Greek Perfect Tense

Carl W. Conrad (
Fri, 29 Mar 1996 06:32:44 -0600

I'm not sure whether this was meant for the list or not, but it raises a
question that I think is of general concern, and I'll respond briefly right
here at the top and let others express opinions on the matter also.

I will agree that the perfect tense is one of the peskier Greek forms to
get across into English; one of the reasons is that it is relatively rare
in Greek narrative; another is that it corresponds only in part to the
English present tense. Properly speaking, of course, the Perfect is an
Aspect rather than a Tense: it indicates COMPLETION of the verbal action;
it has two tenses, Present and Past (as I would--if I ever wrote a
grammar--like to say that the "Imperfect" Aspect indicating acting that is
in progress or beginning or uncompleted, which we normally call "Present,"
also has two tenses Present and Past--what we conventionally call Present
and Imperfect). The Present Perfect expresses the present CONDITION of
COMPLETION of the action, while the Past Perfect (= Pluperfect) expresses a

Present: APOQNHiSKEI " ... is dying"
Imperfect: APEQNHiSKE(N) " ... was dying"
Aorist: APEQANE(N) " ... died"
Present Perfect: APOTEQNHKE(N) "is dead" = "has died"
Past Perfect: APETEQNHKEI "was dead" = "had died"

There are verbs such as OIDA which are, properly (morphologically)
speaking, in the perfect tense but which can only be properly translated in
English in the present tense. Thus OIDA means "I know"--it certainly DOES
NOT mean "I have known"--although one might like to conjecture that it
originally meant something like "I have a full-formed vision," inasmuch as
this is historically and morphologically the perfect-tense form of the verb
which we know in the Aorist as EIDON (from the root wEID/wOID/wID).

Aristotle somewhere--I don't recall offhand whether it's in the Metaphysics
or in the De Anima, probably the former--notes that his idea of ENTELEXEIA,
which is usually translated as either "actuality" or "realization," but
could just as well be translated "fulfillment," often finds expression in
verbs in the perfect tense. I would say that this is true of hESTHKA, which
is the ONLY way that Greek can express the sense, "I am standing." A
similar verb is GI(G)NOMAI, where GI(G)NOMAI means " ... come into
existence," EGENOMHN means "came into existence," but GEGONA means " ...
exist full-formed." Worth looking at are the Greek verbs in John's
prologue, 1:3-4: "all things came into existence (EGENETO) through his
agency, nor did a single thing come into existence (EGENETO). What has
existence (GEGONEN) was, in fact (HN, "philosophic" or "explanatory"
imperfect) Life in Him."

<< start of forwarded material >>

>Date: 29 Mar 96 06:01:53 EST
>From: Stilman Davis <>
>To: "\"Carl W. Conrad\"" <>
>Subject: comment on your ENTOLE posting
>Status: O
>Forgive the intrusion, but I would like to comment on this problem of the
>Your translation of the perfect, although correct in terms of meaning, may be
>misleading in terms of the function within the Greek. From when I was learning
>Greek which was some time ago and my reading of Greek is quite limited, usually
>only in sermon preparation from time to time (I am a CofE Reader, = lay
>preacher), I remember that the perfect "I have stood" is the completed action.
>Your rendition "I am standing" would point to the present continuous, ie would
>suggest a present tense in English. This is not the same as the perfect in
>English, and as I understand Greek grammar, not the same in Greek either. There
>are other ways to analyse the sentence as well, but let's leave this to English
>I am taking up this point because of the apparent confusion about grammar which
>seems to take place in many of the discussions. For instance, couldn't many of
>the problems about the supplying of EINAI be somehow explained by making use of
>the English grammatical construction of apposition. "I, a Reader, read the GNT
>from time to time." or "I take the Guardian, a fine paper." Naturally the Greek
>would be clearly different because of the English lack of cases, but many
>of the
>discussions of nominative predicates, etc, would be explained more simply.
>Just reflecting my own perplexity, but enjoying the stimulation of getting my
>Greek up to some use.
>With thanks,
>Stilman Davis
<< end of forwarded material >>

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR