical aspect to
narrative uses of the PP in discourse, in order to better understand how the vivid
effect comes about.
4. The contribution made by lexical aspect and contextual elements
In analysing the lexical aspect of VPs in our corpus, VPs were classified into five
classes, comprising activities, accomplishments, achievements and states
(following Vendler’s 1967 classification) with the addition of the class of
semelfactives (see eg. Smith, 1991). The results are shown in table 6:
Table 4:
Percentage of VPs by lexical aspectual classes in non-standard PP clauses
Types of
No in
% in
No in news
% in news
% of total
As table 4 shows, eventive VPs are the most frequent, with activities and
accomplishments representing the majority of VPs used. Indeed, together they
amount 73.8% of all VPs used in the narrative PP in stories, and 71% of VPs in
non-standard uses of the PP overall.
The common feature that they share is that they both contain a process part:
activities are pure processes, while accomplishments also have, in addition to a
process part, a telic point. Thus, they are both durative and dynamic.
Such verbs have been shown to give rise to ambiguities, for example when
combined with ‘almost’ (see eg. Parsons, 1990):
(23) Joanne almost built a house = Joanne did not start/ complete the building
(24) Joanne almost ran = didn’t start/walked so fast it could have been a run
Such examples show that the events denoted by activities and accomplishments
are complex ones, and that both their inception and completion points can be
selected as being salient in some contexts. In addition, as they are dynamic, the
process that they denote itself involves change with the potential for particular
segments within thus to be highlighted (as seen for example with the second
interpretation of ‘almost ran’).
Of course, when used in the PP, we typically understand that the event they
denote is completed:
(25) Joanne has built a house.
(26) Joanne has run.
Thus, the telic point or final boundary of the event is understood to have been
reached, and the sentence is about the post-time of the event. However, a second
reading taking the inception point as having been reached, with the post-time
being co-temporal with part of the process that follows is also possible, especially
when we have a sequence of events all reported in the PP .
To make the point clearer, we analyse a slightly longer narrative, in which a
caller shares a story where he was being attacked by a shark. It exemplifies
Labov’s ‘danger of death’ stories, designed to elicit data that was as close as
possible to the vernacular norm. It also represents well a number of
characteristics that we have observed in our narratives, and shows clearly how
lexical aspect, narrative usage of the PP and interaction of the PP with other
tenses all combine to make the story more vivid to the listener.
The story starts with caller ‘D’ explaining that he feeds sharks in an aquarium for
a living, and that when he first started his job, he was once bitten by a three
metre long female shark called ‘Striker’. ‘A’ and ‘W’ rare the two radio
presenters. The section transcribed below is the ‘complication’ of the story
(Labov & Waletzky, 1967):
D. …you’ve got no idea how fast you’re going through this air. You’re
virtually turning blue cos you’re breathing that fast. And umm yeah, the
big set of jaws come down and, I happened to get to the side, so I’m
thinking, “Okay ‘kay, I’ve gotta duck, I’ve gotta duck.” And at the same
time there’s, it’s School Holidays, there’s a thousand little kids stuck to
the, the glass in the tunnel. And umm, I’VE DUCKED UNDER and I’VE
LOOKED BACK and, and she’S GONE PAST and I’VE GONE, “Okay, that, that
was all good.” Another one’S COME DOWN, I’VE THROWN this fish out, and
he’S STARTED snapping on it, and I’m like, “Ohh, Thank God for that.” And
then I’VE LOOKED at, at the tunnel, at the kids, and all the little eyes are just
