Lesson 54: The Verb/Tense-Aspect


0780. Tense in English and Greek. The native speaker of English is able, for the most part, to appropriate the tenses in Greek, particularly in the indicative mood, and understand them as he thinks they are to be understood. This means simply that the present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses in English do in fact correspond roughly to the present, aorist (with imperfect), future, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect tenses in Greek. What the native speaker of English has by way of native response to the Greek verb should not be impaired. The tense-systems in both Greek and English are much too simple and used with far too much imprecision to be greatly labored at the elementary level. At the same time, both tense-systems, when examined closely, are far too ambiguous and complex to be reduced to a few generalizations. The beginner is therefore well advised to allow his customary responses to guide him initially, and then to build slowly a more refined set of responses to the peculiarities of the Greek system. The treatment of tense-aspect in the Greek verb in what follows is conceived as a modification and adjustment of English responses. Consideration is confined, initially, to the indicative mood.

The remarks on tense in §§0309-3120 are presupposed and should be carefully reviewed in connection with the following discussion.

780. Present/Past/Perfect. Notice the tense of the verbs in the following sentences (for the formation of the tenses of ἔρχομαι, s. §487.3):

(1) ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς Jn 3:21
But the one doing the truth comes to the light
(2) οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτός Jn 3:2
This (man) came to him by night
(3) τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον Jn 3:19
The light has come into the world

The present tense in (1) is accurately represented by the present tense in English, the aorist in (2) by the English past, and the perfect in (3) by the English present perfect. These correspondences are quite functional, and should be allowed to occur naturally to the beginner.

781.1 The present tense. Upon closer examination, the tense of the English translation of (1)

(i) The one doing the truth comes to the light

does not necessarily imply that the subject is in the process of coming at the present moment (either from the standpoint of the original speaker or the narrator). The time referred to is thus not necessarily present time. The tense of the verb generalizes the action: he always comes to the light. The time is past, present, and future.

With (i) may be compared

(ii) I arrive each morning at 8:00 A.M.

in which the tense is again present although the time is not confined to the present. The verb in (i) generalizes the action, while the verb in (ii) indicates a customary or habitual action. In a sentence like

(iii) He is my friend

the present tense denotes a present state of affairs. However, the state of affairs is rarely thought of as confined strictly to the present moment.

The present tense in English, as examples (i)-(iii) show, is by no means confined to present time. The kind of action (= aspect, §§0309ff.) represented by the English present in these examples is durative or prolonged (————) , or iterative or repeated ( . . . . .). Of course, the duration of the state of affairs indicated by (iii) intersects a present moment of time (——x——) , and the generalized or habitual action represented by (i) and (ii) includes present time.

781.2 To examples (i)-(iii) should now be added:

(iv) Everybody hits the ball
(v) Everybody is hitting the ball
(vi) John does hit the ball
(vii) John hits the ball now

Sentence (iv) is comparable to (i) in that the action is generalized. One could imagine that (v) was spoken by someone present on the scene, with reference to full participation in the game. Called the progressive present, this form denotes action in progress at the present moment. We could imagine (vi) as a response to some assertion that John is not participating: the emphatic generalized present. The present tense in (vii) is buttressed by the adverb now, by means of which the time of the action is narrowly focused on the present moment.

Example (vii) illustrates how difficult it is to represent an action or state of affairs as confined strictly to the fleeting moment. The present moment, after all, is the hypothetical juncture between past and future; as such, it has minimal duration. Nevertheless, it is possible to concentrate on that moment, or to conceive an action as belonging logically to the present moment. For the most part, however, the English present tense spills over into the past on the one side, and the future on the other. It therefore tends to represent a durative or repeated action or state of affairs (Roberts, 1954: 132f., 136ff.).

781.3 The English present tense in (i)-(vii) pointed to or included present time. The same tense may also point specifically to future time:

(viii) The milkman comes tomorrow
(ix) Our friends are arriving on Tuesday

The simple present and the progressive present in (viii) and (ix) refer to the future and can scarcely be distinguished from:

(x) The milkman will come tomorrow
(xi) Our friends will arrive on Tuesday

781.4 Similarly, the present tense may be used to refer to past time. This use is customarily called the historical present. In vivid historical narrative, for example, one might find sentences like:

(xii) Socrates then drinks the hemlock
(xiii) Then these guys come in, see, and I says to them,
'Where do you think you're going?'

in which past events are narrated as though the narrator were present.

