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I'm reading the Genki books and there was this story about an old man who was poor so he went to the market to sell some hats he had made. He didn't manage to sell any and is now returning home, which is described like this:

おじいさんは長い山道を歩いて帰りました。

So they used the -ta form: "kaerimashita". I have read in multiple places that the -ta form, when used with an action verb, indicates something closest to the perfective aspect and/or a completed action, which in our case would translate to "returnED home on foot". But the words 長い山道を clearly leave only a continuous interpretation possible: "was returnING home on foot", plus after this sentence the story actually went on to describe the man's adventures while walking so there's NO way the verb here is perfective/describes a completed action. So can someone please explain to me why "kaerimashita" is used here and not "kaette imashita"?

The only explanation I can think of is that I know that verbs that affect the subject in some way (physical motion/change/emotional development etc.) are most often interpreted with focus on the result of the verb process. Does this then mean that

...歩いて帰っていました。

would be translated as "HAD returned home" which is clearly wrong so "kaerimashita" has to be used instead, and is thus not taking its usual perfective/completed action interpretation? Or is there another reason for why the -ta form is used here?

Sorry about the long post. And thanks in advance for your help!

  • Full text can be found here, it's on page 2. This link section 24.3.6 may answer your question. – 永劫回帰 Aug 9 '15 at 14:28
  • thanks for providing the full story text for context! As for second link, I'll try reading it. – Aleksander Aug 9 '15 at 14:45
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    Not sure if you speak English natively, but if you do, would you also consider "returned home on foot" in that place wrong? Or just unnatural? – dainichi Aug 10 '15 at 0:19
  • I don't speak it natively. Still, "the man returned home on foot walking the long mountain road" looks correct I guess? Moreover, verbs rarely translated one-to-one, so 帰る probably has a slightly different meaning, allowing it to be used in the -ta form? I can only guess. For example, what if "kaeru" has more of a "move out home" flavor? In that case, the -ta form would definitely be allright. – Aleksander Aug 10 '15 at 1:30
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I don't understand why you think "長い山道を clearly leave only a continuous interpretation possible".

As for the story evolving things that happened on his way home, it doesn't necessarily have to progress according to the exact temporal order, does it? And I don't think it'd be that unnatural to use 帰った even if you haven't fully reached home.

帰っていました can be translated to "was going home" (though this usage is less frequent) besides "had returned home" depending on contexts.

  • I interpreted it as continuous for two reasons: 1) an indirect object (長い山道を) was used, setting a backdrop for the action. 2) the story went on to describe what would happen to the old man while he was traveling home. And yes, the story very specifically listed the things that happened to him in an "exact temporal order", all while the going home process was still continuing. He had all those adventures (met some magical creatures, talked to them etc etc) and then in the end finally arrived home. So I can't really see how 歩いて帰りました can be interpreted as perfective here. – Aleksander Aug 9 '15 at 14:43
  • +1 because you mentionned that 帰っていました means in most cases: "had returned home" – 永劫回帰 Aug 9 '15 at 15:06
  • @Aleksander, I understand your reason 2, but not your reason 1. In English, "(had) walked the long way home" is fine, just as "was walking the long way home" is. – dainichi Aug 10 '15 at 0:00
  • Yes, but in this case, "had walked home" doesn't fit (since the action is clearly not finished yet) so it can be either "walked the long mountain road home" or "was walking". My money is with the latter. Though, I guess, the former works too and that's why it's used? – Aleksander Aug 10 '15 at 1:26
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This is not a real answer but it is way to long for a comment. I translated to the best I can, the part I suggested in my comment to the original question. Since I think that the whole part about 「V-ている」 could be useful to a great deal of people I post this answer as a community wiki, if somebody wants to help me provide a full translation of the part concerning 「V-ている」.

I have read it twice but there might still be some mistakes. Part enclosed in // are where I was not really sure so take them with care.


24.3.6 Another classification: Verbs which express changes

Well, through the classifications of action verbs with respect to their relation with time we've seen the rules of application of 「V-ている」 and its relation with time. Nevertheless, the concept of "instant verbs" is almost not used anymore.

The reason is that verbs that does not fit the definition of "instantaneous" can express the state of a result (of an action). The word that fit best to express the common points of those verbs would be "change".

For example, the previously given examples of 「ふとる・やせる」gives two verbs that do not describe something instantaneous; nevertheless, it does not mean either that 「太{ふと}っている」express something ongoing, it does show the result (... has grow fat). Let's see,

この湖の水には大量の塩が溶けている。 In this lake, a great bunch of salt is dissolved.

台風の影響で潮位が高まっている。 The typhoon caused the tide level to rise.

Again, it needed quite a bunch of time to reach this state; however, those sentences express the result not the process.

The 「行く」 enclosed in 「デパートへ買物に行く」can show the action of going from home to the department store, the action of going out from home or the action of reaching the store. It is all a matter of context to tell the right interpretation.

