Situation

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In semantics, situation is used as a cover term for actions, processes and states. The concept 'situation' is so basic that it is very difficult to define it through still more basic concepts.

In describing languages, a fundamental constrast is between situations and participants. Participants are generally expressed by noun phrases, and situations are expressed by clauses. Often the term situation is also used to refer to just the verb's meaning (which can more precisely be called situation core).

Comments

The term situation for this fundamental concept has been used prominently e.g. by Comrie (1976), Lyons (1977), and Lehmann (1991).

  • "There is, unfortunately, no satisfactory term that will cover states, on the one hand, and events, processes and actions, on the other. We will use the term situation for this purpose; and we will draw a high-level distinction between static and dynamic situations." (Lyons 1977:483)

It has the disadvantage of suggesting a stative situation, but this disadvantage is shared by the competitor state of affairs, and the other competitor event has the disadvantage of even more strongly suggesting a dynamic situation (as in "event vs. state").

Synonyms

Polysemy

The term situation is also used for

Origin

Perhaps situation has first been used in this more technical semantic sense in Comrie (1976). According to Comrie (p.c. to Martin Haspelmath, May 2006), the usage in Comrie (1976) follows a suggestion of John Lyons's.


Properties of situations

Situations can be classified in terms of ontological properties like '(non)staticness', '(non)durativity', '(non)telicity', '(non)agentiveness', '(non)homogeneousness', '(non)transitionalness' and '(non)evolvingness' (Declerck 2006: 40).

Singulary vs. multiple situations

Situations can be classified in terms of their number of occurrence. A singulary situation consists of only one instance of the situation, while a multiple situation comprises more than one instance of the same sub-situation. There are three ways in which a situation can be multiple:

  1. iterative multiple situations, i.e. there is a multiplicity of subsituations,
  2. repeated multiple situations, which areusually indicated with an adjunct expressing how often the situation has occurred, and
  3. serial multiple situations, where the occurrence of the sub-situation is unbounded. In the case of iterative multiple situations, the subsituations are achievements, but the overall situation is an activity. Serial multiple situations can be states, achievements, accomplishments or activities.

Examples:

  • singulary
    • I was born on Good Friday.
    • The President has resigned.
  • iterative
    • She knocked at the door (more than once).
  • repeated
    • She saw him twice.
    • I met him several times.
  • serial
    • She usually mows the lawn herself. She usually gets up at six.

Static versus dynamic situations

Situations can be static (or 'stative') or dynamic. Static situations exist or obtain and do not involve change, whereas dynamic situations by definition involve change. The difference between static and dynamic situations is reflected in linguistic difference between the relevant predicates (cf. Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 119ff).

  • The progressive aspect does not (normally) occur with static situations in English.
  • The simple present typically combines with static situations when it is used with present time reference, and only rarely with dynamic ones.
  • Pseudo-clefts with do only occur with dynamic situations.
  • Certain verbs can only be used to refer to a static situation: seem, contain, know, consist of

Examples:

  • static
    • The flag is red.
    • The flag was red.
    • He likes her.
    • They believe in God.
    • I know the answer.
  • dynamic
    • He is playing tennis. She married Tom. What she did next was learn German.

Punctual versus durative situations

Punctual (=instantaneous) situations are happenings at a given point in time, while durative situations have a certain duration. Punctual situation predicates do not (normally) occur with aspectual verbs like begin and punctual situations do not (normally) go together with the progressive aspect. It is important to mention that duration can also be instantiated by the repetition of a (punctual) situation.

Examples:

  • punctual
    • I declare the meeting closed.
    • I found the key.
    • He had died.
    • She reached the top.
  • durative
    • He began to work.
    • He stopped snoring.
    • I was knocking at the door.

Telic versus atelic situations

Telic situations have an inbuilt endpoint beyond which they cannot continue. Atelic situations have no such inherent terminal point. Atelic situations may combine with for-adverbials (e.g. for an hour), while telic situations combine with in-adverbials (e.g. in an hour).

Examples:

  • telic
    • She is writing a note.
    • We walked six kilometers in an hour.
    • We walked to London.
  • atelic
    • She is writing notes.
    • He walked for an hour.
    • She drove him safely

Agentive versus nonagentive situations

A situation is agentive if any actualization of it is performed or instigated by an agent. Nonagentive situations simply happen without a implying a performer or instigator.

Examples:

  • agentive
    • John hit Bill on the nose.
    • She’s walking home now.
    • The Post office is suing us.
  • non-agentive
    • The accident happened around midnight.
    • Bill is an old man.

