Lesson 56: The Verb/Mood

The Verb: Subjunctive, Imperative and Optative

805. Introduction. The predicate of a Greek sentence will most often be headed by a verb in the indicative mood (§0780). The verb heading the predicate may also be in the imperative mood, as in English, but it is in the common use of the subjunctive that Greek differs most markedly from English. The imperative and subjunctive are closely related in both English (Roberts, 1954: §156) and Greek, as we shall observe. The imperative and subjunctive are used both in independent sentences (and main clauses of complex sentences), and in included sentences. The use of the subjunctive in included sentences introduced by ἵνα was examined in §§654-662. In this section attention will be devoted primarily to the subjunctive and imperative as employed in independent sentences (and main clauses) .

The optative may be given brief consideration subsequently.

806. The imperative is the mood in which commands and requests are normally expressed (§§307.4, 0455ff.):

(i) Come here
(ii) Keep οff the grass

The form of the imperative may be compound:

(iii) Be ready
(iv) Be advised that the shipment will arrive on Tuesday
(v) Keep working on it

Commands and requests may, of course, be expressed in other ways (i.e. without a verb in the imperative mood):

(vi) You must learn Greek
(vii) You will report immediately for induction
(viii) Quiet!
(ix) No smoking

The verb let, used as an auxiliary, may express a command or request:

(x) Let 's go home
(xi) Let us concentrate on the text

The imperative also functions as the mood of petitions and entreaties:

(xii) Help me
(xiii) Forgive us our sins

And the imperative may be used to indicate a concession or an hypothesis:

(xiv) Give him an inch, and he'll take a mile

Give him an inch might be said to be the equivalent of If you give him an inch.

In sum, the imperative is the normal mood of commands, requests, and petitions, but it is not the only way of expressing these 'moods,' nor is it limited to them (cf. xiv). The imperative in Greek corresponds in most important respects to the imperative in English.

807.1 The subjunctive is very nearly obsolete in English. It is distinguished formally from the indicative by the deletion of -s in the 3. sing.:

(xv) He plays the guitar (indicative)
(xvi) I asked that he play the guitar (subjunctive)

(xvi) will probably not be heard often in spoken English. An alternative construction with the infinitive is more colloquial:

(xvii) I asked him to play the guitar

For comparable alternative constructions in Greek, see §659.

The only other verb in which the subjunctive is formally distinguished from the indicative, except in the present 3. sg. , is the verb be. Be is the present subjunctive and were is the past subjunctive:

(xviii) My teacher requests that I be prompt.
(xix) His parents insist that he be home by midnight
(xx) If it were to rain, we would not be able to go

These forms are also sometimes avoided in colloquial speech by using alternative constructions, e.g. for (xviii) a construction with the infinitive:

(xxi) My teacher requests me to be prompt

Or, e.g. for (xix) a construction with should:

(xxii) His parents insist that he should be home by midnight

The subjunctive is better preserved in certain set phrases and expressions:

(xxiii) If I were you, ...
(xxiv) Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home
(xxv) Heaven heIp us

In extemporaneous formulations, however, there is a tendency to substitute the indicative forms of be for the subjunctive in constructions comparable to (xxiii):

(xxvi) If she was my daughter, ...

807.2 In contrast to present day spoken English, the subjunctive is very much in evidence even in colloquial hellenistic Greek. It is used in a great variety of ways, some of which are quite comparable to those illustrated above for English, others of which are alien to English. One may generalize with respect to the development in Greek: (1) the subjunctive is intermingling with the future indicative (Bl-D §363; cf. §318), and eventually drives the latter out (in modern Greek); (2) the optative, which has affinities with the subjunctive (the two are not distinguished in English), is being replaced by the imperative, subjunctive, and in certain instances by the indicative (Bl-D §§384-386). These generalizations, however, have little bearing on the common uses of the imperative and subjunctive in hellenistic Greek.

The Imperative and Subjunctive: Commands and Petitions

808. Tense-aspect. Theoretically, the present and aorist imperatives differ in the same way as the imperfect and aorist indicatives (§786): the present imperative is durative or linear, the aorist imperative is punctiliar. The same principle applies to the subjunctive of prohibition (which replaces the aorist in negative injunctions, 2. person) and to the hortatory subjunctive (1. sing. and plur.) (cf. Bl-D §335). What this means specifically can best be set out, and exceptions noted, in relation to particular types of expression.

