The preterite and the imperfect as grounding predications


Abstract  This paper seeks to provide an empirically satisfactory analysis of two Spanish past grammatical predications, the preterite and the imperfect, which accounts for the intuitions behind previous characterizations found in the literature and, at the same time, overcomes their shortcomings. Under the present analysis, these two forms are characterized as grounding predications whose function, the specification of how the designated process relates to the ground, involves three crucial epistemic notions: time, the conception of the world, and reality. Time. The imperfect and the preterite are argued to be two markers indicating epistemic nonimmediacy of different kinds. In particular, it will be shown that, on one hand, the preterite establishes the nonimmediacy of the situation with respect to the ground. Thus, situations are located in the past. On the other hand, the imperfect states that it is the conceptualizer apprehending the situation who is located at a distal point from the ground. Contrary to previous analyses, it will be argued that the imperfect does not necessarily provide a specific temporal location of the situation itself, as it may be prior to, simultaneous with, or posterior to the time of speaking. Conception of the world. Two kinds of situation characterize the description of the world: situations designating the way the world is, and those referring to actual occurrences in the world. The former belong to the structure of the world plane; the latter, in the actuality plane (Goldsmith & Woisetschaleger 1982). Drawing on Langacker’s characterization of nonhabitual repetitives vs. habituals, and plural generics (in press), the present analysis proposes that the preterite indicates that the situation it modifies belongs to the actuality plane, while the imperfect states that it may belong to the structural plane. These claims account for the choice of the imperfect over the preterite in the expression of habituals, generics, and predicates designating properties as opposed to actual occurrences. Reality. Based on work carried out by Fauconnier (1994) and Mejías-Bikandi (1993), this analysis proposes that the choice of the imperfect or the preterite functions as a space-tracking device, allowing participants to identify the relevant space for the interpretation of a discourse. Thus, while the imperfect renders accessible embedded perception spaces, quantifier spaces, irrealis, and movie spaces, the choice of the preterite is limited to reality. All three notions, i.e., time, conception of the world, and reality, are interrelated and, consequently, will be integrated into a unified characterization. The conceptualization of a situation from a past viewpoint, away from the speaker´s position at the time of speaking, and the absence of any temporal specification of the situation together account for the nontemporal uses of the imperfect. The conceptualization of a situation from the perspective of the time of speaking and the location of a situation at a past point in time are responsible for the temporal functions of the preterite.

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