El aspecto léxico

One of the keys to mastering the past tenses in Spanish (e.g. imperfect vs. preterite) is understanding the lexical aspect of the verb or predicate (the verb and other elements telling us what the subject does or is read more).

"The 'lexical aspect' or 'aktionsart' of a verb is a part of the way in which that verb is structured in relation to time. Any event, state, process, or action which a verb expresses—collectively, any eventuality—may also be said to have the same lexical aspect. Lexical aspect is distinguished from grammatical aspect: lexical aspect is an inherent (semantic) property of an eventuality, whereas grammatical aspect is a (syntactic or morphological) property of a realization. Lexical aspect is invariant, while grammatical aspect can be changed according to the whims of the speaker".1


There are several schools of thought regarding lexical aspect, but the most popular model is that proposed by Vendler (1967), which classifies verbs into four broad categories: states (estados), activities (actividades), accomplishments (realizaciones) and achievements (logros).2



1) Estados

Stative verbs (or predicates) describe situations that are static or unchanging throughout their entire duration. Temporary or circumstantial states (e.g. estar sentado) normally accept the time adverbial 'durante x tiempo', but permanent or intrinsic states do not (e.g. ser alto). Stative verbs have no natural endpoint (atelic - see predicado télico), therefore they do not accept the time adverbial 'en x tiempo' (except for the inchoative interpretation).

"Un predicado de «estado» es estático y continuo y se da de forma homogénea durante el lapso de tiempo en el que se extiende, por ello, un estado está léxicamente incapacitado para expresar cambio o progresión".3


-ser español/mujer/de familia humilde

→era español/mujer/de familia humilde [Normally used in imperfect since they have no limit (atelic)]

fue español/mujer/de familia humilde (durante x tiempo)?? [Permanent or intrinsic states, often referred to as qualities, do not normally accept 'durante x tiempo' and cannot be used in the preterite (pretérito prefecto simple o indefinido) unless there is a change, e.g. a sex change]



-ser piloto/divertido

→ era piloto/divertido

→ fue piloto/divertido (durante poco tiempo/durante toda su vida) ['Ser piloto' is not an intrinsic state and can be delimited by time, hence it accepts 'durante x tiempo' and can be used in the preterite −see era/fue]

→Fue piloto en poco tiempo [Inchoative interpretation; ≈llegó a ser piloto en poco tiempo]


-estar sentado

→estaba sentado

→→estuvo sentado durante unos minutos ['Estar sentado' is clearly a temporary state]

 estuvo sentado en unos minutos [Inchoative interpretation; ≈llegó a estar sentado en unos minutos]


b) Stative verbs don't normally accept the perífrasis 'estar+gerundio', since it denotes an ongoing dynamic and delimited event; however, there are several scenarios where they can be used in this way: when describing someone's behaviour; with an inchoative interpretation (denoting the onset of the state); used emphatically with some verbs (e.g. necesitar, querer); used with delimited events with qualitative adjectives (e.g. aburrido, divertido) to add 'dinamismo', i.e. to show it's our current impression and that it is progressing.

"[...] En cuanto a la perífrasis «estar + gerundio», ésta presenta un evento en desarrollo que coincide con una referencia temporal que le proporciona límites".


-ser tonto/amable

→es tonto/amable

→→está siendo tonto/amable [Comportamiento; temporary, ongoing, possibly intentional]


-conocer a alguien

→conozco a Juan

→→estoy conociendo a Juan [Inchoative interpretation; 'getting to know him']


-necesitar algo

→la casa necesita una mano de pintura

→→está necesitando una mano de pintura [Emphatic; urgentemente]


-ser aburrido

→la obra es aburrida [A quality]

la obra está siendo aburrida [The interpretation of the play is a delimited event; our current impression]

la obra fue aburrida (durante x tiempo/de principio a fin) [Seen as completed]

la obra era aburrida

→la obra estaba siendo aburrida (en ese momento) [Dynamic; implies a change or our impression at that moment]



2. Actividades (o procesos)

Activities have a duration (durativo) but no natural endpoint (atelic - see predicado télico). Activities can be interrupted at any time and can usually be identified by adding a complement of time such as 'durante x tiempo'. They do not usually accept the adverbial 'en x tiempo'. They are often used with the perífrasis 'estar+gerundio'.

-trabajar en el campo

→trabajó en el campo durante dos horas

→→estuvo trabajando en el campo durante dos horas

Trabajó en el campo en dos horas??