809. In general, the present imperative is preferred for general injunctions (precepts, attitudes, conduct), the aorist for conduct in specific cases, e.g.

(1) Διὸ προσλαμβάνεσθε ἀλλήλους Rom 15:7
Therefore welcome one another
(2) ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν 1 Cor 5:12
Drive out the wiaked person from among you

In considering the force of tense as aspect in the imperative (and subjunctive), this is a good first question to put to the text. Nevertheless, there are notable exceptions to this generalization, e.g. categorical injunctions and prohibitions, and categorical petitions (in prayers) take the aorist (complexive or constative, §788.1; see §813 below). It is difficult, as a consequence, to make any real distinction between a general injunction (present = durative) and a categorical injunction (aorist = summary), although nuances may be detected in particular instances.

8090. Precision regarding tense-aspect in the imperative/subjunctive, as well as in the indicative, is impossible apart from the study of individual verbs. For example, in the sequence of injunctions in Mt. 5:39ff., all injunctive verbs are aorist (five examples), except for ὕπαγε (5:41), which is present imperative. This verb is often used in the imperative in the New Testament and always in the present tense (Bl-D §101, s.v. ἄγειν). In fact, it occurs only in the present (and imperfect) in any mood. It would therefore be a serious error to attach special significance to this present imperative occurring among a series of aorists in Mt 5:39ff.

The data for a study of individual verbs have not yet been collected from a significant body of texts (the use of concordances is a cumbersome and time consuming method). For that matter, the data for an analysis of tense-aspect in general are not yet readily available. Traditional Greek grammar has operated largely on intuitions based on theory and a few random examples.

810. Prohibitions are expressed by the present imperative or the aorist subjunctive (2. person sing. and plur.). It is the general pattern in Indo-European languages that negative commands are expressed by the present imperative (not subjunctive) and the aorist subjunctive (not imperative). The negative is μή. There are a few examples of the 3. person aorist subjunctive with μή, and rare occurrences of the aorist imperative with μή.

810.1 Categorical prohibitions take the aorist (complexive) subjunctive (Bl-D §337(3)):

(3) μὴ δῶτε τὸ ἄγιον τοῖς κυσίν Mt 7:6
Do not give what is holy to the dogs
(4) μὴ φονεύσῃς Mk 10:19
Do not kill

810.2 The present imperative is employed in negative injunctions to stop doing something (Bl-D §336(3)), e.g.

(5) μὴ οὖν βασιλευέτω ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐν τῷ θνητῷ
ὑμῶν σώματι
Rom 6:12
Therefore let sin no longer reign in your
mortal bodies
(6) μὴ γογγύζετε μετ' ἀλλήλων Jn 6:43
Stop murmuring among yourselves

811. The present imperative, in accordance with the principle laid down in §810.2, is employed in positive injunctions to continue doing something (Bl-D §336(3)):

(7) φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν 1 Cor 6:18
Shun immorality

i.e. Keep on shunning immorality.

(8) ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε 1 Thess 5:17
Pray constantly

812. It is difficult in practice to distinguish between a general injunction (§809, (1)) and an injunction in which the present imperative is specifically durative (= continue to do something: §811,(7)). Compare, for example, the parallel sentences in Mt. 6:19f.:

(9) μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς Mt 6:19
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth
(10) θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ Mt 6:20
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven

In accordance with §810.2, (9) means stop laying up. However, (10) cannot then mean continue laying up, but must be read as a general injunction, in which case it is indistinguishable from the categorical aorist command (cf. §§809 and 813.1).

A similar pair is found in Mk 10:14:

(11) ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρὸς με,
μὴ κωλύετε αὐτά
Mk 10:14
Permit the children to come to me,
do not hinder them

in which both positive and negative are again present imperatives. Since the disciples had frowned on the presence of children, the negative is to be taken as stop hindering; the positive present preceding must then be understood as a general injunction (§809), rather than in accordance with §811.

