Zeno Vendler’s article, “Verbs and Time”, explained the complexity of the association of the two concepts. It is something that most speakers of the English language may not be aware of, but use it as he has explained. Trying to understand the context he employed can become difficult especially if the reader is not savvy with English grammar. He pointed out some nuances that can dramatically change the semantics of the phrase or sentence and dwelt much on how such semantics transform with the use of words depicting time.
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Verbs that show continuity of action and verbs that do not show such were compared by Vendler, as well as how they should be used and understood. The way he explained it seems to be catered to native English speakers, because if he presented his examples to students of English as a second language (ESL) or English as a Foreign language (EFL), then they would have been very confused even though he claimed that he had used clear-cut examples and avoided ambiguous terms. It takes someone who already knows the English language to understand the difference between action that is ongoing and action that has been completed using the same action word or verb. For example, the act of pushing something is different from having pushed something, the former being an activity term, and the latter an accomplishment term in terms of time schemata.
Verbs can also differ in the length of time they occur. Vendler differentiates these as accomplishment and achievement terms wherein accomplishment terms refer to an action that lasts for a period of time, and achievement terms only occur at a single moment in time (148). For example, ‘it took a decade for the couple to decide to get married’ is a phrase that determined an accomplishment on the part of the couple, but in saying ‘the couple decided to get married’, the decision is already the achievement.
The terms ‘can’ and ‘to be able’ were also analyzed. These are the words that show capability, but at the same time, emphasize something obvious. When one says ‘I can swim’ or ‘I am able to swim’, it means ‘I swim’, but with emphasis on the capability to swim, and not just swimming as something automatic such as breathing. Even the meaning of breathing can be interpreted in another context when one says ‘I am breathing’ and ‘I can breathe’. The former can mean a state one has reached and has maintained, while the latter can mean, it has just come to mind that he can breathe after an episode that he cannot. It is an achievement.
Reading the article can become hypnotic because one needs to follow Vendler’s train of thought or else it is easy to get lost in a sea of words. It can be likened to building dominoes, that if one loses track, everything just shatters in a mesh of useless junk. Then one asks, “Where was I and how did this happen?” If one is able to keep track, he/she can appreciate Vendler’s logic and whimsical philosophy. It is obvious that he had fun putting words together and playing around with them, sometimes to the point of being like a belligerent child trying to figure out the logic of his own speech.
Vendler argues that some verbs indicating a state of a person do not necessarily mean that the person is engaged in that action the whole time (152). If a person says she teaches for a living, it means she does teach people every day, but not the whole time she is breathing. She teaches during the day, does errands, eats, sleeps, meets friends, goes out on dates, watches movies, and does a whole gamut of other activities, but she remains a teacher who teaches for a living. Vendler uses exaggerated examples to make his point clearer and the reader figures out the point from the ridiculousness of his explanation. He has shown mastery in this strategy from his examples:
Is he ‘ruling’ only while he is addressing the assembly and surveying troups (sic), or also while he is eating lobster at a state dinner? We feel that some of his actions are more appropriate than others to his state as a ruler, but we also feel that none of them, in particular, can be called ‘ruling’. (Ventler 151).
In this example, Vendler tries to explain that the state of being a ruler encompasses all other regular things that ordinary men can do. Though the ruler even commits mistakes because he is only human, hence, not infallible. Vendler shows that some labels or states can be multi-faceted and one should not be myopic in just seeing the actions related to the state of being. In this sense, the verb is maintained over time, but with some small gaps that do not really affect the verb, at least in the duration of the time, the verb is being enacted.
The way Vendler argues his points can be very logical, even likened to a lawyer arguing his case. He picks out his evidences abundantly but carefully, so his line of reasoning does not get muddled up. The confidence he exudes in his writing is very strong, sometimes, even to the point of arrogance, that his readers are intimidated to pay attention or risk losing track and feeling stupid for not maintaining focus.
The article manifests Vendler’s penchant for organizing verbs into categories and then dissecting them to show why they belong to such a category. His skill in differentiating verbs, then making them intersect in meaning, then again separating them from each other can be confusing and it takes one to be accustomed to his style of writing and arguing to be able to follow through and reach his own “aha” moment.