like Christmas
, and the, the tour guide in the tunnel’S just like LOST it,
she’s just throwing her hands in the air. Next minute I feel my back just
getting thrown around all on the bottom, just, you know, teared out of the,
the, aquarium, and thinking …
A. Ohh
D. … heh, heh, I’m thinking “What’s going on here?” I’m thinking the
instructor’S JUST THOUGHT I’VE JUST DONE the hopeless job or something. So
A. You thought it was the instructor poking you in the back?
D. Yeh, heh, heh,
A. And it was Striker!
D. It was Striker, mate. She’S TURNED AROUND thinking, umm, “That’s my fish
and you’re not gonna hide from me,” and obviously grabbed me on the
back and, …
A. Wow!
D. … show me who her Daddy was.
Out of the thirteen VPs used in the PP, six denote activities (‘look’ used twice,
‘look back’, ‘go’ for ‘say’, ‘think’ and ‘do’). Three denote accomplishments (‘turn
around’. ‘come down’ and ‘throw out’) and four achievements (‘duck under’, ‘go
past’, ‘loose (it)’ and ‘start’).
The effect created by the use of activities in the narrative PP in discourse is
interesting, as they put the hearer in the middle of the situation depicted. For
example, ‘I’ve looked back’ is followed by ‘she’s gone past’: here, the ‘going past’
is what the speaker saw at the time, thus we do not get a sense that ‘I’ve looked
back’ denotes the post-time of a completed event. One interpretation would be
that the start of the event ‘look back’ had taken place, and that therefore the post-
time coincides with the activity of looking itself. As ‘go past’ is telic, its use in the
PP is most naturally interpreted as having reached its end point during the time
of the looking, adding to the impression that the looking lasted for a while.
Another use of ‘look’ is exemplified by:
(27) I’VE LOOKED at, at the tunnel, at the kids, and all the little eyes are just like
Again, we are placed in the middle of what the speaker saw, as the clause
following ‘I’ve looked’ contains a stative expression involving the copula ‘be’ in
NarPres, presenting us with a picture of the scene.
The sentence:
(28) I’VE GONE, “Okay, that, that was all good.”
Also contains an activity verb in the form of a reportive verb
, ‘I’ve gone’, which
cannot be interpreted as denoting the post-time of the saying as we are then
presented with the content of the utterance; rather it could be again that the PP
indicates that the inception point (the start of the saying) has taken place, and
that the post-time includes the saying.
Telic verbs can, on the other hand, be understood as signalling the completion of
the event:
(29) Another one’S COME DOWN, I’VE THROWN this fish out…
presents a succession of events, the throwing out taking place in the post-time of
the coming down (but of course, as a result of the ‘coming down’, the shark WAS
down at the time, so the throwing is also included in this state, and hearers build
an image where the events are tightly interconnected). As post-times, rather than
the events themselves are used in this sequence, we also gain a sense of fast
action: as soon as one event has taken place, another one has reached completion,
and so forth. The presentation of events through their post-times thus enables the
speaker to achieve several effects at once, depending of lexical aspect and choice
of tense in the immediate context of the PP.
Finally, with achievement verbs, as can be seen with the following two sentences,
we can also get a sense of being placed in the middle of a situation:
(30) …he’S STARTED snapping on it, and I’m like, “Ohh, Thank God for that.”
(31) …the tour guide in the tunnel’S just like LOST it, she’s just throwing her
hands in the air.’
The use of ‘start’ in the PP implies that the post-time coincides with the
snapping, during which the speaker quotes himself using this time a NarPres,
‘I’m like’.
In (34), ‘has lost it’ is followed by a description of the state in which the tour
guide is, using NarPres, elaborating on the loss of her cool. This description also
provides evidence for the statement ‘she’s just lost it’, and gives the post-time of
‘lose’ a sense of duration, with the activity ‘throw her hands in the air’ coinciding
with it.
What perhaps distinguishes the use of the PP from the use of the NarPres in such
examples, is that narrative PP is able to achieve two things at once: it signals a
retrospective look onto a past situation (with the possibility of the inception of
the event being interpreted as the past situation in question), while providing a
post-time in which other events or situations can also be located. Thus we have
tighter connections between events reported in discourse, producing either a
sense that these events occurred in very quick succession (especially when telic
verbs are used), or that they overlap with each other (especially with activities).
