Time is central to human cognition, both in terms of how we understand the world and the events that unfold around us as well as how we communicate about those events. As such, language has morphological systems, such as temporal adverbs, tense, and aspect to convey the passage of time. The current study explored the role of one such temporal marker, grammatical aspect, and its impact on how we understand the temporal boundaries between events conveyed in narratives. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants read stories that contained a target event that was either conveyed with a perfective (e.g., watched a movie) or imperfective aspect (e.g., was watching a movie) and engaged in an event segmentation task. Events described in the perfective aspect were more often perceived as event boundaries than events in the imperfective aspect, however, event duration (long vs. short) did not impact this relationship in Experiment 2. Experiment 3 demonstrated that readers were sensitive to grammatical aspect and event duration in the context of a story continuation task. Overall this study demonstrates that grammatical aspect interacts with world knowledge to convey event structure information that influences how people interpret the end and beginning of events.
Imperfective aspect (i.e., Mark was punching John) is interpreted by the language processing system as a dynamic, unfolding sequence of actions, whereas perfective aspect (i.e., Mark punched John) is interpreted as a complete whole. A recent study showed that grammatical aspect can influence perceptions of intentionality for criminal actions ( Hart & Albarracín, 2011 ). The current study builds on this finding. Five experiments examine whether grammatical aspect can also influence perceptions of blame, a concept related to intentionality. There were no effects of grammatical aspect on judgments of blame but the results showed an effect of narrated order (Experiments 1–3). First-mentioned actions made the agent more to blame for the outcomes than last-mentioned actions. This effect was not due to the order of the blame questions (Experiment 2) or influenced by the chronological order of the events (Experiment 3). Experiments 4 and 5 showed strong effects of grammatical aspect on temporal dynamics and revealed an interesting new finding. Grammatical aspect can influence the mental representation of a non-mentioned action. We discuss our results in light of the current literature on grammatical aspect effects.