Homogeneous versus heterogeneous situations

A durative situation is homogeneous if its parts are of the same kind as the entire situation; otherwise the situation is heterogeneous. All static situations are homogeneous by definition. Dynamic situations are considered as homogeneous if they are conceptualized as consisting of a number of stages which are sub-situations of the same kind of an overall situation. Situations are considered as heterogeneous when the whole situation consists of sub-situations of different types.

Examples:

  • homogeneous
    • John drank beer.
    • Bill is a reliable worker.
    • John roamed the streets last night.
  • heterogeneous
    • John drank five glasses of beer.

(Non)transitional

A situation may also be (+) or (-) transitional. A situation is regarded as transitional if it consists of a single transition, conceived of as punctual, from one state into another. Transitional verbs are: die, open, kill, pick up, etc.

Examples:

  • + transitional
    • John died two weeks ago. Jim suddenly stopped talking
  • - transitional
    • Last week John was dying.

(Non)evolving

A situation may be evolving, meaning that it develops gradually; otherwise it is not evolving. Evolving situations are always dynamic, durative, nonagentive, and imply a gradual change; punctual situations and states are never evolving. Evolving verbs are: change, develop, grow etc.

Examples:

  • + evolving
    • The situation deteriorated.
  • - evolving
    • John drew a circle.

Types of situation

The types of situations distinguished differ from author to author.

Huddleston & Pullum (2002)

Huddleston & Pullum (2002) distinguish six different situation types: states, occurrences, processes, achievements, activities and accomplishments. They group them by only three ontological features: (1) (non)staticness (2) (non)durativity (3) (non)telicity?

static durative telic
state + + -
occurrence - +/- +/-
process - + +/-
achievement - - +
activity - + -
accomplishment - + +

Huddleston & Pullum call static situations ‘states’ and dynamic situations ‘occurrences’. ‘Achievements’ are also dynamic situations, but they are also regarded as punctual and telic. ‘Processes’ are durative situations and can be subdivided into ‘activities’, which are atelic, and ‘accomplishments’, which are telic situations.

Declerck (2006)

Declerck has a fourfold distinction and classifies situations into ‘states’, ‘actions’, ‘processes’, and ‘events’.

static durative telic agentive homogeneous transitional evolving
state + + - - + - -
action - +/- +/- + +/- +/- -
process - + +/- - +/- - +
event - +/- +/- - +/- +/- -
  • Process verbs: change, grow, mature, die, widen, slow down, improve, thicken, diminish, darken etc.
  • Action verbs: walk, read, think, look at, write, abandon, ask, play etc.
  • Event verbs: explode, burst, take place, rain, occur, happen, break down, snow, befall etc.

Lyons (1977)

Lyons’ classification is similar to Declerck’s, but there are a few differences. He does not use the feature 'evolving'; processes and events are either agentive and nonagentive.

static durative telic agentive homogeneous transitional
state + + - - + -
action - +/- +/- + +/- +/-
process - + +/- +/- +/- -
event - +/- +/- +/- +/- +/-

Vendler (1967)

Vendler subclassifies situations into 'states', 'activities', 'accomplishments' and 'achievements'. The ontological features used here are 'durativity' and 'telicity'.

durative telic example
state - - Know the answer
activity + - Dance, walk
accomplishment + + Build a house
achievement - + Win the game, die

Smith (1991)

Smith distinguishes between five different types of situations: 'states', 'activities', 'accomplishments', 'semelfactives' and 'achievements'. They are grouped according to the features of 'staticness', 'durativity' and 'telicity'.

static durative telic Example
state + + Know the answer, love Mary
activity - + - Laugh, stroll in the park
accomplishment - + + Learn Greek, build a house
semelfactive - - - Tap, knock
achievement - - + Reach the top

Mourelatos (1978)

Mourelatos defines six different types of situations; they are grouped according to the ontological features of 'staticness' and 'telicity'.

static telic
state + -
occurrence - +/-
process - -
event - +
development - +
punctual occurrence - +

References

  • Declerck, R. (2006). The Grammar of the English Verb Phrase, Vol. 1: The Grammar of the English Tense System. Topics in English Linguistics 60. Berlin: Mouton. In collaboration with Susan Reed and Bert Capelle.
  • Bohnemeyer 2002
  • Comrie 1976
  • Dik 1978
  • Dik 1997
  • Halliday 1985
  • Lyons 1977
  • Lehmann 1991
  • Van Valin & LaPolla 1997

other languages

German Situation