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I was given a link to this Q and A board by a member of English Language & Usage and this issue has been rattling around in my head for almost a day now.

QUESTION by https://ell.stackexchange.com/users/1224/sherlock

As/while I was walking along the beach, I saw a UFO.
(link to the actual question)

In that sentence, what difference does it make if the past progressive verb is replaced with a simple past?

As/while I walked along the beach, I saw a UFO.

ANSWER by https://ell.stackexchange.com/users/32/stoneyb

In this example it makes no difference, because both as and while constrain an imperfective reading of the verb. That is, even though past-form walked is ordinarily understood as perfective (not 'perfect'), a completed action, use with as or while forces it to be understood as an activity in progress.

With when, however, it might make a difference, depending on whether the verb in the when clause is telic or atelic—has or does not have a final change of state ‘built in’ to its meaning. The verb in your when clause is atelic, so again it makes no difference in your example. But if the verb is telic—leave, for instance, which involves a change of location—it does make a difference.

  • With a telic verb, the past form is understood as perfective in a when clause; in that case, the action in the main verb will be understood to to occur after the completed action in the when clause:

    When I left the beach, I saw a UFO.

  • But if the verb in the when clause is atelic, or if it is a telic verb cast in the progressive form (which ‘stativizes’ it), it is understood as imperfective, an action in progress, and the action in the main clause will be understood to occur during the non-completed action in the when clause:

    When I was leaving the beach, I saw a UFO.

HERE ARE MY QUESTIONS

  1. Why do both as and while constrain an imperfective reading of the verb?
  2. Can the when's in the answer sentences be replaced by while's and if yes does this make them both imperfective?

To me it seems that in the first paragraph of the answer the aspect depends on the as/while clause whereas in the second one with the when clause on the verb itself (telic or atelic)

Thanks in advance for your support!

2
  1. As and while in their temporal senses constrain imperfective readings because that’s part of their semantics: both mean approximately “during” a timespan defined in the remainder of the clauses they head. The matrix clause which the As or While clause modifies is seen as taking place within the continuing action which the As or While clause describes—which is thus by definition imperfective, since neither its beginning nor its end lies within the timeframe of the matrix clause.

  2. You may encounter As or While temporal clauses with telic verbs in the simple past.

    While I left the beach, I saw a UFO.

    In this case, yes, while constrains an imperfective reading of left. But it’s a use that I think most native speakers would find more than a little ‘off’.

    • The simple past is by default perfective.
    • Perfectivity is more strongly marked with verbs which can be ‘perfected’, viz., telic verbs.
    • It is even more strongly marked with LEAVE, whose lexical aspect is not merely telic but very close to cessative, explicitly marking the end of a state.
    • And at the same time as these factors are resisting the necessary imperfective reading in the While clause, the verb in the matrix clause, saw, is a stative which by contrast inherently prefers an imperfective reading.

    So I think this sentence unlikely to occur except in speech where the speaker is groping for words. Most people would say

    While I was leaving the beach, I saw a UFO.

    But as I explained in the previous answer, a While clause with an activity verb takes a simple past more readily, particularly if the matrix clause employs either an activity verb or a telic verb which is syntactically constrained to a repetitive reading:

    While I ran on the beach, I saw several UFOs.


I did not make clear in my previous answer that I was addressing only temporal clauses. The situation is of course quite different when these conjunctions are used in non-temporal senses, roughly equivalent to because and although respectively.

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