Professional Development

About Language activity #2: Lexical aspect

Scott Thornbury

This is the second article in our new Teacher Development series (#TDWednesday) where we’ll be sharing activities from Scott Thornbury’s new title, About Language Second Edition!

When examining or teaching verbs, we often concentrate on things such as tense and grammatical aspect – that’s to say, how verbs work and what changing a verb signifies. For example, when you add -ed to most verbs, you are indicating that something happened in the past, but when you use was + verb ­–ing, you are viewing the past event in terms of being continuous or incomplete or repeated. Compare: He cooked and He was cooking.

Another aspect which should also be considered is lexical aspect, or the meaning which verbs carry ‘within’ them. Often when thinking about this ‘built-in aspect’, we distinguish between ‘state’ or ‘action’ verbs. However, there is much more to lexical aspect!

In the below activity, and using examples from the corpus, Scott explores what happens when lexical aspect combines with grammatical aspect.

About Language activity – Lexical aspect

Verbs have built-in aspect. For example, some verbs express states, while most others express actions or events. Of these, some express processes, either with an end-point, or with no endpoint, while others express ‘punctual’ events, i.e. events that happen relatively quickly and have sharp boundaries.

  • States: Sotherton is an old place… It stands in one of the lowest spots of the park; your sister loves to laugh.
  • Processes with no end-point (activities): Mrs. Norris was talking to Julia; she walked slowly upstairs; the other young people were dancing.
  • Processes with an end-point (accomplishments): She fell asleep before she could answer the question; The two cousins walked home together; Mr. Crawford sat down.
  • Punctual verbs: Fanny has been cutting roses; Edmund knocked at her door; up jumped Susan.


When lexical aspect combines with grammatical aspect (e.g. the progressive), certain meanings – such as temporariness, incompletion or repetition – are foregrounded. Look at the underlined verbs in these extracts (from the Cambridge English Corpus). Compare them with their simple forms: what is the effect of adding progressive aspect?

State verbs:

a Now you are being silly. You, of all people, should understand how difficult it is. (Compare: You are silly.)

b ‘But it’s going really well. I am loving writing it,’ said Rowling. (Compare: I love writing it.)

Activity verbs:

c One evening at dusk, children were playing in the river. (Compare: Children played…)

d  While I was reading on the train after lunch, a gentleman came up to me and asked if I was James Schoke. (Compare: While I read…)

e  Our project is running a program with the University of Maryland School of Law. (Compare: Our project runs a program…)

Accomplishment verbs:

f  She said the Northwest flight was arriving from Detroit about 2 p.m. (Compare: the Northwest flight arrived…)

g  The past few years bee populations have been dying off. (Compare: bee populations have died off )

Punctual verbs:

h  The hounds were barking and there was general excitement in the air. (Compare: The hounds barked…)

i  Confederate guns had been firing on Fort Sumter for several hours. (Compare: had fired )

If you’ve enjoyed this exercise and want to delve further, have a read of the key and commentary section of Scott’s book (part 6)!

Now, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. How do you feel about your own understanding of lexical aspect and how it can impact upon meaning?
  2. In what ways could raising awareness of the categories of lexical aspect help your learners understand more complex verb structures?


Hopefully Scott’s activities have encouraged you to find out more!

We’ll be back next week with our third activity from About Language Second Edition!

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