Fanning and Imperfective Aspect

From: Micheal Palmer (
Date: Thu May 15 1997 - 00:45:21 EDT

At 4:03 PM +0000 5/14/97, Rolf Furuli wrote:

>Fanning did an excellent job with his book. He was up to date with the
>linguistic literature and used a modern definition of aspect.
>Particularly his description of aspect as "subjective" is worth
>noting (p 85, it appears that many has not done that). However, it
>seems to me that his definition of imperfectivity as a view "from
>within the action, without reference to the beginning or endpoint of
>the action" and perfectivity as a viewpoint from "outside the action
>with focus on the whole action from beginning to end" (p 85) is in
>need of a SLIGHT revision.
>On pp 191,192,253 Fanning discusses "inceptive imperfects" such as
>Matt 4:11: "and angels came (aorist) and began to minister (imperfect)
>to him". Regarding such examples he wrote (191,192): "This involves
>the close collocation of two verbs denoting sequenced situations such
>that the first indicates the beginning-point of the second." This
>explanation is clear and logical, so when "angels began ministering to
>him", when he "began to pray" Mrk 1:35, and when "he began to teach"
>(Luk 5:3), the starting-point of the action IS INCLUDED in the
>imperfective verb. My question then is: How can the definition quoted
>above stand when we have events where the point of beginning is
>included? We may also add conative events, where the action is just
>attempted and hardly can be viewed "from within the action". These
>questions are not just of theoretical interest, but they may have a
>bearing both on translation and on whether Greek perfect is a third
>aspect or not. So I hope to get comments from several geeks.

I think Fanning's definition holds quite well in these examples. It is the
presence of the aorist before the imperfect that causes a sense of
'beginning'. In other words, the 'beginning' arises out of the *sequence*
of tenses. It is not an inherent possibility for the imperfect. This
'inceptive' sense is superimposed on the semantics of the imperfect by the
aorist verb which precedes it (or by other elements in the context in other
texts). The angels can't minister before they come (as Fanning says). I'm
not convinced, though, that this inceptive sense was *necessarily* present
for first-century readers of these texts. They may have read Matthew 4:11
more as "and angels came and were ministering to him" with the inceptive
idea merely implied rather than being made explicit as it is when we
translate with 'began to'.

Micheal W. Palmer
Religion & Philosophy
Meredith College

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