To conclude, we have proposed that narrative uses of the PP in Australian
English are at the origin of a large number of ‘non-standard’ combinations.
These include use of the PP in a past context where a switch to narrative tone has
not been explicitly signalled, sequences of PP sentences where temporal
progression is explicitly or implicitly expressed, and uses of the PP with various
types of adverbials. We have drawn some parallels with the NarPres, and have
argued that, just like the NarPres, the PP is able to introduce a narrative tone by
itself, a fact that confirms the topicality of the time of utterance in uses of the PP.
The difference between NarPres and narrative PP involves the former involving
TT, Tsit and a ‘metaphorical’ TU all coincide, while the latter has its TT including
a metaphorical TU, but its Tsit preceding it.
We have noted a number of instances of PP sentences that could not have a
narrative interpretation however, and have proposed that in such cases their TT
would be better understood as being the real TU, with the perfect operator
taking wider scope over the sentence. Such uses are less common in our corpus,
but frequent enough to suggest that a temporal ambiguity exists in the current
interpretation of PP sentences in Australian English.
Examination of verbs in the narrative PP in relation of lexical aspect has revealed
that the most common class represented is that of activities, followed by
accomplishments. We have argued that their common characteristic, i.e. the fact
that they are both durative and contain a process part, can explain in part the
sense that hearers have of being placed in the middle of the situation depicted.
At the same time, sequences of telic verbs in the PP enable the speaker to convey
a sense that the events related occurred in very quick succession.
What is suggested by the examples taken from our corpus, is that the extension
in the range of uses that has taken place may have been largely motivated by a
casual style of speech. This style promotes narrative uses of the present, and
appears to have extended vivid narrative uses to include the PP. The differences
between NarPres and narrative PP have become less clear, and the PP appears to
be replacing the NarPres in oral narratives.
While no prediction can be made as to the future evolution of this category in
this variety of English, the phenomenon itself is interesting both in the sense that
it confirms the topicality of the time of speech in PP sentences, and in the sense
that it shows a possible path for change. The question of why such usage would
occur in Australian English and not other English varieties is a difficult one to
answer. Part of the answer may lie in the extensive use of an informal style in
Australia, in particular in the media and the radio more specifically, with
presenters making use of further devices to attract their listeners’ attention and to
express a sense of solidarity with them. The question, however, will need further
investigation, with a closer examination of the sociolinguistic and cultural factors
that may be involved.
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We wish to acknowledge the Australian Reasearch Council and the University of Western
Australia for funding the present research through two small grants, in 1999 and 2000
respectively. We also wish to thank our research assistants, Helen Majewski, Andrew Irvine,
Karen Attfield and Nicole Barber for their help at various stages of the project. We have benefited
greatly from the feedback given by two anonymous referees on an earlier version of the paper as
it has helped improve it in many ways. Finally, special thanks to Alan Dench for his help
throughout the project; his insights as a linguist and Native Speaker of Australian English have
been invaluable, as have been his suggestions for improving the presentation of our ideas. Any
remaining errors are of course our own.
Ritz & Engel, (in preparation) discuss the differences between English dialects in greater detail.
See also Dusková (1976), Vanneck (1958) and Gathercole (1986).
We have left our characterisation deliberately vague here; the intuition behind the notion of
post-state (consequent or result state) is that it is the state of an event having culminated (Moens,
1987, Parsons, 1991, Kamp & Reyle, 1993). In the case where the VP is a state, an event associated
with the state (e.g. its inception) can be substituted for the notion of culmination. While the
question deserves more discussion - in particular any notion of post-state would need to be made
formally more precise- the analyses developed in the present paper do not depend crucially on it.
These include Elsness (1997), who examined the differences in PP usage in printed American and British
English; Meyer (1995) and Schlüter (2000) who used the Brown University Corpus of American English
and the LOB Corpus of BE; Biber et al (1999) who used the Longman Spoken and Written English corpus.