8時にデパートへ買い物に行った。 I went to the store for shopping purpose at 8.

9時にデパートに行き、10時に映画館に行った。 At 9 I went to the store, and at 10 I went to the movie theater.

デパートに行くのに1時間かかる。 To reach the store it takes one hour.

However, 「行っている」 would not express anything but the result of the situation (~ is gone). Here again, it is not possible to tell whether or not the action is instantaneous.

Thus, if we were to think again about the shared features of verbs like 「太る・高まる・行く」we would see that a change either in shape or in location can be observed; we can, thus, say that a change occurred on the subject through the action of the verb.

Even verbs that we previously considered as examples of "instant verbs", all express a meaning of change.

始まる・変わる・死ぬ・出発する・帰る・着く・割れる

From now on, let's rename, "instant verbs" to "change verbs".

/Even "duration verbs", without expressing something that lasts in time contrast with the concept of "change". Let's call those verbs "action verbs" (action can be one of a human being as well as something due to a natural phenomenon)./

However, even from this stand point, some exceptions are still hanging around. This is because, some verbs that express an instantaneous action can express the final state of the action while used in the pattern 「V-ている」.

彼女はその瞬間を目撃している。
She saw this instant. (She witnessed the scene.)

「目撃する」cannot be seen as a verb which shows something in progress (as it is impossible to witness a scene forever), here 「目撃している」does not express an ongoing action but the state of the situation.

If we were to look at a transitive-intransitive pair of verbs:

紙を燃やしている(燃やす):紙が燃えている(燃える)

Setting fire to a paper. (燃やす)

Burning paper. (燃える)

In both cases, the action can be said to be in progress but while 「燃やしている」 expresses an action, 「燃えている」 expresses that a change is ongoing. It is not the situation of the result of the change. (In the case 「火が燃える」 we could consider it to be an "action" but no matter how you think of it 「紙が燃える」(the paper is burning) shows a change).

Both methods of classification are not free from exceptions, therefore, it cannot be considered as a definitive explanation. It might be a bit of trouble but remembering both classifications (duration verbs/instant verbs and change verbs/action verbs) could be rewarding. Nevertheless, since the changes between the two versions is subtle, it may be not very important to bother too much.

[The object of "change verbs"]

The verbs 「行く」and 「太る」may show that a change happens to the subject. Let's think again about this kind of verbs which cause changes to the object. For example in the sentence,

彼は部屋の壁に自分の絵を掛けている。 In his room, a picture of him hangs on the wall.

In this sentence, the verb 「かける」 can be interpreted as an action (maintain the picture always in that state). In other words, it could be said that it expresses the state of (the result) "being hung". It would therefore express the change and how the object (the picture here) behaves due to the change.

/Other verbs expressing "changes in the object" can be easily seen as "the situation ensuing from a result"./

学生たちはみな教科書の8ページを開いている。 Students opened theirs books at page 8.

「8ページを開く」is not really an instantaneous action (you've to flip the pages through the right one), it does not carry the meaning of 「いま、開きつつある」( ~ being opening it) either. What it shows is the fact that the book has been opened at the page 8 (the result of the action). There is no other explanation that the verb here focus on expressing the state of the situation of "opening a book" (「本を開く」)

彼はいつも研究室のドアを少し開けている。 He always leaves the door of the lab slightly opened.

This example illustrates the same as above. Indeed, one could have also used 「開けてある」which will be discussed later on.

あの喫茶店はテーブルをいくつか前の歩道に出している。 This coffee shop set some tables on the pedestrian way.

この会社は省エネのため、廊下の電気を半分消している。 For energy savings purposes, this company light the corridor with only a half of the nominal power.

妻は、買い物に出るとき、空き巣よけにテレビをつけている。 When the wife goes to shopping, she let the TV on to drive the thieves away.

  • Full text is to be found here. – 永劫回帰 Aug 9 '15 at 17:05
  • welp, I'm now even more confused >.< I read the widely praised article here homepage3.nifty.com/park/aspect.htm and it explicitly states that if the subject isn't changed (physically/locationally/emotionally etc) by the verb it's doing, "~te iru" always means "is ~ing". But your four last examples show this to not be true at all? I have no idea what's going on now. – Aleksander Aug 9 '15 at 17:38
  • I will read through the article you joined and try to understand where the two interpretations may strays off. (What may be confusing is that I translated a rather small part of the original content devoted to ている but there is an even more relevant part about the difference between the た of completion and the ている form, I will try to advance in the translation tomorrow but it would surprising that I could go through the whole of it.) Last notice, (just to be sure) the last "section" I translated is not about the subject but about the object of the verb. – 永劫回帰 Aug 9 '15 at 21:16
  • I engaged myself to quickly, I will try to do so by the end of September. – 永劫回帰 Aug 17 '15 at 16:22

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