Re: Black and Porter and Terminology

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Fri Aug 01 1997 - 23:56:28 EDT

At 08:01 PM 7/31/97 +0000, Clayton Bartholomew wrote to the list, drawing
attention to the differing terminology about Greek aspect (especially) being
used by David Black and Stan Porter. He commented:

>***Please note: I am not saying Porter is right and Black is wrong.***
>All I am saying is that both these men are reputed to be linguists and
>both are writing on NT Greek grammar and both are talking about verb
>aspect but their use of terminology is not only different but seems to
>actually be contradictory.

Clayton has raised for discussion a very important issue affecting current
work in the field of biblical Greek studies. It deserves to be aired. At
22:41 97/07/31, Mark O'Brien wrote in response:

>For those who have done any work in the area of aspectual studies, it is a
>well-known "fact" that for every two scholars there are three sets of
>terminology! Terminology in this field is notoriously difficult because
>some are approaching the topic from a more traditional base and attempting
>to maintain traditional terminology used by biblical grammarians, whereas
>someone like Porter is coming from a more linguistically oriented base, and
>using more "universal" linguistic terminology. <SNIP> So, you really have
to >take each scholar and evaluate their terminology individually, since it
is >quite possible in some cases for them to use the same terms to mean

Mark is spot on, of course, both in mentioning that the problem is much,
much wider than Black and Porter, and in identifying what is happening: some
are seeking to maintain traditional terminology and others are grasping
after a new terminology more in line with the findings of linguistics about
language. Mark also puts his finger on a significant part of the problem:
the two groups using the same (or almost the same) terms with quite
different meanings. A case in point: the use of the term "perfective". [More
about this anon.]

At 06:14 97/08/01 -0400, Jonathan Robie wrote:

>*Most* texts are rather confusing when it comes to aspect. Fanning, Porter,
>and Olsen use significantly different theories of aspect, and most NT
>scholars know more about the linguistics of the 1800s than about modern
>linguistics, since most of the really good books on Greek are based on the
>older linguistics.

Then Jonathan sets out a table to compare Smyth to Fanning in their
terminology, concluding:

>These tables look very similar. The difference is that Fanning is talking
>about aspect, and Smyth is talking about Aktionsart.

Then at 08:11 97/08/01 -0400, Rod Decker wrote:

>The 2:3 ratio that Mark refers to is all-too-true! Earlier this summer I
>finished a draft of a chapter in my dissertation that surveys the field in
>this regard. For what it's worth, I've appended my summary (notes and all)
>that gives the definitions that I use in the dissertation. My topic, BTW,
>is not aspect per se, but temporal deixis (i.e., an examination of Porter's
>temporal thesis).
>The key/seminal works on aspect in NT studies are Stan Porter's *Verbal
>Aspect in the Greek of the NT* (NY: Lang, 2d ed., '93), Buist Fanning's
>*Verbal Aspect in NT Greek* (Oxford: Clarendon, '90), and Mari Olsen's '94
>diss. at Northwestern U (being published by Garland this summer, but I
>haven't received a copy yet), "A Semantic and Pragmatic Model of Lexical
>and Grammatical Aspect." There are also a series of journal articles by K.
>McKay and his brief intermediate grammar, *A New Syntax of the Verb in NT
>Greek: An Aspectual Approach* (NY: Lang, '94).

I love having the privilege of reading material like Rod's contribution,
where members of the list share with the rest of us the work which they are
doing, especially where (as in this case) it may well not otherwise come to
our attention. (I have printed it out for myself for reference.) This kind
of thing is one of the real advantages of being on the b-greek list.

Let me add a contribution which draws upon my own experience as a writer in
this field.

The crux of the matter is simple: discussion of Greek grammar has been going
on for a long time, right back to the ancient Greeks themselves; modern
authors feel that in numbers of ways they wish to modify (or at times
totally change) concepts and terms used by their predecessors. An additional
complication is that there are quite a large number of grammatical terms
which already exist and which have wide currency in English: is it going to
be helpful to an English speaker (especially when a beginning student of
Greek) for writers about Greek grammar to promote different terms for
parallel grammatical features in Greek?

And a further complication is that those who are learning Greek today are
going to want/need to consult some of the standard works about Greek already
written in English - are you going to help or confuse such people by using
identical terms to those found in these standard works, but with different

That's the problem. Now, if you are writing a book for the expert, or at
least for the advanced student (and these people are the primary intended
audience for Porter's book), then you can legitimately propose revolutionary
ideas and terminology which is different from what has previously been used.
Which is what Porter does.