782. The present tense in Greek represents much the same range of time and aspect as the present tense in English.

782.1 The disciples of John the Baptist come to him and say:

(4) οὗτος βαπτίζει καὶ, πάντες ἔρχονται πρὸς αὐτόν Jn 3:26
This fellow is baptizing and everyone is going to him

The disciples are reporting an action that is in progress. The Greek present is therefore best represented by the English progressive present. This use of the present tense might best be called the descriptive present.

782.2 In the same sentence, the disciples of John recall that John bore favorable witness to Jesus. John replies:

(5) αὐτοι ὑμεῖς μοι μαρτυρεῖτε ὅτι εἶπον ... Jn 3:28
You yourselves testify that I said ...

John thus refers to an event that occurred only seconds earlier, an event that has the duration only of the speaking of a single clause in a single sentence.

A centurion is explaining his authority as a military commander:

(6) λέγω τούτῷ, Πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται
καὶ ἄλλῳ, Ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται
Lk 7:8
I say to this man, "Go," and off he goes,
and to another, "Come," and here he comes

The description of the two responses in the present tense indicates instantaneous compliance, which is thought, of as a single, punctiliar event of no particular duration.

Sentences (5) and (6) thus reflect the use of the present tense to refer to punctiliar actions (·) in present or nearly contemporaneous time; this use of the present is sometimes called the aoristic present (cf. Bl-D §320).

782.3 The present tense in Greek, as in English (§781.1), may be generalized:

(7) ὑμεῖς ποιεῖτε τὰ ἔργα τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν Jn 8:41
You do the works of your father

i.e., always, in the past, present, and future.

Or it may refer to a customary or habitual action:

(8) νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου Lk 18:12
I fast twice a week

It may also refer to a state of affairs that holds good for the present moment (and usually other, unspecified moments as well):

(9) ὑμεῖς ἐκ τούτου τοῦ κόσμου ἐστέ Jn 8:23
You are of this world

The uses of the present tense in (7)-(9) correspond to the English examples cited in §781.1.

782.4 The present tense of a few verbs is perfective in character: the action denoted has been completed as of the present moment. The most common of these verbs is ἥκω, I have come, arrived.

(10) ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἥκει Lk 15:27
Your brother has arrived

Bl-D §322.

782.5 To be distinguished from the perfective present (§782.4), is the present tense referring to an act prolonged or repeated up to and including the present:

(11) ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ' οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν
ἐν τῇ συκῇ καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκω
Lk 13:7
Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit
on this fig tree, and I have found none

Although both (10) and (11) are translated by the English present perfect, the present tense in (11) includes a present as well as past acts.

782.6 The conative present is used to refer to an act attempted but not achieved (in present time) . This interpretation must, of course, be suggested by the context.

(12) καὶ σὺ διδάσκεις ἡμᾶς; Jn 9:34
And are you now trying to teach us?

The imperfect more commonly has this nuance (§792.3). Bl-D §319.

783. The historical present, used commonly in good Greek style but only in English colloquial style (§781.4), may be used in vivid narrative to refer to events in past time, at which the narrator imagines himself to be present.

(13) τῇ ἐπαύριον βλέπει τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐρχόμενον Jn 1:29
On the morrow he sees Jesus coming
(14) καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν λεπρός Mk 1:40
And a leper comes to him

The aspect of the historical present is usually punctiliar. Had a past tense been used, it would therefore have been aorist (§788). Bl-D §321.

784. The futuristic present is used in vivid assertions about future events. It is therefore the futuristic counterpart to the historical present (§783). An indication of the time is often present in the context, e.g.

(15) ἐγὼ ὑπάγω καὶ ζητήσετέ με Jn 8:21
I am going away and you will seek me

The present tense is here followed by the future. Compare

(16) πάλιν ἔρχομαι καὶ παραλήμψομαι ὑμᾶς πρὸς
Jn 14:
I will come again and take you to myself

for the same sequence.

The futuristic present may also refer to the process of coming or going, with arrival time still in the future:

(17) τρίτον τοῦτο ἔρχομαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς 2 Cor 13:1
This is the third time I am coming to you

Sentence (17) may be translated into English in a variety of ways (as may many of the other examples of the Greek present cited above). In addition to

(1) This is the third time I am coming to you

with the progressive present, one might represent the futuristic present by the future:

(ii) This is the third time I will come to you

Other possibilities include:

(iii) I am going to come to you for the third time
(iv) This will be my third time to come to you

These translation possibilities illustrate that the simple present tense in Greek may be represented in English in a number of ways. English is a richer (and more complicated) language in this respect than Greek.