→jugaron durante varias horas

estuvieron jugando durante varias horas

→jugaron en varias horas??


3) Realizaciones

Accomplishments have a duration and a natural endpoint (telic -see predicado télico). If an accomplishment is interrupted before it has reached completion, the event has not actually "happened". Accomplishments often accept 'durante x tiempo' and almost always 'en x tiempo'.

-escribir una carta

→escribí una carta durante dos horas [The person didn't finish writing the letter; 'interpretación de acción inconclusa']

→→estuve escribiendo una carta durante dos horas ['Estar+gerundio' is generally preferred with 'durante', since it denotes an ongoing, incomplete accomplishment 3]

escribí una carta en dos horas [≈terminé de escribir la carta al cabo de dos horas; un proceso que duró dos horas]


-comer(se) la manzana

→se?? comió la manzana durante dos minutos [The so-called 'Se' aspectual denotes culmination and, therefore, is not normally compatible with 'durante x tiempo']

→→estuvo comiendo la manzana durante dos minutos ['Estar+gerundio' is usually better when describing an incomplete accomplishment]

→→→se comió la manzana en dos minutos [The presence of the 'Se aspectual' is the norm in spoken Spanish when referring to specific quantity]


4) Logros (o consecuciones)

Achievements have an endpoint but have no (or very little) duration; for this reason they do not normally accept 'durante x tiempo' (except for estado resultante). They do accept 'en x tiempo' but, unlike accomplishments, it refers to the time leading up to the point where the event happens rather than the duration of the process.

-llegar a casa

→llegó a casa en media hora [≈después de media hora llegó; transcurrida media hora llegó]

→→Llegó a casa durante media hora??



→murió durante una semana??

→→murió en una semana [≈después de una semana murió; transcurrida una semana murió]


-detener al ladrón

→lo detuvieron durante dos horas [Estado resultante; ≈lo detuvieron y estuvo detenido durante dos horas5]

lo detuvieron en dos horas [≈después de dos horas lo detuvieron]


Two other categories of verbs that are mentioned by the RAE are the semelfactive (semelfactivo) and the iterative (frecuentativo/iterativo) verbs.


5) Semelfactivos

Semelfactive verbs express instantaneous actions that can be counted, but often refer to a repeated action that is equivalent to an activity, in which case they accept 'durante x tiempo'. They do not normally accept 'en x tiempo'.4


tosió una vez

→tosió durante unos minutos [Un número indeterminado de repeticiones; an activity]

→tosió en unos minutos??



disparó una vez

disparó durante treinta segundos [Un número indeterminado de repeticiones; an activity]

→ → →disparó en treinta segundos?? [Possible if the meaning is 'consiguió disparar en treinta segundos']


6. Frecuentativos e iterativos

 Frequentive and iterative verbs always express a repeated action through time. They accept 'durante x tiempo' but not 'en x tiempo'.5

-frecuentar el bar

→frecuentó el bar durante varios años [A repetitive action]

→→frecuentó el bar en varios años??

→frecuentó el bar una vez??



→picoteó durante un rato [A repetitive action]

→picoteó en un rato??

→picoteó una vez??


It's important to remember that, while some verbs have an inherent aspect, often the aspect is dependent on the other elements in the sentence, such as the presence or absence of a determiner or other elements that delimit the event. Some predicates may have several interpretations.6-7-8

-escribir cartas durante 5 minutos [Transitive verb with plural/uncountable object without a determiner (escueto) is usually an activity]

→escribir una carta en 5 minutos [Transitive verbs with a specific number of countable objects are usually accomplishments (realizaciones)]


-llegar los invitados en dos horas [With determiner; an achievement (un logro)]

 llegar invitados durante varias horas [Without determiner; an activity]


-pasear en el parque durante 5 minutos ['Pasear en el parque' is atelic; it is an activity]

→pasear por todo el parque en 5 minutos ['Pasear por todo' has a limit; it is an accomplishment]


-adelgazar en dos días [Some verbs can be classed as either accomplishments or activities]

→adelgazar durante dos días 


-dejar de tocar la pieza [With 'dejar de' it is seen as an activity]

terminar de tocar la pieza [With 'terminar de' it is seen as an accomplishment] 

-El aspecto léxico | imperfecto vs. indefinido-

incompatibles con --estar geundio-