Habitual aspect

From Glottopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The habitual aspect is an aspect that characterizes a situation as occurring regularly or habitually. Habituality is either linguistically represented by verbal expressions like used to or it is indirectly implied in situations “in which the adverb usually is possible in English” (Dahl 1985: 97). Some languages have tenses that are specialized to the expression of habitual aspect.


The habitual aspect is a subcategory of the imperfective aspect. It must be distinguished from the iterative aspect. While habituals "describe a situation which is characteristic of an extended period of time" (Comrie 1985: 27), iteratives consist of "repeated occurrences of the same situation" (Declerck 1991: 277); e.g. giving a sequence of coughs should be understood as a single iterative situation rather than a characteristic or habitual feature of the person who is coughing.

Habitual sentences can basically be categorized into three subtypes across languages: habituals, habitual-generic sentences and the habitual past. (Dahl 1985: 95-102)

Subtypes and Examples


Habituals describe individual persons’ habits. Two types of habituals can be distinguished:

Some Languages have imperfective forms which can unambiguously be interpreted as exclusively habitual.

  • North Welsh: Darllenwn i “Y Farner.” (I used to read “The Banner”.)
  • Lithuanian: Atsikeldavau anksti. (I used to get up early.)

The majority of languages has imperfective forms which can be interpreted as either habitual or progressive/conative/iterative. Sentences in these languages are defined as habituals if adverbs such as habitually or usually are implied in the context. Habituality constitutes just one possible reading in this case (Comrie 1985: 25).

  • English: After dinner Mr. and Mrs. Cooper go for a walk.
  • German: Vor dem Schlafengehen lese ich ein Buch. (Before going to bed I read a book.)
  • Ancient Greek: Ὁ γεωργός πωλεί το σιτίον. (The farmer sells his corn.)


Habitual-generic sentences describe the “typical or characteristic properties of a species, a kind, or an individual” (Dahl 1985: 99). Their “lawlikeness” (Dahl 1985: 97) makes them similar to eternal truths or generalizations.

  • When cats are hungry they meow.
  • Children like ice cream.
  • Competitive athletes pay great attention to a well-balanced supply of essential nutrients.

Habitual past

The habitual past is found in habitual sentences with past time reference. Specialized habitual past tenses are found in English, Alawa, Oneida and Seneca, among other languages. This type of habituality implies a certain degree of indeterminacy because it does not make reference to the present. It is therefore unclear whether the situation described still holds at the moment of utterance (cf. Comrie 1985: 28).

  • English: He used to swim every morning.

Habituality markers in English

  • used to: My parents used to travel to Rostock at the Baltic Sea every summer.
  • would: A friend of my mine would swim in the ocean every day.
  • adverbials like usually, always etc.: We usually play table tennis after dinner.
  • like to: I like to go to the matches of my favourite football club.
  • subordinate clauses beginning with (always) when: When I’m hungry my husband calls the pizza service.
  • the auxiliary do (in Early Modern English)



  • Binnick, Robert I. 1991. Time and the Verb: A Guide to Tense and Aspect. Oxford: University Press. 155. ISBN 0-19-506206-X
  • Binnick, Robert I. 2005. The Markers of Habitual Aspect in English. Journal of English Linguistics 33(4). 339-369. Full Text
  • Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Aspect: An Introduction to Verbal Aspect and Related Problems. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University. 26-32. ISBN 0-521-21109-3 Google Book Search
  • Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University. 422. ISBN 0-521-26438-3
  • Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems. New York: Basil Blackwell. 95-102. ISBN 0-631-14114-6 Full text
  • Declerck, Renaat. 1991. Tense in English: Its Structure and Use in Discourse. London: Routledge. 277-284. ISBN 0-415-06151-2 Google Book Search
  • Hartmann, Reinhard Rudolf Karl, and Stork, Francis Colin. 1972. Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. London: Applied Science. 21. ISBN 0-853-34534-1
  • Hewson, John, and Bubenick, Vit. 1997. Tense ans Aspect in Indo-European Languages: Theory, Typology, Diachrony. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 342-343. ISBN 1-556-19860-4

Other languages

German Habitualis (de)