Re: Perfect tense and aspect

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Sep 04 1996 - 10:32:49 EDT

At 8:39 AM -0500 9/4/96, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>I'm still struggling with perfect tense. My basic problem is that I have a
>time reconciling Young's description of perfect with BDR and Robertson. The
>latter two describe it basically as a past action with continuing results,
>or as
>a current state which results from a past action. They give examples to show
>different emphases (stressing the beginning, stressing the ending, timeless,
>repeated action). I assume that this presentation pre-dates current models of
>tense and aspect. But I think that I understand it!
>Young's presentation completely mystifies me. He uses an analogy of a parade,
>and says that the perfect is like a parade master who is "looking at the
>arrangements, conditions, and accompanying events in existence at the parade,
>rather than viewing the parade itself as a whole ar one float at a time".
>Huh? I
>know how to view the parade as a whole, and I know how to view it one
>float at a
>time, but I don't know how to look at the arrangements, conditions, and
>accompanying events. I just don't know what this means.
>Even though Young seems to differ from Robertson and BDR in theory, his
>treatment of examples is similar, e.g.:
>Young calls this consummative perfect, saying that the state of affairs had
>continued for a while but has now come to an end. Robertson calls this a
>where the end is stressed, which pretty much agrees with BDR. But what
>does this
>have to do with the parade master?
>I could continue with other examples, but so far, it seems that the
>interpretation of specific examples in the three grammars is very similar,
>though the theoretical discussion of the meaning of perfect is significantly
>Am I missing something?
>And what *does* the parade analogy mean?

Beats me.

Methinketh that much imagination entereth into the explanation of grammar.
It's an occupational affliction to which we Greek teachers are subject, I
fear. At least I've never visited a textbook upon an innocent world (nor am
I criticizing anyone who has; "they also serve who only stand at the
blackboard and teach," although I have threatened to do so: every one I've
ever read has included at least one assertion or illustration that I would
have regretted.

HOWEVER, I've always thought there was something useful in observing the
tenses of certain Greek verbs:

        Present: hISTATAI "He is moving to a standing/halting position"
        Aorist: ESTH "He reached a standing position/he halted"
        Perfect: hESTHKE(N) "He is standing"

        Present: APOQNHiSKEI "He is dying/being executed"
        Aorist: APEQANE(N) "He died/was executed"
        Perfect: APOTEQNHKE(N) "He is dead"

Another notion I have thought useful in connection with the perfect tense
is Aristotle's conception of "entelechy"--a process that comes to natural
maturation/fulfilment/actualization. The great live oak tree standing
majestically and stretching out its branches in all directions illustrates
the perfect tense of a verb "to oak"; one might see the present tense of
that verb in the growth from acorn to the point at which the full-grown
acorn is itself dropping acorns, at which time one might use the perfect
tense to describe the tree in terms of its present state of full growth--or
one might continue to use the present tense inasmuch as it continues, like
the AESCULUS in Vergil's great metaphor of the tree of life, to grow, year
in, year out. I suppose that's a way of putting it that makes no more sense
to some people, however, than the parade metaphor used by Young.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:37:50 EDT