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These examples from wikipedia are shown as tests to find what is telic, or atelic.

Fine: "John built a house in a month."
Bad: *"John built a house for a month."

    → built a house is telic

Bad: *"John built houses in a month."
Fine: "John built houses for a month."

I'm wondering if there are verb phrases that fit neither. I've been trying to think of what would be a verb like that, but I'm having no success.

I'm also having trouble figuring this out by reading the article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telicity

A related question What makes progressive verbs different from atelic, and can a verb be both atelic/telic, and/or progressive?

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  • I don’t see how any statement can be neither telic nor atelic – that would be equivalent to saying it was neither complete in some sense, nor was it incomplete in some sense. What would it be, then, if neither complete nor incomplete? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 15 at 15:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Potentially complete? – WS2 Mar 15 at 15:15
  • I see nothing about those sentences that would make one better or worse than the other. And I certainly don't see how the singularity or plurality has any bearing on that judgment. (I can spend a month building either one house or many houses. And I can do either thing in a month or for a month.) – Jason Bassford Mar 15 at 15:58
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    This would be a good question for the Linguistics Stack Exchange, since languages other than English incorporate telicity as a grammatical aspect and the argument (if there is one) for being neither telic nor atelic could be examined more overtly. At least in English, I have trouble imagining a verb that isn't either telic or atelic in use, but it's also not a marked part of our grammar. – TaliesinMerlin Mar 15 at 16:18
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I am neither a wife-beater nor a non-wife-beater because I don't have a wife. – Peter Wone Mar 16 at 1:36
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It can be difficult to determine the telicity of a verb, but all verbs must be telic or atelic in context.

Imagining a verb that is neither telic nor atelic is rather like imagining a binary number that is neither 1 nor 0, or imagining an object that is neither tea nor not tea. Because a telic aspect indicates that an action or event is complete in some sense, and an atelic verb is simply the inverse (an action or event that is incomplete), you're essentially asking if an action or event can be neither complete nor incomplete. I don't think that's possible, as even an indeterminate or ambiguous action/event would have to be one or the other.

However, because telicity is partly determined by context (where/how/by whom the sentence is said) and semantics (what the sentence means), the test posed above is flawed for a verb that can take either expression in context. In other words, because the aspect of telicity depends on the noun phrases following the verb, adverbials, tense, and other contextual features, there are verb forms that can be interpreted as telic or atelic in the same expression. Take the verb eat in the following form:

I ate.

Telic test:

I ate in an hour. (Telic - the action was completed in an hour; clearer with a count direct object like the cake but still telic here)

Atelic test:

I ate for an hour. (Atelic - the action went on for an hour without necessarily being completed; clearer with a noncount direct object like cake but still atelic here)

Fun alternatives involve adding other expressions or intonations to mean "I already ate," "I just ate," "I ate for a while," and other items to create telic or atelic meanings.

In other words, telicity in English isn't as bounded a grammatical aspect as perfect or progressive aspects. It is not only determined at the verb level or even at the verb phrase level, but also by the semantic interactions between verbs and everything around it.

Nonetheless, every use of a verb is ultimately telic or atelic, in the sense that it will be interpreted to describe either a completed action/event or one still in process.

My main scholarly source for this is Hana Filip in Aspect, Eventuality Types, and Nominal Reference (1999). Filip urges moving away from thinking of telicity as an aspect determined on the lexical or phrasal level. While much of the argument is complex, her key claim comes through here:

Aspect shift is traditionally accounted for at the lexical level, in terms of lexical ambiguity. In section 3.8.2, it has been argued that a uniform treatment of aspect shift in terms of lexical rule strategy is not viable, given that lexical rules are not flexible enough to handle the whole range of phenomena that fall under aspect shift.

Recent accounts of meaning shifts, discussed above, treat the dependency between the verb and the adjunct as encoded by some specification either only on the verb or only on the adjunct. There is yet another way to analyze this dependency: namely, verbs (along with their arguments) and adjuncts are mutually constraining, and therefore the relevant constraints could be stated over both of them.

...

The difference between such pairs of sentences indicates that it is not an adjunct on its own that determines the telicity of a given sentence. It is the inherent lexical semantics of the verb together with the semantics of the adjunct that together determine whether a sentence will have a telic or an atelic reading.

  • Okay. You've explained the distinction well. If I understand correctly the general rules don't matter so much for telicity. What is more relevant is mostly the contextual usage of the verb. There may be some loose rules like in, and for usage, but those are not universal. Still all verbs must be telic, or atelic/complete or incomplete. I have a related question here on progressive forms english.stackexchange.com/questions/489866/… – Quentin Engles Mar 15 at 19:10
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If you understand telic to be a description of the utterance in terms of whether it presents a completed act, then the following are telic utterances:

John built a house.

John built the house in only a month.

but depending on what the speaker means to say in context, this could be atelic:

John was building that house for a year (i.e. when he gave up because he ran out of funds).

or telic:

John was building that house for a year (it took him so long because he did it alone).

There's nothing morphological there that indicates the difference.

But one could say that "building that house for a year" is atelic in both cases and that the context in the second presents the atelic utterance in light of the now completed act. John was "at it" for a full year in both cases. In the first he ceased (with the house incomplete) and in the second he ceased (with the house completed).

So you might think of atelic verbs as those verbs or verb phrases (including any adverbial modifiers and direct objects) whose action can cease in media res.

She ate the cracker in one bite. telic

She was nibbling at the cracker. atelic

She nibbled the cracker.

  • Thanks for the clear explanation, and examples. I'm also wondering if there can be forms that would be neither telic, or atelic. Some indeterminate form maybe? – Quentin Engles Mar 15 at 16:58
  • Predications involving a general truth or fact are not telic, but I wouldn't consider them atelic either. This model gets good gas mileage or She goes to bed late. – TRomano Mar 15 at 19:14
  • Oh that's weird. But can we apply some harsh time frame? Like She goes to bed late while alive, or This model gets good gas mileage when in good running condition. Those are definite time frames, but the ending is indeterminate! – Quentin Engles Mar 15 at 19:25
  • You should use examples that make sense :) She goes to bed late during exam week. There's no completed state involved, but it's not the same thing as "was nibbling a cracker". – TRomano Mar 15 at 19:47
  • LOL. Yeah ok. Like She goes to bed late while alive is a bizarrely redundant, and awkward sentence. And while she's dead will she also be late to bed? I guess if a person was explaining to some other person that she were later a ghost that has the ability to go to bed that might be an exception. :P – Quentin Engles Mar 15 at 20:16

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