If on the other hand you are writing a beginner's grammar (which is what
Black has done), you face the above issues in their most acute form, and
will probably attempt some level of compromise.

To speak from personal experience: I have post-graduate training in both
linguistic science and in biblical Greek, and I was acutely aware of the
fact, when I produced my grammar "Learn To Read the Greek New Testament"
(first published, 1979; US edition, 1982), that little had then been
attempted to apply the insights of linguistic science to the study and
teaching of koine Greek. This was the purpose of my book. But: what was one
to do about a terminology system? I was not very happy with the
appropriateness or accuracy of a range of terms, like "tense" or "present
[tense]", etc. But I felt it would be too radical (and thus unhelpful) a
departure from my predecessors to change them in a beginner's grammar.
However, in retaining (for example) the use of the term "tense", I
emphasized to students that the difference between the tenses in Greek is
not one of time but of aspect. And then I explained "aspect".

With each new edition of "Learn To Read the Greek New Testament" (it has
just been published in a fifth edition by SPCK Australia) I face afresh the
question of whether to retain this terminology. I have chosen to retain it
because it keeps the continuity with all the standard works on Greek
published on earlier years (and frequently referred to on our b-greek list);
and it gels best with any grammar the student may already know; and I have
not found any reason for thinking that the new terminology now being used by
some writers is in fact an improvement. The differences between Greek and
English (e.g., regarding "tense") can be handled by simple explanations at
appropriate points.

Because in my grammar book I am teaching koine Greek from the perspective of
linguistic science, I do need to use some of the vocabulary and concepts of
linguistics. But this only requires the introduction and explanation (as
needed) of a total of sixteen linguistic terms. In my own classes in Greek,
I do not find any problem either with the introduction of these linguistic
terms or with the retention of most of the traditional terminology.

What does create problems is when terms which have a standard usage in major
works on Greek up till now are adoped by modern writers and given a
completely different meaning. Thus Blass-Debrunner-Funk (see p.166) use the
term "perfective" to refer to the aspect of the perfect and pluperfect
tenses, a usage which has been widely known, recognized and understood. For
the other aspects BDF use "durative" and "punctiliar" (p.166). Now Porter
has used "perfective" for the aspect that BDF call "punctiliar"; "stative"
for "perfective"; and "imperfective" for "durative" ("Verbal Aspect in the
Greek of the NT", p.89; "Idioms of the GNT", p.21). I do not find Porter's
terms to be an improvement upon the usual ones even in advanced-level Greek
discussions, and I would certainly contend strongly that they should not be
used in a beginners grammar, but the standard terms (as per BDF) should be
retained. (An aside: my own work in linguistics has brought me to
conclusions far removed from most of those of Porter in many more areas than
just terminology. I find McKay and Fanning much better substantiated, from a
linguistics point of view.)

BDF also note (p.166), "In meaning, time is practically the only
significance of the future". That is, the future tense stands outside the
aspect system of the verb. Thus there are four subsystems which exist for
every Greek verb, and every form of a Greek verb will be part of one or
other of these four. Three of the four are aspect-related, and the fourth is
related to time. They are (using the standard terminology):

Durative Present Imperfect
Punctiliar Aorist (non-indicative) Aorist (indicative)
Perfective Perfect Pluperfect
Future Future ---

This table, based upon BDF, and echoing numerous others, is the one used in
my grammar, and I have not seen any good reasons given for departing from it.

I have mentioned my own experience by way of illustration - the fact is,
every writer of a Greek grammar is confronted by these issues. He will make
his decision about which terms to employ, on the basis of how influenced he
is by modern proposals on the one hand, or on the other by a wish to
maintain as much continuity with previous writings as possible. And also by
how much specialized knowledge of linguistics he himself has. Because of all
these factors, each beginners grammar will differ from all the others in the
extent to which it retains older terms or adopts new ones (and if the
latter, which new ones, because several possible permutations exist).

This ultimately is the answer to why there are differences in terminology
between those who write about Greek grammar, both at the level of teaching
it to beginners and at the level of advanced interaction about linguistic


Ward Powers

Rev Dr B. Ward Powers			Email:
10 Grosvenor Crescent			International Tel: +61-2-9799-7501
SUMMER HILL  NSW  2130			Australian Tel:     (02) 9799-7501

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