Skip to main content Accessibility help

The relation between aspect and inversion in English 1

  • ASTRID DE WIT (a1)


This article discusses the peculiar use of the simple present/past in full-verb inversion (i.e. locative inversion, directional inversion, quotative inversion, presentational there), and the corresponding scarcity of progressive aspect in these contexts. While it is normally ungrammatical in English to use the simplex tenses to report events that are ongoing at reference time, inversion seems to defy this restriction. Building on a combination of insights from analyses of aspect and of full-verb inversion in English, this study presents a cognitive-functional explanation for this exceptional characteristic of inversion that has gone largely unnoticed in previous accounts. I argue that there exists a canonical relationship between the preposed ground and the postposed figure in full-verb inversion and that this meaning of canonicity ties in perfectly with the perfective value that I deem constitutive of the English simple tenses. In addition, some cases of directional inversion involve a ‘deictic effect’ (Drubig 1988): in these instances, the conceptualizer's vantage point is anchored within the ground and the denoted (dis)appearance of the figure is construed as inevitable. On the basis of a large sample of corpus data and native-speaker elicitations, I demonstrate that the use of the progressive is disallowed in inverted contexts that involve a deictic effect, while its use is dispreferred but not excluded in other cases of inversion. This study thus brings together insights from the domains of information structure and aspect in English, and merges these into a comprehensive cognitive account.



Hide All

The present analysis was written at the University of Colorado at Boulder under a fellowship granted by the Belgian American Educational Foundation. I thank Laura Michaelis and Frank Brisard for our challenging discussions on the ideas presented in this article, and the editor of ELL and two anonymous reviewers for their detailed comments on previous versions of this analysis. I further wish to express my gratitude to Betty Birner and Carlos Prado-Alonso for allowing me to make use of their corpus data, and to Jena Hwang for assisting me in collecting my own.



