Re: Aktionsart vs. Aspect

From: Randy Leedy (
Date: Thu May 15 1997 - 14:33:00 EDT

Roland Milanese <> wrote:

>>>I basically agree with your explanation of the use of the form
BEGAN to VERB to translate the inceptive imperfect, but would like to
add the following in response to your comment

>> the grammatical features of "began" itself are insignificant>>

Compare the following two sentences:

(1) It was beginning to rain.
(2) It began to rain.

These two sentences are not identical in form, and while I agree that
they may on occasion be regarded as synonymous, certain contexts
would also show that their form -- especially the -ing form --
signals a distinction in meaning.

Let us contextualize them as follows:

(3) He felt a raindrop on his cheek: it was beginning to rain.
(4) It began to rain, so he took out his umbrella.

The first sentence relates two contemporaneous events by focussing on
the moment of the perceived raindrop, while the second sentence
recounts two consecutive events. The first sentence describes the
very moment of inception as somehow suspended and incomplete -- i.e.
time and the process of rain not having progressed beyond the initial
phase. But the second sentence refers to two separate and complete
events: the moment of inception of rain is complete and so is the
action resultant from the implied decision to take out the umbrella.
Thus I would not accept:

(5) He felt a raindrop on his cheek: it began to rain.

Although I would accept:

(6) It was beginning to rain, so he took out his umbrella.

So it seems that in English there is a tendency for lexical
"inceptive" aspect to neutralize grammatical "incompletive" aspect;
this tendency appears to derive from the logic that a beginning
necessarily implies that the thing begun is viewed as incomplete, and
it is incomplete whether we put -ing on an aspectual verb or not. But
the presence or absence of the -ing form does make a difference, and
for this reason I would object to using the -ing form in the
translation of, say, Mt 4:11: "and angels came and were beginning to
minister ..."

I've been keeping only half an ear on this aspect discussion, and I
don't consider myself as having any expertise in the area. But I will
venture a comment at this point. "He felt a raindrop on his cheek: it
began to rain" is indeed an awkward sequence of ideas. However, "He
felt a raindrop on his cheek; it had begun to rain" sounds to me
quite as natural as "... it was beginning to rain."

This wording of the sentence seems to support the idea that lexical
aspect of inceptivity (if that's an acceptable word) does indeed
overcome whatever grammatical aspect may be indicated by tense, even
if not all combinations are acceptable. Here we have three
grammatical aspects -- simple, progressive and complete -- apparently
overcome by the lexical aspect of the verb "to begin."

I gather that the problem with the example "He felt a raindrop on his
cheek; it began to rain" is that English objects to a sequence of two
simple past tenses in such a context. The asyndeton seems to me to be
significant as well; "He felt a raindrop on his cheek as it began to
rain" seems perfectly acceptable. Could it be that the shift in tense
is part of what it takes, in the absence of a conjunction, to signal
the relationship between one idea and the next? If English works this
way, to what extent does Greek do something similar? Fascinating
questions. Perhaps they've been raised already in this discussion
(though I doubt they've been ANSWERED satisfactorily!) and I've just
overlooked them.

I'm going to have to be careful or I'm going to get hooked on this
discussion and fail to accomplish any useful work for the rest of the
summer. :-)

In Love to God and Neighbor,
Randy Leedy
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC

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