Re: Porter on the present

From: Bruce Terry (
Date: Fri Oct 20 1995 - 12:18:27 EDT

On Wed, 18 Oct 1995, Mari Olsen wrote:

>The theory is just cleaned up, so that what we THOUGHT was English and
>Greek 'tense' is not. The longer answer is that the Greek present is
>marked for imperfective aspect (not tense), and the English present is
>unmarked for both tense and aspect. The English form may therefore,
>by pragmatic implicature (e.g. in the context you mentioned) take on
>the imperfective meaning, namely focus on a situation as it is
>unfolding in time (rather than the perfective focus on a complete(d)
>situation). In other words, to understand what the Greek present means, you
>need to look at what imperfective aspect is, rather than what the
>English translation is in a particular case.

To better understand my response, I offer to the list for your consideration
and discussion the following chart on Greek tense. Please note that Mari and
I are using different vocabulary to a certain extent--hers is more in the
tradition of modern linguistics, mine more in the tradition of traditional
Greek linguistics (although I have incorporated the language of marked/
unmarked from the work of the Prague school).

TENSE in Greek for the Indicative Mode:

           TIME: Past Unmarked Future

ASPECT: +--------------+--------------+--------------+
               | | | |
               | | | |
    Unmarked | Aorist | --- | Future |
               | | | |
               | | | |
               +--------------+- - - - - - --+- - - - - - --+
               | | | |
               | | | |
    Continuous | Imperfect | Present | --- |
               | | | |
               | | | |
               | | | |
               | | | Future |
    Completed | Pluperfect | Perfect | |
               | | | Perfect |
               | | | |

Of the nine possible tenses in Greek, only seven are actually used. This
means that the Present and the Future tenses must do double duty: they must
be used for both continuous and unmarked action. In the case of the future,
the question is mute, since the future is unmarked for aspect and thus may be
used for continuous action anyway (this is part of the definition of
unmarked). In actual usage, Greek tends to use paraphrastic forms for future
continous action.

The issue is more complicated and controversial in the case of the present.
If a Greek wanted to express a present time, punctiliar aspect idea using an
indicative verb, he or she was not limited from doing so by the lack of a
tense. Normally, punctiliar aspect would be encoded as unmarked aspect and
present time by unmarked time. Since no such tense form exists, time takes
precedence over aspect and the present tense form was used. This means that
the present tense form was used both to encode continuous action and/or any
kind of action.

The exegetical consequence of this is that it is invalid to reason from a
present indicative verb that the action was viewed as continuous by the

Bruce Terry E-MAIL:
Box 8426, ACU Station Phone: 915/674-3759
Abilene, Texas 79699 Fax: 915/674-3769

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