Re: MH + Pres Imper

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri May 29 1998 - 17:44:44 EDT

At 8:51 AM -0400 5/29/98, clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:
>Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>> Present imperative with MH is, I think, the standard injunction not to do
>> something: e.g. John 20:17, where Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, MH MOU
>> hAPTOU (about which we have had much conversation, as I recall). The aorist
>> subjunctive with MH is much more emphatic. If Jesus says to Mary, "Don't be
>> clinging to me," in the above cited verse, but a TAUTA MH POIHSHiS is more
>> like, "Don't EVER do that!"--for those with Latin, it's the equivalent of a
>> Latin perfect 2 sg. subjunctive, one of my favorite examples of which is
>> from an ode of Horace: TU NE QUAESIERIS, "You must not ever ask ..."
>If this is the case, and I don't question that it is, then Porter's comment
>seems a little wide of the mark.
>>Porter (p 221, bottom) says "In most contexts , translations of of negated
>>imperatives and negated subjunctives used as prohibitions can be virtually
>Sometimes I think that the folks who spend their time spinning grand theories
>are apt to lose their way when dealing with significant details like this one.
>It is a case of not being able to see the trees because of their preoccupation
>with the forest.

Let's not be too hasty here. After reading Rod Decker's dissertation in
summary on his web-site (I heartily recommend it:,

I'm inclined to have a lot more respect for Porter's theory than before I
had an inkling of what it really meant. The sentence from Porter that
you've cited is a bit tricky: you can read it "TRANSLATIONS OF ... can be
VIRTUALLY identical." That is to say, TAUTA MH POIHSON and TAUTA MH
POIHSHiS might both be translated "Don't do that" or a bit more
emphatically, "Don't ever do that." But in this instance the imperative and
the subjunctive are both aorist. If you had TAUTA MH POIEI and TAUTA MH
POIHSHiS, there is a difference of aspect and I would think it ought to
yield a difference of translation, "Don't be doing that" and "Don't ever do
that," respectively. I think there is a real difference between these
latter two forms--BUT it should be recognized that (as is not infrequently
the case) when we endeavor to carry over the precise impact of the Greek
phrasing into English, we produce less than "natural" English; most people
are likely to translate both the present negated imperative (TAUTA MH
POIEI) and the negated aorist subjunctive (TAUTA MH POIHSHiS) as "Don't do
that"-- I think what we're dealing with is two different languages, one of
which doesn't ordinarily make the kind of aspectual distinctions that the
other makes quite regularly. These aspectual distinctions CAN enter into
translation, but when we try to translate them, we are sometimes likely to
make MORE of an emphasis on the difference in English than the Greek really

That's a lot to say in defense of a statement by Porter for which I really
haven't seen the context, but (a) I think it quite possible that he may be
right (depending on what he means in the larger context), and (b) I think
that we must never lose sight of the distinction between UNDERSTANDING what
the Greek actually says and CONVEYING the sense of the Greek in idiomatic
English; it is perilous to suppose EITHER that a workable "translation
into English" implies that one has really understood the Greek (any Greek
teacher can produce numerous bloopers demonstrating that intelligible
English can hilariously misrepresent the Greek), OR that a
rightly-understood Greek phrase can easily be rendered into English. The
two languages are VERY different; to translate adequately you have to know
BOTH of them pretty well, and most of us perhaps assume all too readily
that we understand at least ONE of them pretty well. This is a corollary,
or at least a comparable warning against pitfalls of reading AND
translating Biblical Greek--you can put it alongside of Robertson's quip
that you cited originally:

>"It is the commonest grammatical vice for one to make a conjectural
>translation into English and then to discuss the syntactical propriety of the
>Greek tense on the basis of this translation . . . "
>A.T. Robertson (p.821)

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243 OR

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