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The following six examples are taken from Google Books:

Now that they were up close, it was clear that one section of the wall was glowing a much deeper green than the rest. Jack moved next to her and placed his hand against the marble. He ran his fingers up and down, but didn't feel a seam.

The wall was glowing like I remembered, but, there was something different about it. There was a large pair of eyes staring at me. They were glowing with the wall imprinted into it like it was camouflaged. I backed away from the eyes.

More bosses were coming, blowing their horns, trampling the damned who had gathered to see what all the fuss was about. Sam turned back to the wall. At last he saw it. The door, set into a recess in the wall, was glowing with red light.


I watched as the wall glowed first with a bright green for a couple of seconds. Then the green vanished shortly afterwards and it changed to a bright yellow glow that remained constant. Suddenly, without warning, the eye activated again.

When his hand made contact, that part of the wall glowed around the exact outline of his hand. He pushed against the wall. It was hard and resisted the force he put upon its surface.

Wall lights flickered and came to life. At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped before a metal door with oversized rivets and bolts around the edges. A small, red light behind a glass bubble protruding from the wall glowed like an evil eye.

I think all these glows share a lexical aspect of activity.

But in these examples, I'm not sure how the imperfective and perfective aspects bear on the semantics. To me, both would basically mean the same in the given context.

I couldn't find any reason one aspect would be preferred over the other. Does the perfectivity matter that much in the semantics of these six examples?

In the fifth example, the difference would be obvious. With the perfective aspect, glow occurs after made contact. With the imperfective aspect, it would make no sense because the sentence is intended to mean the wall can glow after the contact.

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    None of them are in the perfect aspect. They are past continuous (progressive) and simple past. – Jim Reynolds Jun 28 '16 at 16:14
  • You confused 'perfect tense' with 'perfective aspect'. @JimReynolds see ell.stackexchange.com/tags/aspect/info – Kinzle B Jun 28 '16 at 16:17
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    The simple past implicates perfectivity, but with non-telic verbs it's, well, not so simple! There's no inherent end to an activity, so the perfectivity is readily cancellable. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 28 '16 at 16:25
  • I don't know what the perfective aspect of glow might be. Having attained full glow, like a slow lightbulb? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 28 '16 at 16:26
  • Does the simple past invite readers to imagine the wall started to glow rather than a continuous glowing? @StoneyB – Kinzle B May 11 '17 at 14:57
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This is a good illustration of the difference between tense and aspect.

Consider the following:

Fact: I went to the store yesterday at 4:00 PM.

Ways of expressing this:

A. Yesterday, I went to the store.

B. Yesterday, I was going to the store.

With regard to time, A and B are not different. They are both talking about the past, and they're talking about the same general time period too. But these two statements are not referring to the same thing at all. In A, I'm referring to an event, whereas in B I'm referring to a continuation.

This distinction is useful for emphasis. For instance, if my mother asks me to pick up milk, but there's already milk in the fridge, I might respond with A to communicate that an event happened yesterday that makes her request unnecessary. However, if she asks me why I didn't mow the lawn yesterday, I might respond with B to communicate that there was a continuous action yesterday that consumed the time in which I would've been mowing.

In your first example, the author is saying that the wall glowed green, had been doing so, and continued to do so. If they had said "it was clear that one section of the wall glowed a much deeper green than the rest," it would place an unnecessary emphasis on the event of the glow and would imply temporal bounds that were not intended.

The second and third would also receive unintended temporal bounds if communicated with simple aspect.

For the final three, where a simple aspect is used, the glows being described have well defined temporal bounds; respectively, they have a start, a start and a change, and a start. The emphasis is on those events rather than their continuums.

Does it matter that much?

Any of those aspects could be toggled and you probably still would have gotten the point. But ignoring the technical aspect for a moment, the difference is still marked.

Check out the verbs in 2:

The wall was glowing like I remembered, but, there was something different about it. There was a large pair of eyes staring at me. They were glowing with the wall imprinted into it like it was camouflaged. I backed away from the eyes.

The wall was glowing. There was something different. There was a large pair of eyes. They were glowing. It was camouflaged. I backed away from the eyes.

See that? Continuous, continuous, continuous, EVENT! The passage uses a string of continuous (or continuously formed) verbs to lead up to a simple verb that jumps out at you. That would have been broken up with a simple tense glow.

Or how about 6:

Wall lights flickered and came to life. At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped before a metal door with oversized rivets and bolts around the edges. A small, red light behind a glass bubble protruding from the wall glowed like an evil eye.

This scene is quiet. It's moody. It's expectant. All those terse, simple verbs in a line? Something's going to happen. But if you put a continuous glow in the last sentence instead, it would dissipate that tension.

  • I generally agree with you and I like that you discuss technical stuff in plain English. One minor point -- I think I wouldn't read "The wall was glowing. There was something different. There was a large pair of eyes. They were glowing. It was camouflaged. I backed away from the eyes." as Continuous, continuous, continuous, EVENT!, but I get your point. (Personally, I would think of it as "observation, observation, observation, observation, action".) – Damkerng T. Jun 28 '16 at 20:09
  • @DamkerngT. and if you're look at it strictly, most of them really aren't continuous at all. There was something different would need some sort of being verb in order to actually be continuous. However, instead of "There was a large pair of eyes staring at me.", he could have said, A large pair of eyes stared at me, making the eyes the direct agent and removing the continuous formation of the verb. So, no, they aren't continuous, but choosing a shape that feels to us like continuation gives the wanted emphasis, in the same way the line of observations and then actions does. – Isaiah Taylor Jun 28 '16 at 20:20
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    Hmm... the paraphrase of There was a large pair of eyes staring at me, "A large pair of eyes stared at me", caught my eye. We could argue that "A large pair of eyes was staring at me" is probably closer to the original, but I digress. This answer is a good answer anyway, IMHO. – Damkerng T. Jun 28 '16 at 20:31

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