Verbal Aspect

Verbal Aspect

Verbal aspect expresses the way an event arises, extends over time, repeats, or ends without referring to its temporal location, and it is intricately linked to the concept of verb tense. Before delving into this idea, keep in mind that in Spanish the concept of verbal aspect is complex because it encompasses three types, each of a different nature: the lexical, which focuses on the root (meaning) of verbs, the syntactical, which corresponds to the aspect of verbal periphrases, and the morphological, which is based on the desinence, i.e., ending, of verbs.

Lexical aspect involves not only the root of the verb but also the entire meaning of the predicate. Examine the following examples.

[Susana] [llegó a Lima en febrero.]

[Susana] [vivió en Lima durante varios años.]

According to section 23.2d of RAE’s Nueva Gramática, the difference between these two sentences is lexical: “the first sentence denotes an isolated event [llegó a Lima en febrero], while the second denotes a situation that extends throughout a period of time [vivió en Lima durante varios años]” (1685)[1]. The verb “llegar” specifies an event that does not continue and also is limited in time, and the verb “vivir” designates an event that continues and is not limited in time. Moreover, lexical aspect is determined not only by the meaning of the predicate but also by its construction, e.g., note the preposition “en” in the first sentence and “durante” in the second.

Syntactical aspect relates to verbal periphrases, which are formed by combining a conjugated auxiliary verb that provides temporal, aspectual, or modal information and an unconjugated main verb that provides the main idea; verbal periphrases may include particles such as prepositions (23.e, 1686)[1]. Examples of aspectual periphrases are “empezar a llover” (the beginning of a situation), “está lloviendo” (the progression of a situation), “terminar de llover” (the ending of a situation), or “parar de llover” (the interruption of a situation).

Morphological aspect is conveyed by the desinence of a verb when it is conjugated. The conjugation of the verb not only indicates the time an action, process, or state of being occurs but also whether this situation has ended (perfective aspect) or does not make refer to its beginning or end (imperfective aspect). Examine the following examples.

[Shakira] [cantó sus canciones antiguas.]

Because the action of singing has ended, the preterit tense conveys a perfective aspect.

[Shakira] [canta sus canciones antiguas.]

Because the beginning or ending of the action of signing is not expressed, the present tense conveys an imperfective aspect.

Section 23.2k of RAE’s Nueva Gramática indicates that perfective conjugations are the preterit (pretérito perfecto simple [canté]), the pluperfect (pretérito pluscuamperfecto [había cantado]), and the compound future (future compuesto [habré cantado]); imperfective conjugations are the imperfect (pretérito imperfecto [cantaba]) and the present (presente [canto]); neutral conjugations, which can be perfective in some contexts and imperfective in others, are the future (futuro simple [cantaré]) and the conditional (condicional simple [cantaría]). The morphological aspect (perfectivity or imperfectivity) of the compound present perfect (pretérito perfecto compuesto [he cantado]) depends on various grammatical factors and geographic locations (1688)[1].

The concept of verbal aspect in Spanish grammar is like that of English in the way that aspect expresses the way an event arises, extends over time, repeats, or ends without referring to its temporal location, but it differs in how it is categorized: in Spanish, there are three types of classifications (lexical, syntactical, and morphological), but in English, there is only one, which is simply referred to as aspect. Yet this term incorporates ideas from the lexical, syntactical, and morphological classifications in Spanish because nuances of the predicate require a specific tense, it uses auxiliary verbs as verb periphrases do, and changes in desinence express different aspects. English integrates all these elements by making use of the morphological aspect classification and adding the progressive and perfect progressive. Note that English uses the term perfect and Spanish uses the term perfective.


  1. ^ Nueva gramática de la lengua española. (Madrid: Espasa Libros, 2009).