When positive and negative injunctions are not paired, the decision is more difficult: in the long list of injunctions in 1 Thess 5:16ff., all of which are present imperative, is Paul enjoining the congregation to continue good practices, or is he admonishing them generally (and thus without particular reference to what they have been doing)?

813. The aorist imperative is characteristically used in other contexts, or may carry other nuances.

813.1 The (complexive) aorist is used in greetings, e.g.

(12) ἀσπάσασθε τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς πάντας 1 Thess 5:26
Greet all the brethren

And in prayers, viz. in requests addressed to the deity:

(13) ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου
Mt 6:10
Let your kingdom come
Let your will be done

Cf. the subjunctive of prohibition (negative request) in the same prayer:

(14) μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν Mt 6:13
Do not lead us into temptation

Cf. Bl-D §337(4) and below on the iterative present in prayers.

813.2 The aorist imperative may be ingressive or inceptive (§788.2: the enjoining of new conduct in contrast to old), e.g.

(15) εἴ τις δοκεῖ σοφός εἶναι ἐν ὑμῖν ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ,
μωρὸς γενέσθω
1 Cor 3:18
If anyone among you thinks he is wise in
this age, let him become a fool
(16) δοξάσατε δὴ τὸν θεὸν ἐν τῷ σώματι ὑμῶν 1 Cor 6:20
So glorify God with your body

In the context, the imperative is probably ingressive. Bl-D §337(1).

814. The present imperative is used in a specifically iterative (or durative) sense, sometimes without reference to past conduct. Contrast the Lukan form of the petition,

(17) τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δίδου ἡμῖν τὸ
καθ' ἡμέραν
Lk 11:3
Give us each day our daily bread

with the form found in Matthew:

(18) τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ὑμῖν
Mt 6:11
Give us this day our daily bread

In Luke the imperative (present) is iterative: (continue to give us each day); in Matthew the imperative (aorist) is categorical (§813.1).

There is an interesting contrast in the two forms of another saying:

(19) τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός,
καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σου δανίσασθαι μὴ
Mt 5:42
Give to him who begs you
And do not refuse him who wants to borrow from you
(20) παντὶ αἰτοῦντί σε δίδου,
καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἴροντας τὰ σὰ μὴ ἀπαίτει
Lk 6:30
Give to everyone who begs you,
And of him who takes away your things do not
ask them back

The aorist forms in (19) are categorical. In (20), the present imperative δίδου is iterative: give each time someone begs you. This presumably carries no reference to prior conduct (§811), though it might be interpreted as a general (iterative) injunction. The negative present imperative which follows (μὴ ἀπαίτει) might be interpreted in accordance with §810.2 (stop asking), but it could also mean: do not ask them back on any occasion (iterative; no reference to prior conduct).

In line with the last suggestion,

(21) μὴ πρὸ καιροῦ τι κρίνετε, ἕως ἄν ἔλθη
ὁ κύριος
1 Cor 4:5
Do not pronounce judgment on anything before
the time, before the Lord comes

could be taken to mean: do not, in the future, pronounce judgment on any occasion (iterative; no reference to past conduct).

In any case, the present imperatives in (18), (20), and (21) are clearly iterative.

815. Other ways of expressing commands. In Greek, as in English, commands, petitions, and the like may be expressed in a variety of ways. The imperative is the predominant commanding and petitioning mood in the 2. and 3. persons sing. and plur. (§§808-814). The prohibitive subjunctive is commonly used for negative commands in the 2. person (rarely the 3.) (§810). And there are still other ways of expressing the injunctive mood:

815.1 The future indicative is used in injunctions and prohibitions in the style of the Old Testament (§801.2).

815.2 ἵνα with the subjunctive is occasionally used, quite idiomatically, for the imperative:

(22) ἱνα καὶ ἐν ταύτῇ τῇ χάριτι περισσεύητε 2 Cor 8:7
Excel in this gracious work also

See Turner: 94f. for a list of New Testament exx. and discussion.
Cf. Bl-D §387(3).

815.3 The infinitive is occasionally employed for the imperative:

(23) χαίρειv μετὰ χαιρόντων,
κλαίειν μετὰ κλαιόντων
Rom 12:15
Rejoice with the ones rejoicing,
Weep with the ones weeping

The question in examples of this type is whether a verb of saying or bidding is to be understood, viz. I tell you to rejoice. Bl-D §389.

