Re: Tense in non-indicative moods

From: Rod Decker (
Date: Fri Dec 01 1995 - 23:49:53 EST

This may be dangerous, but let me comment on Ken's question w/o having
_Idioms_ at hand. So, from memory...

Ken Litwak wrote:

> Porter in his Idioms book makes the case that tense is irrelevant
>to the meaning of the non-indicative moods.

Slightly overstated. He does not say that it is "irrelevant"--only that
tense is not the determiner of time relationships. Tense/form is one factor
in the "temporal implicature" mix (along with lexis, deixis, context, etc.)

>Present negated imperatives
>do not mean "Stop doing x" and aorist negated imperatives don't mean
>"don't do x". They have no clear distinction that I can tell from
>what I've read so far.

You will have greater problems trying to make an artificial rule such as
"stop..." or "don't..." work. It produces odd exegesis. (E.g., Eph. 5:18
would require assuming that the adressees were _both_ drunk and filled with
the Spirit at the same time?!) Present imperatives MAY have this meaning,
but it must be established from the context, not automatically assumed by
the form. Present imperatives would be the more natural form for saying
"stop doing..." than an aorist, but it is not required by that form.

The aorist imperative is best treated as the default form for a command or
prohibition, with the speaker using the more heavily marked present for
various reasons.

>This both trashes everything I learned about
>the non-indicative moods and much that I have read in commentaries,
>leaving me wondering if I understand Greek at all if he's right and
>wondering what to make of tenses and moods since he seems to be
>reducing them all into one pot of "verbs" with no meaningful
>distinctions that I can see in understanding them, execept
>whether something is complete or not.

Your last statement, in particular, doesn't reflect Porter's explanation of
verbal aspect at all. Aspect does not say whether or not something has been
completed. Instead it specifies whether or not the writer chooses to refer
to the action as a whole (perfective aspect: aorist form) or to describe it
as a process (imperfective aspect: present and imperfect forms). That is
not what you find in many commentaries, but then one reads a lot of
questionable things in commentaries.

>Is this understanding of the
>non-indicative moods generally accepted by modern grammarians

This discussion has been developing for over a century. The terminology and
definitions have evolved from the first treatments in the late 19th C.,
through the early and mid 20th C. (seen partic. in ATR and BDF and referred
to there as Aktionsart), to the current work of Porter and Fanning that
distinguish Aktionsart and aspect. You will find such discussions among
modern grammarians as follows: Porter, Fanning (some diffs. with P., but in
substantial agreement on the majority of issues), Ken McKay (numerous
journal articles as well as his '95 grammar), Moises Silva (_God, Language
& Scripture), D. A. Carson, and Richard Young (_Intermediate NT Greek_,
Broadman, '94), and Bill Mounce (first yr. grammar: _Basics of Biblical
Greek_). I don't know of any intermediate/ advanced koine/hellenistic
_grammars_ published in this decade that do not address the issue of

>and if so,
>what of all the works that revolve around such distinctions? Does that
>mean that there aren't any rules left for distingushing tenses or moods
>in verbs, such that futures and pluperfects are the same?

Do I sense some frustration and maybe over-reaction to traditional
assumptions being challenged? Porter is quite explicit re. the rules of the
verb game. (If you aren't satisfied with his treatment in _Idioms_, then by
all means read his big one: _Verbal Aspect_. It isn't really fair to pass
judgment of his system on the basis of his 20-page summary in an
intermediate grammar w/o interacting with his full defense--which is over
600 pgs. of small print. (That is something all doctoral students in NT
ought to be required to do--I was last year and it was one of the most
valuable 'aspects' of my residence work [pun intended!].) I have never
heard anyone suggest that the future and pluperfect are the same! Porter
certainly doesn't say that.

>I'm not
>trying to use hyperbole. Poerter argued against any tense having any
>time relation, so that leaves one wondering what good six tenses

Now you've introduced another topic: "any tense having any time
relation"--not just the non-indicative moods. I'll not attempt to tackle
that in a msg. already too long, but very briefly: the function of
tense/form is not viewed as temporal in Porter's system (ATR said some very
similar things in that regard, BTW!). Their significance (in all moods,
incldg. ptcp. & inf.) is verbal aspect. There are three aspects
(perfective, imperfective, stative) expressed by the three main forms
(aorist, present, perfect). Imperfect and pluperfect are sub-categories of
the latter two. The future is not aspectual and is closer to a mood than a
tense/form. Their function is both varied and significant even if they do
not express time relationships directly.

I have a 40-page summary/analysis of the most crucial parts of Porter's
_Verbal Aspect_ (covers most of the first half of the book) that I will
mail to anyone who requests it for $3.00 (US address; US$5.00 outside the
US). Due to the heavy formatting, charts, and graphics, I can't
realistically e-mail it unless someone runs MS Word 5 (Mac) or 6 (Win or
Mac) AND has either the Graeca, SuperGreek, or SSymbol Greek font--all from
Linguist's Software. (It's formatted in Graeca, but Word 6 would allow
substituting any other font with the same key map; Alexandria might work as
well.) If you can handle that format (or the same in RTF), I can send it as
a Eudora attachment to an email msg. on request (and for free in that
format). Otherwise you're better off dropping me a check and I'll put it in
the snail-mail system. (Send such requests in private e-mail, not on the
list please.)


Rodney J. Decker Calvary Theological Seminary
Asst. Prof./NT 15800 Calvary Rd. Kansas City, Missouri 64147

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