The full quote is as follows: 'I think what is happening here is that B. and S. are reliving events so deeply
stamped on their consciousness that they seem to be happening still. The tense involved here deserves a
name of its own: the "re-enactment perfect", perhaps. What worries me is that the practice may spread'.
We do not provide such figures for our news corpus here, as examples are very short and have been
especially selected for the instances of non-standard PP usage they contained. While narratives have been
selected on the same basis, they are longer and form a whole unit each, which enables a more meaningful
examination of the relative distribution of tenses. We provide elsewhere percentages of use of PP versus SP
in randomly selected news bulletins (Ritz & Engel, in preparation) and compare them with figures obtained
from data collected in other varieties of English. These results, however, are not crucial for the purpose of
the analysis presented here.
‘Texta’ is the word used to refer to a thick felt-tip pen in Australian English.
The term ‘eventuality’ is used to refer generally to both events and states (following Bach (1986)
and also Kamp and Reyle (1993), Glasbey (1993).
Thompson (1999: 126), confirms what Schiffrin (1992), Glasbey (1993), Spejewski & Carlson,
(1993) also noted.
accessed 30.06.2004
We consider here the terms ‘historical’ and narrative’ present to be synonymous, following Mellet (1998:
203-213) who defines narrative present as covering occurrences of the present in oral narratives and in
written literary texts, the latter including fiction and historical texts.
According to an native speaker informant, the expression means that the children’s eyes are wide open,
as they would be at Christmas when seeing all the presents and decorations.
Reportive verbs are fairly common in our corpus, especially with ‘go’ used instead of ‘say’.
Reporting verbs, including ‘say’, ‘go’, ‘think’ and ‘explain’ used in the narrative PP and followed
by a direct quote amount to 16.5% of all verbs in the narrative PP, with 52 instances.
... It is the merit of to have identified a crucial transitional stage in the semantics of the (present) perfect: the "hot news"/hodiernal uses, which deviate from the semantic profile of perfect aspect and constitute instances of an aoristic anterior (their status as anteriors, i.e. as relative tenses, accounts for the current relevance or limited temporal distance constraint). See also Ritz & Engel (2008) on Australian English, whose (present) perfect seems to have reached this transitional stage. ...
... Connective adverbials such as 'then' or 'later' are also found in such contexts. These findings are similar to those discussed in Ritz & Engel (2008) in Australian English narratives (see below for further discussion). It is nonetheless clear that temporal proximity effects have a role to play. ...
... Oral narratives were collected from radio chat show programs where listeners are solicited to contribute personal stories relevant to a given theme. Data collection specifically targeted stories containing non-canonical perfects (see examples below; see also Ritz & Engel 2008 for more details about the corpus). Police media reports are written narratives providing details of incidents such as theft, car crashes and so forth. ...
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Els verbs de manera de moviment de l’alemany poden agafar haben ‘haver’ i sein ‘ser’ com a auxiliars de perfet. Recentment s’ha proposat que, en aquests casos, la selecció de l’auxiliar ve determinada pel tret [locomoció]: el marcatge positiu d’aquest tret activa l’ús de sein ‘ser’ i el negatiu implica l’ús de haben ‘haver’ (Randall 2007). En aquest treball explorem la noció de locomoció des d’una perspectiva semàntica. Exposem els resultats d’una prova de judici d’acceptabilitat i mostrem que alguns verbs de manera de moviment s’associen més típicament amb [+locomoció] que d’altres en funció de la prominència de la direccionalitat associada a la semàntica del verb. Tot i això, argumentem que la locomoció no és una propietat intrínseca dels verbs, sinó més aviat de les construccions (Goldberg 1995), que imposen una interpretació semàntica específica dels verbs.
