With an action verb, like 食べる, I can count 5 meanings of this sentence:

"John is eating natto." (progressive)
"John is eating the natto." (progressive)
"John eats natto." (habitual)
? "John has eaten natto." (perfective: experience)
? "John has eaten the natto." (perfective: state of having eaten the natto)

To me, the last two readings are possible, but kind of odd.

However, you can completely force the experience reading:

"John has eaten natto before." (perfective: experience)

And you can almost force reading 5:

"John is eating that natto which we just saw." (progressive)
"John has eaten that natto which we just saw." (perfective: state of having eaten the natto)

Finally, if you use 〜ていない instead, I think all the readings are equally likely:

"John is not eating natto." (progressive)
"John is not eating the natto." (progressive)
"John does not eat natto." (habitual)
"John has not eaten natto." (perfective: experience)
"John has not eaten the natto." (perfective: state of not having eaten the natto)

In my opinion, the perfective readings here are equally or more likely than the other readings. They become even more likely if you insert まだ, for example.

(I guess, etymologically-speaking, it is not too surprising that 〜ている can have the perfective semantics, given that て was the 連用形 of the perfective auxiliary verb つ.)

Some of the meanings come from whether 納豆 is being talked about in general, or a specific serving of 納豆 is being discussed, but the reason why I included all of them is because the actual implications of the different perfective readings are entirely different for the two different cases (as in English).

Is what I've laid out here entirely correct? Are the perfective readings actually less likely for the simple 〜ている case like I think they are?

  • Is "experience" your own word choice or did you see it used someplace in the explanation of している? – l'électeur Dec 21 '13 at 22:44
  • It is my own word choice, though I may have seen it somewhere before. I basically mean the same function as 〜たことがある – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '13 at 22:53
  • Upon reflection, I guess the difference between the two perfective meanings is not terribly clear, aside from that the first one can be replaced with 〜たことがる, while the second one cannot. It seems very subtle and I would appreciate any clarification. – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '13 at 23:06
  • Maybe it is slightly clearer with a state-change verb: ジョンは結婚している。 almost certainly implies that John is currently married ("resultative"), while ジョンは去年結婚している。 does not necessarily imply that, it just means that John has the experience of getting married last year ("experience"). Both seem to be perfective. – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '13 at 23:22
  • @Darius Jahandarie it has been 7 years since this question has been posted, if you have found a way to distinguish between as to when the continuous aspect or the perfect aspect has to be used, in non-state change/durative verbs, could you please give an answer. I am really struggling, for several months, on this concept and have gone through 7-8 posts on JSE for the same. I am often conflicted between using the past tense of the action verb like 食べる, 書く etc, and the ている (perfect form - 5th meaning in your post basically). – APK Nov 9 '20 at 11:12

I am going to say just a couple of things regarding your first list of 5 meanings. I have been hesitating to do this because what I want to say might confuse the beginning students more than it could clarify things for them. 「Verb + ている」 is that subtle.

After mentioning it in the comment some days ago, I am still having difficulty understanding why you are using the word "experience". As a Japanese-speaker, I do know that 食べている, given the right context, COULD express one's experience of eating natto, but this usage is very rare in real life --- so rare that you will seldom hear it to mean it. Without saying 食べたことがある, we just rarely express experience.

Then again, it may be that it was your intention to include the rare usages in the first place. If so, I would have included the "future progressive" and "future perfective" as well. "I will be eating natto at (a certain time)" and "I will have eaten (the) natto by (a certain time)" are possible meanings of 食べている, too. In fact, I would say that those usages are a little more common than the "experience" usage.

If the distinction between "natto" and "the natto" is important to you, which it seems it is, I would include the "the natto" version under your "habitual" category because it is possible for one to habitually eat a particular brand/type of natto.

  • Thank you! What is some context that could result in ジョンは納豆を食べている having the future perfective meaning? Also, do you agree that the last two meanings become a little more likely when it's ていない? (I wonder if that's purely due to semantics of the specific example...) – Darius Jahandarie Dec 29 '13 at 16:55

You're completely correct in the first 3 usages of ~ている. And while the 4th and 5th ones are likely, and you can hear them from time to time in certain areas of Japan, for the most part, and for the sake of clearly expressing themselves, Japanese people tend to use one of numerous versions of ~ことがある. Very rarely, depending on dialects, inflection of the person speaking it could raise those questions as well. Think along the lines of someone lazily saying "you eat natto" (there's a reason for the lack of punctuation). It can technically be construed in several fashions in English based off the context of the situation.

So various usages do exist for the grammatical device, but for the most part, you'll only hear the structure of the first 3 examples.

On the 3rd example, it's much more commonly found to have a "よく" in the sentence somewhere, so as to provide the concept of "continuously" or "often", since the inflection wouldn't really exist, nor would the statement be unambiguous enough to justify saying, again, unless context permits it.

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