785. The present tense is rarely formed periphrastically in Greek, i.e. with the appropriate form of the verb be (εἰμί) and the present participle (§568). The periphrastic present corresponds to the English progressive present (e.g. I am going), but it is not in common use. For the few examples in the New Testament, s. Bl-D §353(4).

786. Present/Past. With example (4)

(4) πάντες ἔρχονται πρὸος αὐτόν Jn 3:26
Everyone is going to him

(§782.1), in which the present tense is used to denote action in progress in present time, may be contrasted two forms of the past tense:

(2) οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτός Jn 3:2
This (man) came to him by night
(18) ἤρχοντο πρὸς αὐτὸν πάντοθεν Mk 1:45
They kept coming to him from everywhere

The aorist ἦλθεν in (2) (§780) denotes a simple event in past time; the imperfect ἤρχοντο in (18) refers to repeated (iterative) action in past time.

The present tense (indicative) is used, as indicated in §782.1-2, to express both durative and punctiliar action in present time (cf. §312.3). For past time, however, Greek developed parallel tenses: one, built on its own peculiar stem (§406), is used to express indefinite aspect or punctiliar action; the other, built on the present stem (§303), is used to denote durative or iterative action (cf. §312.3).

7860. The tense stems in Indo-European tongues originally referred to aspects or kinds of action rather than to time. The so-called present stem was in reality the durative or iterative stem, e.g. βάλλειν, to throw (repeatedly) while the aorist stem was punctiliar, βαλεῖν, to throw (a single act). With the development of tense, however, the augment was added to the aorist stem to indicate past time, and a corresponding past tense was created out of the present stem: the imperfect = the present stem, plus augment, plus secondary endings (§401), to indicate durative or iterative action in past time. The aorist and imperfect indicative contrast with each other as regards aspect, and both contrast with the present as regards time. The present tense was thus left with the function of indicating both durative and punctiliar action in present time (hence the so-called aoristic present, §802.2). Cf. Bl-D §318.

787. The Aorist indicative is the dominant mode of expressing action in past time (the verb to be excepted, which has only an imperfect, §405). That is to say, the aorist is the tense normally used, unless special nuances are to be expressed by means of the imperfect. The aorist is therefore of much higher frequency than the imperfect. By the same token, the nuances of the imperfect are more numerous and subtle.

788. The aorist indicative refers topast time. The aspect or kind of action is indefinite or punctiliar: whatever its actual duration, the act or series of acts is conceived as a whole, and thus with indefinite aspect. When linear or iterative actions are summed up in this fashion, the aorist is called complexive or constative, e.g.

(i) He taught for thirty-five years (and then retired)

Occasionally the focal point of the action is its beginning, in which case the aorist is called ingressive or inceptive, e.g.

(ii) He fell silent

Or, the aorist may point to the effect or result of an act, in which case it is called effective or resultative, e.g.

(iii) Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt (a whole
series of events was involved, but the result is fastened on)

788.1 The complexive or constative (summary) aorist may involve a momentary action:

(19) ἥψατό μού τις Lk 8:46
Some one touched me

Or an action of modest duration:

(20) παρ' αὐτῷ ἔμειναν τὴν ἡμέραν ἐκείνην Jn 1:39
They stayed with him that day

Or a series of acts:

(21) τρὶς ἐραβδίσθην 2 Cor 11:25
Three times I was beaten with rods

Or an act of considerable duration:

(22) ἐκάθισεν δὲ ἐνιαυτὸν καὶ μῆνας ἕξ Acts 18:11
And he stayed a year and six months

These distinctions are not expressed by the aorist; on the contrary, the complexive aorist blurs the distinctions by conceiving the act of greater or shorter duration, or a series of acts, as one act or event of the past. Bl-D §332.

788.2 The ingressive or inceptive aorist concentrates on the beginning of an act or event, e.g.

(23) ἐπύθετο οὖν τὴν ὥραν παρ' αὐτῶν ἐν ᾗ
κομψότερον ἔσχεν
Jn 4:52
So he inquired of them the hour in which he
began to get better

Bl-D §331.

788.3 The effective or resultative aorist views an act primarily from the standpoint of its conclusion, e.g.

(24) καὶ ἐσώθη ἡ γυνὴ ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης Mt 9:22
And the woman was healed at once

7880. The gnomic aorist is used of acts conceived as valid for all times, but it is relatively rare (Bl-D §333). The epistolary aorist is employed by the letter writer when he adopts the standpoint of an orally delivered message; it, too, is not common (Bl-D §334).