Re: (Augmented!) imperfects without past reference

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Tue May 13 1997 - 13:00:27 EDT

At 9:24 AM 5/13/97, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>I have found some passages in which the imperfect does *not* refer to the
>past. These passages may be significant for our discussion of aspect and the
>augment here on B-Greek.
>Robertson calls this category the "potential imperfect" (Big Yellow Tome, p.
>885). I don't see how to construe these passages in a manner that lets the
>imperfect refer to the past. In these passages, the imperfect takes a
>meaning of potential desire - "I should like", "I could wish"....

Jonathan, these imperfects are the general equivalent of the apodosis of
present contrary-to-fact sentences (e.g. "If I were you I would shoot
myself"--don't take that personally, it just happens to be my favorite
example!). Thus whatever can be said about the latter can be said about the
former as well, and you may or may not find a given explanation adequate.
Of course it all starts with one's premises. If you presume that
aorist/imperfect augments are past-referring, then the best explanation
that I have found is that the verb takes you back to a time when things
theoretically could have been different from the way they actually turned
out. In the example I gave, for instance, the implication is that I was not
born to be you, and therefore it was never incumbent upon me to shoot
myself (and still isn't). The standard Eng. translation of contrary-to-fact
constructions is probably a little misleading because we use the
subjunctive in the apodosis instead of the imperfect. In many situations
the construction is used to express a polite request, in a way which
theoretically gives the person asked a simple reason to decline.
Now obviously this is a complex and difficult argument compared to the view
that simply ignores the augment as a past-time indicator, so if simplicity
is the sole criterion, then the latter view will win out.

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside

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