Aspect describes how a speaker feels about the action they are describing. In English there are generally accepted to be 3 aspects and they change how the verb is formed:
- simple (aka indefinite)
- continuous (aka progressive)
A Simple Example
To take an example. Suppose someone says:
I drive to central London every day.
She worked there for 20 years.
This is in the simple aspect; this means the speaker thinks about the action as completed or reasonably permanent (i.e. habitual).
They could also say:
Can you call back later, I am talking with a client right now.
He was working when you called.
This is using the progressive aspect which suggests that the actions are in progress (or were in progress) and will end sometime soon because they are not permanent but only temporary.
Finally they could say:
She has seen that film already (so she doesn’t want to see it again tonight).
We had left by the time you arrived.
In this case they are using the perfect aspect which is used to show something completed before another action.
Tense & Aspect
Notice how aspect is not necessarily related to tense or time but rather how the speaker feels about the action.
I am walking.
The difference here is not tense (they are both present) but in aspect. In the first the speaker talks about a permanent situation (habit) whilst in the second they are talking about a temporary situation.
But having said this, unlike a number of other languages, in English the relationship between tense and aspect is often very close.
Aspect in the TEFL Classroom
One question which comes up when talking about aspect is whether it is useful to teach it in the TEFL classroom.
In everyday usage, and for the majority of TEFL classes, we believe it is not really necessary or even that useful to bring aspect into the classroom as most students will get along fine without even being aware of what English aspect is all about.
For many students it is awkward to understand and will sometimes just begin to confuse them when it comes to looking at tense. It is probably best to ignore teaching aspect with most students.
Time and the Verb: A Guide to Tense and Aspect (book)