815.4 The participle is also used with imperatival force if a finite verb with which it is associated is imperative:

(24) μηδενὶ κακὸν ἀντὶ κακοῦ ἀποδιδόντες Rom 12:17
Repay no one evil for evil

i.e. the participle derives its mood from an associated finite form.

815.5 The hortatory subjunctive (§819) is a means of expressing the imperative mood in the 1. person.

816. Person. In English the imperative form of the verb is limited to the 2. person (You, sg. and pl.). In Greek, by contrast, the imperative has 3. sg. and pl. forms, as well as 2. sg. and pl. forms. These have to be translated by some device, such as let him ..., in English (cf. §0455, and examples (5), (13), (15) above). The hortatory subjunctive (§819) is employed in Greek for what might be called the imperative of the 1. person (= let me, let us).

The Subjunctive

817. Introduction. In addition to its kinship with the imperative (§§808-816), the subjunctive is also related to the future. The future tense does not have a subjunctive (§3100.2) but aorist subjunctive and future indicative forms were often confused (§807.2). The confusion owes not only to formal similarities but also to similarities of function. The subjunctive is the mood of dubious assertion, expressing probability (§307.2), and therefore refers, commonly, to the future, i.e. to what may be or what may have been (the future from the standpoint of the past).

The uses of the subjunctive to head predicates in independent sentences (or main clauses) are usually divided into three categories: futuristic, volitive (hortatory), and deliberative.

818. The futuristic subjunctive is used in more or less emphatic negative assertions with the double negative οὐ μή.

(25) ὁ ἀκολουθῶν ἐμοὶ οὐ μὴ περιπατήσῃ
ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ
Jn 8:12
The one following me shall certainly not walk
in darkness
(26) οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν
τῶν οὐρανῶν
Mt 5:20
You will never enter the kingdom of heaven
(unless you meet certain conditions)

Such negative assertions with double negative tend to be less emphatic in the hellenistic period than earlier (overuse, weakening of the language).

818.1 The same construction may express a strong negative injunction (cf. the prohibitive subjunctive, §810.1):

(27) ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς οὐ μὴ τελέσητε Gal 5:16
Do not gratify the desires of the flesh

818.2 The future indicative may also be used in strong negative assertions:

(28) οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο Mt 16:22
This shall never happen to you

Either the future indicative or the aorist subjunctive were used in classical Greek. (28) is the only certain example with the future indicative in the New Testament; in other instances the manuscript tradition vacillates between future indicative and aorist subjunctive (Bl-D §365).

819. The hortatory (volitive) subjunctive is the use of the subjunctive in the 1. person (plural, rarely singular) to express an admonition: in the 1. plur. the speaker exhorts others to join him in doing something; in the 1. sing. the speaker requests others to permit him to do something.

819.1 1. Plural:

(29) ἀγαπητοί, ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους 1 Jn 4:7
Beloved, let us love one another
(30) μηκέτι οὖν ἀλλήλους κρίνωμεν Rom 14:13
Then let us no longer pass judgment on one another

819.2 1. Singular:

(31) ἄφες ἐκβάλω τὸ κάρφος ἐκ τοῦ ὀφθαλμοῦ σου Mt 7:4
Let me east the mote out of your eye

Cf. §816. Bl-D §364.

820. The deliberative subjunctive is employed in deliberative questions, real or rhetorical, regarding the future (Bl-D §366). In deliberative questions the possibilities are being weighed:

(32) δῶμεν ἤ μὴ δῶμεν; Mk 12:14
Are we to give (tribute) or not?

In questions of fact, the speaker asks for information:

(33) ποῦ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνος; Jn 9:12
Where is he?

The yes and no possibilities of a deliberative question may be only implicit (rather than explicit, as in (32)):

(34) ἐν ῥάβδῳ ἔλθω πρὸς ὑμᾶς; 1 Cor 4:21
Shall I come to you with a rod (or not)?

Or, the possibilities may be entirely open:

(35) τί φάγωμεν; ἤ, τί πίωμεν; Mt 6:31
What shall we eat? or What shall we drink?