... Importantly, not all languages exhibit this adverbial restriction. Even for English, some dialects such as Australian English do allow past time specifications with the present perfect (Ritz 2012, Ritz andEngel 2008). Swedish, Danish and Bulgarian also permit modification of a present perfect with the adverb yesterday (Dahl 1985:137-138). ...
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This paper investigates the meaning and distribution of the perfect in Gã (Niger-Congo, Kwa). Data from natural speech and elicitation reveals that in addition to uses of the perfect that have been established cross-linguistically, Gã makes use of the perfect for the predication of qualities (perfect of quality), for overtly signalling a change of state (inchoative perfect) and for marking iterative, habitual or predictable events (sequential perfect). Apolysemous view of the perfect is advanced, and the semantic element of relevance is proposed as constituting the semantic core of the perfect. The paper also shows that the Gã perfect may be in the nascent stages of grammaticalization to a perfective or past tense, as it is now possible to use the perfect with hodiernal and prehodiernal temporal adverbs. The paper’s significance lies in its documentation of an ongoing grammaticalization process that is uncommon in Niger-Congo and a novel use of the perfect in the sequential perfect, which has not been attested cross-linguistically.
... Importantly, not all languages exhibit this adverbial restriction. Even for English, some dialects such as Australian English do allow past time specifications with the present perfect (Ritz 2012, Ritz andEngel 2008). Swedish, Danish and Bulgarian also permit modification of a present perfect with the adverb yesterday (Dahl 1985:137-138). ...
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The Ghana Journal of Linguistics is a double-blind peer-reviewed scholarly journal appearing twice a year (not including special issues), published by the Linguistics Association of Ghana. Beginning with Volume 2 (2013) it is published as an open access journal in electronic format only, at and However, print-on-demand copies can be made available on application to Mr. Fred Labi of Digibooks Ghana Ltd.: or +233246493842. The Editors welcome papers on all aspects of linguistics. Articles submitted should be original and should not have been published previously elsewhere. The Editors welcome reports on research in progress and brief notices of research findings, as well as news of general interest to linguists. The Editors also welcome books from authors and publishers for review in the Ghana Journal of Linguistics. They may be sent to Prof. Ọbádélé Kambon, Editor-in-Chief, Ghana Journal of Linguistics, University of Ghana, P.O. Box LG 1149, Legon, Accra, Ghana. These will be used in editorial book critiques. Anyone who wishes to review a particular book is invited to contact the Editor-in-Chief. These will be considered for publication after internal review. As of January of 2016, GJL switched from an email-based article submission process to the use of website-based Open Journal Systems (OJS) software, which allows tracking of submissions, double-blind reviews, copyediting, production, and publication. We encourage linguists and scholars interested in linguistics to visit GJL’s website to peruse past issues and to submit their articles. To submit an article, the author must create an account at GJL’s website. Upon account creation, the author should complete all required information including the author’s full name in the form it should appear in print, plus his/her current academic or professional position, his/her field of research interest(s) and a short bio statement. Please see the inside back cover of this issue for detailed article submission guidelines. GJL complies with Creative Commons Attribution BY license. This copyright license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. More information on copyright and licensing information can be found here. The Ghana Journal of Linguistics is published by the Linguistics Association of Ghana, P.O. Box LG 61, Legon, Accra, Ghana. GJL Email: | GJL Website: LAG Email: | LAG Website: © Linguistics Association of Ghana and individual authors, 2022. ISSN 2026-6596 DOI: Published: 06/30/2022
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The western European present perfect is subject to substantial crosslinguistic variation. The literature, however, focuses on individual languages or on comparisons of a restricted number of languages. We piece together the puzzle and do so in a data-driven way by comparing the use of the present perfect through a parallel corpus based on the French novel L’Étranger and its translations in Italian, German, Dutch, European Spanish, British English, and Modern Greek. We introduce and showcase Translation Mining, a software suite combining a parallel corpus database with annotation and analysis tools. Translation Mining allows us to generate descriptive statistics of tense use across languages but also to visualize variation through its multidimensional scaling component and to link the variation we find to the underlying data through its integrated setup. We confirm that the present perfect competes with the past and we reveal the fine-grained scalar nature of the variation. To complete the puzzle, we ascertain the dimensions of variation, ranging from lexical and compositional semantics to dynamic semantics and pragmatics.
