Time in natural language

Time in natural language: Syntactic interfaces with semantics and discourse. By Ellen Thompson. (Interface explorations 11.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2005. Pp. 224. ISBN 3110184141. $109 (Hb).

Reviewed by Andreea S. Calude, The University of Auckland

Thompson’s book is concerned with how language represents time. The main aim of the work is ‘to provide an analysis of the structure of time which accounts for the systematic correlation between the temporal meaning and structure of sentences’ (3).

The analysis is conducted within a generative-grammar framework, specifically the minimalist program, assuming the principles outlined in universal grammar. The readers are assumed to be familiar with the syntactic framework employed in the book, and little in the way of theoretical explanations is given throughout. The author makes use of a Reichenbachian approach to handle discussions relating to tense marking, and a Vendlerian classification for analysing aspect. The data comes almost exclusively from English (though there is a handful of examples in the endnotes from Chinese, German, Russian, and Spanish). Ch. 1 outlines the background to the study and explains how the seven chapters of the book are organized.

Ch.apter 2,: ‘The structure of time adverbials’ (15–49), is concerned with the syntax of tense. The discussion is not only limited to the tense phrase (TP), but also includes temporal information given throughout the clause, such as the Event time represented in the VP, and the Reference time in the AspectP. Temporal adjunct clauses constitute the focus of Ch. 3, ‘Adjunct clauses and the structural representation of simultaneity’ (51–85). T argues that the interpretation of various temporal adjunct clauses is reflected in their position within the clause.

Ch. 4, ‘The temporal syntax of arguments: Reduced relatives in subject position’ (87–117) gives an analysis of gerundive clauses that occur in subject position, with particular reference to the ambiguity problems regarding their temporal interpretation. It is proposed that gerundive relative clauses, which receive their temporal interpretation from the Event time, are correlated with a VP-internal interpretation of the subject (11).

The adverb then is at the heart of the discussion in Ch. 5, ‘Principles of time in discourse: Temporal syntax beyond the sentence’ (119–55). Here T examines the representation of tense at the discourse level, arguing that the analysis of tense presented in Ch. 2 accounts for the correlation between the meaning of then and its position within the clause.

In Ch. 6, ‘The structure of aspect’ (157–81), there is a shift in focus from tense to aspect, with the aim of showing that the theory developed in the pervious chapters for tense applies similarly to the investigation of aspect. In particular, it is once again shown, this time with reference to structures involving aspectual interpretations, that Event time is located in the VP and Reference time in AspectP.

Finally, T concludes with an analysis of aspectual verbs given in Ch. 7, ‘Syntax and semantics of aspectual verbs’ (183–204).

Time in natural language is intended for linguists interested in the minimalist framework and provides an account for how this framework could be applied to tense and aspect.