820.1 The future indicative may also be used in deliberative questions:

(36) πρὸς τίνα ἀπελευσόμεθα; Jn 6:68
To whom shall we go?

820.2 The present indicative rarely appears in such questions:

(37) τί ποιοῦμεν; Jn 11:47
What are we to do?

820.3 Certain analytical constructions also have the force of deliberative questions (with δεῖ, δύναμαι, etc.; Bl-D §366(4)), e.g.

(38) πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι; Jn 3:9
How can these things be?

821. Introductory words with volitive and deliberative subjunctives add a note of politeness or function as attention getters.

821.1 ὅρα, ὅρατε, βλέπετε (look! take care! watch out!) sometimes introduce the prohibitive subjunctive (§810.1):

(39) ὅρα μηδενὶ εἴπῃς Mt 8:4
See that you tell no one
(40) βλέπετε μὴ πλανηθῆτε Lk 21:8
Take heed! Do not be led astray

821.2 ἄφες, ἄφετε; δεῦρο, δεῦτε sometimes introduce the hortatory subjunctive.

(41) ἄφετε ἴδωμεν εἰ ἔρχεται Ἠλίας καθελεῖν
Mk 15:36
Let's see if Elijah will come to take him down
(42) δεῦτε ἀποκτείνωμεν αὐτόν Mt 21:38
Come, let's kill him!

ἄφες means let, permit; δεῦρο come, but translation should suit the context and English idiom.

821.3 θέλεις, θέλετε, βούλεσθε (do you wish) may introduce a deliberative question:

(43) βούλεσθε οὖν ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν τὸν βασιλέα
τῶν Ἰουδαίων;
Jn 18:39
Do you want me to release the king of the
Jews to you?

821.4 These introductory expressions are grammatically independent of the sentence, i.e. they do not affect the following construction.

The Optative

822. Introduction. The optative is the mood of wish (from Latin opto, wish). The optative is used to express what could or might happen, under certain hypothetical conditions. It is therefore sometimes called the may or might mood. Cf. §307.3. In classical idiom, the optative was also employed in certain types of conditional sentences (§859), and in indirect discourse after secondary tenses (Smyth §2599).

The use of the optative has greatly diminished in hellenistic Greek, by comparison with classical usage (cf. §0445). Its two principal uses in main clauses need only be briefly illustrated; its use in conditional sentences and indirect speech may be noted.

See §§445-449 for the conjugation of the optative.

822.1 The optative is used to express a wish or a prayer:

(43) μὴ γένοιτο Rom 3:4
May it not be! (God forbid)

Fifteen of the 38 exx. of the optative in wishes in the New Testament are the strong deprecatory formula represented by (43)

This same optative may appear in a prayer:

(44) χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη πληθυνθείη 1 Pet 1:2
May grace and peace be multiplied to you

And in an imprecation:

(45) τὸ ἀργύριόν σου σὺν σοὶ εἴη εἰς ἀπώλειαν Acts 8:20
May your silver perish with you!

Bl-D §384.

822.2 The potential optative is used with and without ἄν to express what could or might happen under some hypothetical condition. This optative is therefore the apodosis of a truncated conditional sentence: The if-clause or protasis is suppressed. Cf. the English sentence:

(i) I could eat a horse (if one were available)

The Greek counterpart is:

(46) τί ἄν θέλοι ὁ σπερμολόγος οὗτος λέγειν; Acts 17:18
What would this babbler wish to say?

In (47) the condition is actually expressed:

(47) πῶς γὰρ ἄν δυναίμην
ἐὰν μὴ τις ὁδήγησει με;
Acts 8:31
How could I,
unless someone guides me?

For the potential optative of something only thought, see Acts 26:29 and Bl-D §385.

822.3 For the optative in conditional sentences, see §859. Example (47) above exhibits the apodosis of a fourth class condition, but the protasis is from another type of condition.

822.4 The optative appears rarely in indirect discourse in the New Testament, if only for the reason that direct discourse is much preferred (cf. Bl-D §386; see §585 for other forms of indirect discourse). Yet there are a few examples in Luke, e.g.

(48) καὶ διελάλουν πρὸς ἀλλήλους
τί ἄν ποιήσαιεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ
Lk 6:11
And they discussed with one another
what they might do to Jesus