According to Kuryłowicz, Perfects universally evolve from an initial resultative meaning to a final stage where they eventually oust and replace existing aorists. In this respect, the English Present Perfect stands out in firmly disallowing the combination with specific past time adverbials. The quaint position of English explains the expression coined by Klein of a “Perfect Puzzle.” This article aims to shed light on the long and complex history of the relationship entertained by the Perfect with definite past time reference.
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This study investigates overall grammatical developments of written Australian English (AusE) across the twentieth century. Adopting an aggregate approach to language variation and change, it examines the distribution of a range of grammatical features which have previously been shown to be sensitive to variation over time. Multi-generic data were drawn from “AusBrown,” a set of balanced diachronic corpora following the design of the Brown family of corpora. Multivariate techniques such as hierarchical cluster analysis and multidimensional scaling were employed to outline the developmental path of AusE in relation to those of British and American English in order to shed light on the possible emergence of regional patterns. The results suggest that the period from the 1960s to the 1990s was one critical for the evolution of written AusE, preceded by a period of relative stagnation and followed by one characterized by a coalescence of the three varieties. Such a developmental path is largely compatible with significant sociohistorical trends that have shaped the language attitudes of Australians, including strong connections with its British legacy in the first few decades, political independence and rapid social progress in the mid-twentieth century, and accelerated globalization as a result of major technological advances towards the end of the century. Additionally, the findings reveal the dominance of features contributing to colloquialization and densification in the texts examined.
A thorough and precise account of all the major areas of English grammar. For practical reasons Rodney Huddleston concentrates on Standard English and only selected aspects of its regional variation. The book is written for students who may have no previous knowledge of linguistics and little familiarity with 'traditional' grammar. All grammatical terms, whether traditional or more recent, are therefore carefully explained, and in the first three chapters the student is introduced to the theoretical concepts and methodological principles needed to follow the later descriptive chapters.
The future of English linguistics as envisaged by the editors of Topics in English Linguistics lies in empirical studies which integrate work in English linguistics into general and theoretical linguistics on the one hand, and comparative linguistics on the other. The TiEL series features volumes that present interesting new data and analyses, and above all fresh approaches that contribute to the overall aim of the series, which is to further outstanding research in English linguistics. © 1997 by Walter de Gruyter & Co., D-10785 Berlin. All rights reserved.
While working on this project I have received institutional support of several kinds, for which I am most grateful. I thank the Institute for Advanced Study at Stanford University, and the Spencer Foundation. for a stimulating environment in which the basic idea of this book was developed. The Max Planck Institute for Psycho linguistics at Nijmegen enabled me to spend several months working on the the manuscript. A National Science Foundation grant to develop Discourse Representation Theory, and a grant from The University Research Institute of the University of Texas, also gave me time to pursue this project. I thank Helen Aristar-Dry for reading early drafts of the manuscript, Osten Dahl for penetrating remarks on a preliminary version, and my collaborator Gilbert Rappaport for relentless comments and questions throughout. People with whom I have worked on particular languages are mentioned in the relevant chapters. lowe a special debt of gratitude to the members of my graduate seminar on aspect in the spring of 1990: they raised many questions of importance which made a real differ­ ence to the final form of the theory. I have benefitted from presenting parts of this material publicly, including colloquia at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Pennsylvania, Rice University, the University of Texas, and University of Tel Aviv. I thank Adrienne Diehr and Marjorie Troutner for their efficient and good-humored help throughout the work on the first edition.