RE: tense & aspect / action & states of being

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sun Sep 08 1996 - 15:11:05 EDT

At 12:27 PM -0500 9/8/96, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>Carl Conrad wrote:
>> Oh, the shameless impudence of these "little Greeks"! ;-)
>Can you imagine how bad I'd be if I were a "big Greek" ? ;->
>Seriously, after reading Young's objections to the traditional approach to tense
>and aspect, pointing out e.g. that aorist can be used for actions in the
>present, the past, the future, etc., I notice that both Robertson and BDR seem
>to say very similar things, and BDR even uses the term "aspect". If Robertson
>and BDR represent the traditional approach, I would say that Young's depiction
>of the traditional approach is a strawman.
>However, I also feel that I'm reading a fairly abstract description of
>tense/aspect, and I'm not sure how to apply it concretely. I always understand
>theory better when I see it applied. I once attended a behaviorist kindergarten,
>expecting to find headless kids in Pavlovian hammocks, but what I actually saw
>at this particular kindergarten was not much different from the humanistic
>kindergarten at which I was working at the time. Knowing how they used their
>particular understanding of behaviorism was much more enlightening than trying
>to understand behaviorism in the abstract. Which is why I'm asking all these
>people giving theoretical explanations to please give me some examples to show
>how their theory affects interpretation.
>I believe that Young is trying to explain Fanning's approach. Is Fanning better
>here? I haven't read Fanning. What are some cases where Robertson or BDR can not
>adequately interpret the tense/aspect of a passage, but Fanning's approach is

Your point is well taken. I wasn't arguing against Young or Fanning in particular; what I was arguing against the principle of "divide and conquer" applied to grammatical mysteries such as aspect in verb tenses. I would also agree with Don Wilkins that one cannot ignore either context or the fundamental nature of tenses and aspects; I just don't like the apparent suggestion that every time you see an aorist in a new context you must invent a new rule or subdivide an old one. I think one needs to read lots and lots of Greek, consulting the grammar and the lexicon as necessary. On occasion one needs to spend a good deal of time with the grammar and the lexicon. But a grammar is not so much a scientific treatise as it is a compendium of lore based upon meditation upon what has oneself been taught and upon thoughtful observation of and reflection upon huge amounts of textual evidence. There's considerable peril in theorizing on too small a store of evidence, which is one reason for my skepticism about grammars t
hat limit the textual evidence for Greek grammar to the New Testament alone.

>Incidentally, does Modern Greek usage shed any light on the use of tense/aspect
>in Hellenistic Greek?

Yes, didn't I just say something about Modern Greek having two futures? The first is based upon the present stem, the second on the aorist. This means to me that the distinction between present (continuous, repetitive, durative) aspect and aorist aspect is pretty deeply rooted in Greek. I don't know Modern Greek at all well, but I'm also impressed by the number of new middle "deponents"--even the verb "to be" in MG is EIMAI.

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