Vendler’s arguments can spin a web of counter-arguments and sub-arguments. For example, his explanation of state and achievement further grows branches with more complicated examples. He contends, “In general, it is important to distinguish achievements that start activities from achievements that initiate a state.” One example is the verb of ‘knowing’, which is dissected into a state of knowing a certain concept, which a person may have achieved for some time now, as opposed to ‘knowing’ something new, which is an achievement, a beginning of a state of being for that new ‘knower’. This example is one evidence that Vendler builds upon his previous points, so one needs to really keep track and remember them so that he can more easily grasp his more advanced applications of earlier concepts.
One can say that the author is very meticulous in the use of language and that one mistake is easily spotted to mean something else. He puts much value on time schemata – the exact time the verb happened, when it started and stopped and how one describes the situation. Some verbs can show a process, and some can just be a short-lived moment.
The article vacillates from discussing deep meanings of certain verbs to shallow and very obvious meanings and sometimes, the reader is caught in between, trying to make sense of what is being discussed.
Engaging as his numerous examples can seem, it can also be an overkill that one gets tired, or even bored of reading too many words to explain a simple but taken-for-granted thought. However, that point, although understood in a simple way, is actually difficult to express in words, like how Vendler does it. This is where his eloquence is appreciated. The fact that he generously provides examples, and even leveling them up when he thinks his readers are ready, shows the perseverance of a patient teacher. He tries to reach out to his diverse students, deciphering ways to make them understand from where they are. He expertly brings his readers’ senses to action as he vividly makes them experience every detail of his examples, – how it feels, what they see, what they hear or taste or smell and how they become more deeply engaged in the experience. That way, they get immersed in the various verbs he uses as well as become lost in the time such verbs are happening. The following is an example:
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When I am writing, I see the pencil all the time, otherwise I could not write the way I do write. Nevertheless, I do not watch, observe, or scrutinize it, I might not look at it at all; I might not even notice its color. The same way, when I am walking up and down in my room, absorbed in my thoughts, I do not pay any attention to the furniture around me, yet I see it most of the time; otherwise I would bounce against tables and chairs every so often. Think of the way we see our noses or the frame of our spectacles. (Ventler 158).
This shows how Vendler values and advocates one to truly embrace experiences, to relish each moment and be aware of how the simplest things can make one feel or what one thinks at that particular time, and then put words in each experience subtlety to express it to others. Verbs make up most of those words, and their use can create the meaning of what one says.
Vendler advises his readers to appreciate the categories they come up with so as not to be confused with the meanings. Categories such as verbs being processes, states, accomplishments or achievements can clarify what a verb means (Vendler 159). For example, the verb “write” can be a process, (“I am writing”), a state, (“I write”), an accomplishment, (“I have been writing for three hours now”) or an achievement (“I have written the essay”). Along with these categories are the tenses appropriately used to show the actual meaning of the verb and how it happens at a particular time.
Personally, I found Vendler’s article dizzying and confusing, to say the least. It needs more than just one reading to be able to understand what he means. I admit to have been lost more than once, but caught up and found my way back when I retraced my steps. At times, I felt that I already know what he meant, but as I read his examples, I got illuminated on what he means. Little by little, I got to appreciate his wisdom. His whimsical use of words drove my imagination to great heights, as I found vantage point where I could see more clearly.
I confess boredom gripped me in some parts of the article, however, Vendler found ways to jolt me back to interest as he spiked up his examples with wild combinations of words, silly ideas and deep reflections. His passion to build up his arguments about verbs and time was sustained throughout the 18 pages and at the end, I was wiser for enduring the long, deep, philosophical and logical read.
Vendler’s article enhanced my knowledge about verbs and time. I thought I was already adept in this area, but his meticulous analysis and broad understanding of various categories pushed me to see verbs in a different perspective, with more depth and breadth. I do appreciate his examples, but I can do with less of them, at least in my first encounter with his work. I felt that although they are instrumental to my understanding, too many examples make it confusing. For me, the simpler, the better.
Still, I credit him for my newfound zest for expressing my ideas and observations in a more candid but vividly descriptive way, while choosing the right words to convey my message. Vendler is an impressive writer who uses language differently but effectively. I can emulate some strategies from his style of work.
Vendler, Zeno. “Verbs and Time”, The Philosophical Review, vol. 66, no. 2, 1957, pp. 143-160.