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).
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").
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).
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
- The flag is red.
- The flag was red.
- He likes her.
- They believe in God.
- I know the answer.
- 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.
- I declare the meeting closed.
- I found the key.
- He had died.
- She reached the top.
- He began to work.
- He stopped snoring.
- I was knocking at the door.
The term situation is also used for
- a specific concept in the formal semantic framework of situation semantics -- see situation (in situation semantics).
- state of affairs (e.g. Dik 1978, 1997; Van Valin & LaPolla 1997)
- process (e.g. Halliday 1985)
- event (e.g. Bohnemeyer 2002)
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.
- 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