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Why the Romans were successful - they were imperfectionists, perhaps?

When teaching perfect-imperfect, throwing this information into the ring might help kids get to grips with the differences. And might end up making them into better students.....

What I Was Doing Vs. What I Did: How Verb Aspect Influences Memory And Behavior
ScienceDaily (Mar. 13, 2009) — If you want to perform at your peak, you should carefully consider how you discuss your past actions. In a new study in Psychological Science, psychologists William Hart of the University of Florida and Dolores Albarraca n from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reveal that the way a statement is phrased (and specifically, how the verbs are used), affects our memory of an event being described and may also influence our behavior.

In these experiments, a group of volunteers were interrupted prior to finishing a word game and were then asked to describe their behavior using the imperfective (e.g., I was solving word puzzles) or perfective (e.g., I solved word puzzles) aspect. The volunteers then completed a memory test (for the word game) or a word game which was similar to the first one they had worked on.
It turns out, the volunteers who had described their behavior using the imperfective aspect were able to recall more specific details of their experience compared to volunteers who had described their behavior in the perfective aspect. The volunteers writing in the imperfective aspect also performed better on the second word game and were more willing to complete the task than did volunteers who used the perfective to describe their experience.
The authors surmise that when we think about our past behavior in the imperfective (e.g. what we were doing), we tend to imagine that behavior as ongoing (and not completed yet). This enables us to easily think about what went into that behavior and may help us improve performance on similar tasks in the future.
The authors note that these findings may be relevant to behavioral therapy. They suggest that "decreasing the frequency of unhealthy behaviors might be facilitated by discussing these behaviors in terms of what I did. In contrast, increasing the frequency of healthy behaviors might be facilitated by discussing these behaviors in terms of what I was doing."

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Comment by Laura Gibbs on March 13, 2009 at 9:57am
Evan, this is TOTALLY AMAZING. I am obsessed with verbal aspect and I always feel terrible that Latin and Greek is taught without real attention to verbal aspect - the perfect and imperfect are taught as if they were tenses. In Slavic languages, verbal aspect reigns supreme (no tense - just past, and non-past - so the non-past of an imperfective stem is what we call the present, while the non-past of the perfective stem of the same verb is the future - but morphologically THEY ARE THE SAME - you cannot tell by looking at the ending; it is an aspectual difference, carried by the stem).

This application of the idea of aspect which is lurking about in the English tense system is really fascinating. You can discover all kinds of things about aspect in English from the way that people shift into present tense when telling stories in English, and back into past tense. Although I am compelled by the rules of written English to call this incorrect when I am marking my student papers, it is pretty clear to me what is happening in linguistic terms: the present tense is NOT just the present tense in English... it is the imperfective (because, after all, what we call the imperfect is a periphrastic, and very annoying for that reasons).

So, when someone is telling a story, and starts using present tense verb forms, it's not about shifting tense, it's about SHIFTING ASPECT - There was this robber. And he goes into a bank and he grabs the teller by the hair. The teller screamed bloody murder but the robber doesn't even pay attention and says, "Give me the money." But the teller didn't give him the money. Instead, she karate-chopped him and everyone lived happily ever after. - The person who tells a story that way in English (it is a very natural thing to do) is NOT confused about tense (even though that is what the "grammar rules" claim). Instead, they are just using the power of verbal aspect for storytelling.

I wish I did not have to mark such stuff as "incorrect" on my students' papers...


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