Hide All
Austin, John L. 1962. How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Birner, Betty J. 1994. Information status and word order: An analysis of English inversion. Language 70, 233–59.
Birner, Betty J. 1995. Pragmatic constraints on the verb in English inversion. Lingua 97, 233–56.
Birner, Betty J. & Ward, Gregory. 1992. On the interpretation of VP inversion in American English. Journal of Linguistics 28, 112.
Birner, Betty J. & Ward, Gregory. 1993. There-sentences and inversion as distinct constructions: A functional account. Proceedings of the nineteenth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 27–39.
Birner, Betty J. & Ward, Gregory. 1998. Information status and noncanonical word order in English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Bolinger, Dwight. 1977. Meaning and form. New York: Longman.
Bresnan, Joan. 1994. Locative inversion and the architecture of Universal Grammar. Language 70, 72131.
Brinton, Laurel J. 1988. The development of English aspectual systems: Aspectualizers and post-verbal particles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brisard, Frank. 2002. The English present. In Brisard, Frank (ed.), Grounding: The epistemic footing of deixis and reference, 251–97. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Bybee, Joan, Perkins, Revere & Pagliuca, William. 1994. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Calver, Edward. 1946. The uses of the present tense forms in English. Language 22 (4), 317–25.
Chen, Rong. 2003. English inversion: A ground-before-figure construction. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Chung, Sarah & Timberlake, Alan. 1985. Tense, aspect and mood. In Shopen, Timothy (ed.), Grammatical categories and the lexicon, vol. 3: Language typology and syntactic description, 202–58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Comrie, Bernard. 1976. Aspect: An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coopmans, Peter. 1989. Where stylistic and syntactic processes meet: Locative inversion in English. Language 65 (4), 728–51.
Croft, William & Cruse, Alan D.. 2004. Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. Oxford: Blackwell.
De Wit, Astrid. Forthcoming. The present perfective paradox across languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
De Wit, Astrid & Brisard, Frank. 2014. A Cognitive Grammar account of the semantics of the English present progressive. Journal of Linguistics 50 (1), 4990.
Dickey, Stephen M. 2000. Parameters of Slavic aspect: A cognitive approach. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Dorgeloh, Heidrun. 1997. Inversion in Modern English: Form and function. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Dowty, David R. 1975. The stative in the progressive and other essence/accident contrasts. Linguistic Inquiry 6, 579–88.
Drubig, Hans-Bernard. 1988. On the discourse function of subject-verb inversion. In Klegraf, Josef & Nehls, Dietrich (eds.), Essays on the English language and applied linguistics on the occasion of Gerhard Nickel's 60th birthday, 8395. Heidelberg: Julius Groos Verlag.
Goldsmith, John & Woisetschlaeger, Erich Friedrich. 1982. The logic of the English progressive. Linguistic Inquiry 13, 7989.
Green, Georgia. 1982. Colloquial and literary uses of inversions. In Tannen, Deborah (eds.), Spoken and written language: Exploring orality and literacy, 119–53. Norwood, NY: Ablex.
Hirtle, Walter H. 1967. The simple and the progressive forms: An analytical approach. Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval.
Hirtle, Walter H. 1995. The simple form again: An analysis of direction-giving and related uses. Journal of Pragmatics 24, 265–81.
Hopper, Paul J. 1979. Aspect and foregrounding in discourse. In Givon, Talmy (ed.), Discourse and syntax, 213–41. New York: Academic Press.
Hopper, Paul J. 1982. Aspect between discourse and grammar: An introductory essay to the volume. In Hopper, Paul J. (ed.), Tense–aspect: Between semantics and pragmatics, 318. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Huddleston, Rodney & Pullum, Geoffrey K.. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kim, Jong-Bok. 2003. English locative inversion: Grammatical interfaces and constructions. Proceedings of the twenty-ninth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 267–82.
Kreyer, Rolf. 2006. Inversion in modern written English: Syntactic complexity, information status and the creative writer. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things. What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1993. Nouns and verbs. Language 63, 5394.
Langacker, Ronald W. 2001. The English present tense. English Language and Linguistics 5, 251–73.
Langacker, Ronald W. 2011. The English present. In Patard, Adeline & Brisard, Frank (eds.), Cognitive approaches to tense, aspect and epistemic modality, 4586. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Leech, Geoffrey. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Levin, Beth. 1993. English verb classes and alternations: A preliminary investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Michaelis, Laura A. 1998. Aspectual grammar and past-time reference. London: Routledge.
Michaelis, Laura A. 2004. Type shifting in Construction Grammar: An integrated approach to aspectual coercion. Cognitive linguistics 15, 167.
Michaelis, Laura. 2006. Time and tense. In Aarts, Bas & McMahon, April (eds.), The handbook of English linguistics, 220–34. Oxford: Blackwell.
Michaelis, Laura. 2011. Stative by construction. Linguistics 49, 1359–99.
Milsark, Gary Lee. 1974. Existential sentences in English. PhD thesis: MIT.
Partee, Barbara. 1984. Nominal and temporal anaphora. Linguistics and Philosophy 7, 243–86.
Partee, Barbara & Borschev, Vladimir. 2007. Existential sentences, BE and the genitive of negation in Russian. In von Heusinger, Klaus & Comorovski, Ileana (eds.), Existence: Semantics and syntax, 147–90. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
Penhallurick, John. 1984. Full-verb inversion in English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 4, 3356.
Petré, Peter. Forthcoming. Semanticization and frequency. On the changing textual functions of [BE Ving] from Old to Early Modern English. English Language and Linguistics 20 (1).
Prado-Alonso, Carlos. 2011. Full-verb inversion in written and spoken English. Bern: Peter Lang.
Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey & Svartvik, Jan. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.
Rochemont, Michael S. & Culicover, Peter W.. 1990. English focus constructions and the theory of grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Carlota S. 1997. The parameter of aspect, 2nd edition. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Stockwell, Robert P. 1981. On the history of the verb-second rule in English. In Fisiak, Jacek (eds.), Historical syntax, 575–92. Berlin: Mouton.
Vanden Wyngaerd, Guido. 2005. Simple tense. In Dikken, Marcel Den & Tortora, Christina (eds.), The function of function words and functional categories, 187215. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Vlach, Frank. 1981. The semantics of the progressive. In Tedeschi, Philip J. & Zaenen, Annie (eds.), Syntax and semantics, vol. 14: Tense and aspect, 415–34. New York: Academic Press.
Webelhuth, Gert. 2011. Motivating non-canonicality in Construction Grammar: The case of locative inversion. Cognitive linguistics 22 (1), 81105.
Williams, Christopher. 2002a. Non-progressive and progressive aspect in English. Fasano: Schena editore.
Williams, Christopher. 2002b. Non-progressive aspect in English in commentaries and demonstrations using the present tense. Journal of Pragmatics 34, 1235–56.
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

De Wit supplementary material

 PDF (349 KB)
349 KB

The relation between aspect and inversion in English 1

  • ASTRID DE WIT (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.