Events, discourse representations and temporal reference

Hans Kamp


This is the original English version of a paper that appeared in French translation nearly thirty-five years ago. The motivation for publishing the original version so long after the translation is in part historical. At the time when the French translation was published, the paper was intended as part of a triad, the other two members of which were Kamp 1979 and Kamp 1981a. But as the intervening years have made plain, for part of its potential readership the language of the translation has proved a hurdle, which publication of the original English should remove. The present paper is important as a kind of link between the other two papers. Kamp 1979 argued from a logical and philosophical perspective that in the analysis of temporal reference in natural languages times and events should be treated as first class citizens. The present paper was written as a follow-up to that paper, which made more explicit and expanded some parts of its predecessor that could not be included in its publication for reasons of length. In so doing it demonstrates the origins of Discourse Representation Theory: as a method for dealing with matters of tense and aspect, and not as a theory of “donkey pronouns”, contrary to the widespread view that the reading of Kamp 1981a in isolation encourages.

The specific issues addressed in the present paper are the temporal and aspectual properties of the French tenses passé simple and imparfait. The central position underlying the treatment proposed is that these properties manifest themselves most clearly in the context of ongoing discourse: they determine, in different ways, how the content of a sentence in which they occur must be integrated into that of the antecedent sentence or discourse. (The discourse-oriented treatment developed in the paper has become the model for the analysis of tense and aspect within DRT generally.) The treatment of donkey pronouns, which came to be perceived as the mainstay of DRT in its early days, was “discovered” only after most of the material presented in the present paper was in place: donkey pronouns could be treated, it appeared, as nominal analogues of the anaphoric uses of tenses. But there are nevertheless important differences between Kamp 1981a and the present paper. In Kamp 1981a there is a strong emphasis on sentence-internal cases of donkey pronouns, those where they occur in logically embedded subclauses of complex sentences (such as the consequents of conditionals or the nuclear scopes of universal quantifications, like in Geach’s “donkey sentences”). Logical embeddings are not considered in the present paper, although it is easy to see that tenses in subordinate clauses often behave in ways closely similar to donkey pronouns with sentence-internal antecedents. (A comprehensive DRT-based treatment of tenses in various types of subordinate clauses, in French or any other language, is missing to this day.) An extensive appendix to the paper develops the treatment proposed in the body of the paper in formal detail for a small fragment of French, whose (only) tenses are passé simple, imparfait and présent. A preface discussing some of the limitations of the fragment has been added to the appendix. Following this, a postscript expands on the paper’s original aims.



temporal semantics; tense; grammatical aspect; Discourse Representation Theory; passé simple; imparfait

Full Text:



License URL:

ISSN: 1937-8912

Journal doi: