To tense or not to tense

Ronald Ross (
Fri, 14 Mar 1997 08:22:57 -0600

Rolf Furuli wrote:
> Dear Greeks,
> Do you shudder when I refer to the parsing of Greek verbs as
> tensing? You ought to! I shudder when I see the word `tense`
> used for Greek present, imperfect aorist and the others,
> because this is a misnomer. `Tense` is defined as `a
> grammaticalization of location in time` (-ed in English
> `walked` codes for instance for past tense). True the
> augment signalled past time, and probably does so also in
> biblical Greek, though this is disputed, but present has no
> such signal. Worse still is the fact that Greek has a
> genuine tense (a few disputes also this), namely future, so
> to call all of them `tenses`is really confusing. They are
> aspects and not tenses!
> Hebrew perfect and imperfect are called `conjugations` and
> this solves a similar problem. The same is also possible in
> Greek. And similarly in writing: if we say that a verb has
> past tense, we imply that the grammatical form codes for
> past tense; if we say that a verb has past meaning, we just
> refer to its function in the context.
> I do not expect to turn the tide. As long as the grammars
> use `tense` it will prevail. My intention is not to suggest
> a new terminology on B-Greek, but rather to stimulate the
> minds to do some reflection. There are many self-taught
> persons on the list (I admire such persons because this is
> the harder way to learn, requiring much selfdiscipline), and
> to reflect on the nature of the verbs is not the first step
> to take. However, at some point it is important to come to
> grips with the verbs. Let me quote one of my pet-maxims: `A
> clear understanding of the parts gives a clear understanding
> of the whole.`
> The parts of the system are Tense, aspect, Mood and
> Aktionsart. The first and most difficult step is to
> differentiate between aspect and Aktionsart.
> Greetings
> Rolf

I agree with Rolf's distinctions. The confusion between tense and
aspect is not found only in Greek grammatical tradition, by the way.
Spanish has the same confusion.

I distinguish between aspect and Aktionsart by thinking of Aspect as
being systematic aspect that is expressed often morphologically and
Aktionsart as being semantic aspect. belonging to each individual verb.
These two kinds of aspect interact in interesting ways. I also think
that it has been a failure to recognize this distinction that has caused
so many grammarians to posit so many different kinds of aorist.

Ron Ross