The Semantics of the Present Perfect

  • Renate Musan
Part of the Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy book series (SLAP, volume 78)


This chapter deals with the German perfect constructions by asking whether they can be given a compositional analysis, and if so, how. As mentioned at the beginning of the introductory chapter, I will focus on the present perfect — the idea behind this strategy is the following: as a by-product of the semantics of the present perfect combined with an account of the past tense and the future tense, the semantics of the past perfect and of the future perfect should fall automatically in place if the semantics of the present perfect has been grasped. Consider the present perfect clause in (1.1), repeated here from the preceding chapter.


Noun Phrase Past Participle Aspect Time Semantic Composition Situation Time 
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  1. 27.
    The evaluation time of an expression is often, but not always, the same as its time of utterance. For a detailed account of the temporal interpretation of noun phrases, cf. Musan (1995).Google Scholar
  2. 28.
    Dealing with the details of such restrictions is beyond the scope of this work. For relevant proposals, see, for instance, Rapp (1995), Klein (1998a).Google Scholar
  3. 30.
    The construction serves as a translation of a Latin future tense construction (cf. Grønvik) (1986:23).Google Scholar
  4. 31.
    (a) is taken from a gravestone in Berlin-Friedenau; (b) is taken from Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1827): Gedichte (Ausgabe letzter Hand.) Stuttgart, Tübingen: Cotta. Digibib, p23 (“Selbstbetrug”). The italic marking is mine.Google Scholar
  5. 33.
    The simultaneous presence of a stative situation and a VP-situation in perfect constructions has also been proposed for the English perfect (cf. Mittwoch) (1995).Google Scholar
  6. 34.
    These judgements in part correspond to the ones sketched in Herweg (1990:199ff); he finds TT-specification with future adverbials and TS-specification with past adverbials acceptable. However, for present adverbials, he finds TS-specification more acceptable than TT-specification.Google Scholar
  7. 38.
    The sentences and judgements with regard to anteriority are taken from Höhle (1992:115); the characterization and interpretation of the data is mine.Google Scholar
  8. 40.
    For a discussion of the semantics and pragmatics of the focus feature as well as of principles of focus projection, see, for instance, Schwarzschild (1999).Google Scholar
  9. 43.
    (4-5b, c) contain predicative constructions while (4-5a, d) contain Funktionsverbgefüge-constructions. The latter type of construction consists of a Funktionsverb (‘functional verb’) and a noun phrase or a prepositional phrase, which form a semantic unit that functions as a predicate; the functional verb in such a construction has largely or completely lost its lexical meaning and mainly has a grammatical function, and the meaning of the Funktionsverbgefüge as a whole is largely determined by the semantic contribution of the noun phrase or prepositional phrase (cf. Helbig and Buscha) (1989:79ff). Claudia Maienborn (pc) suggested to me to compare the behavior of the constructions in (4-5) to the behavior of another class of content-poor verbs, e.g. geschehen, passieren (‘happen, take place’) as in (A).Google Scholar
  10. 44.
    The present account may be seen as a supplement to Schwarzschild’s (1999) proposal.Google Scholar
  11. 48.
    Veronika Ehrich (pc) pointed out to me that the past participle morpheme itself is not an appropriate carrier of accents in general and hence triggers a focus shift. In fact, focus positionings as in (A) are plainly unacceptable. (A) a. *Hans hat GElogen/geloGEN. b. *Er hat Schnupfen GEhabt. c. *Er ist krank GEwesen/geweSEN.Google Scholar
  12. 53.
    Wunderlich (1997) discusses two alternatives of my account of the focus data. First, he states that the data are compatible with the claim that the auxiliary carries the anteriority component. Under this view, focus would shift from the auxiliary to the participial verb in Hans hat Schnupfen geHABT because of the clash with verum focus on the auxiliary. In Hans HAT gelogen it would not shift because of the clash with content focus on gelogen. This view, however, is highly implausible historically and moreover, cannot explain the anteriority meaning of attributive participle constructions. Hence, there are good reasons to dismiss this type of account. According to Wunderlich’s second alternative, anteriority would be carried by the participial form alone. In Hans HAT gelogen the focus accent would then be shifted to the auxiliary because of the clash with content focus; in Hans hat Schnupfen geHABT, no clash happens because there is no conflict with content focus. This view, however, runs into problems because it makes use of shift not only across word boundaries but also across large distances — e.g. in Hans HAT Maria immer wieder angelogen (Hans has Maria always again lied-to = ‘Hans lied to Maria again and again’), where the participial verb is in the verb-end position of the clause while the accented auxiliary is in the verb-second position. The obvious way out — namely, to assume that the D-structure is the crucial level for focus shift — is not very plausible, given that focus rather seems to be an S-structural or PF phenomenon. Moreover, it is empirically inadequate: If the positions of focus accents were identified in D-structure, then one would expect that Den HANS hat Maria gesehen (the Hans has Maria seen = ‘Mary saw Hans’)can express VP-focus as well as local focus on Hans just as weil Maria [den HANS gesehen] hat (since Maria the Hans seen has =’ since Maria saw Hans’) can. This, however, is not possible; Den HANS hat Maria gesehen can only express local focus.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Renate Musan
    • 1
  1. 1.Humboldt-UniversityBerlinGermany

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