Stylistic use of imperfect, was: Why instantaneous imperfect Mark 8:24

From: yochanan bitan (
Date: Wed Jun 30 1999 - 08:19:21 EDT

carl wrote:
>my impression is that other imperfect verbs also may
>introduce a narrative sequence which proceeds in the aorist. But what I'd
>really like to know is what you might recommend as a good introduction or
>lead-in to textlinguistics as regards ancient Greek.

good question. wish i had a full answer.
one good textlinguistic introduction for NT greek is Stephen Levinsohn of
SIL. (i don't have the exact title or bibliographic data. c. 1994. probably
available through the SIL bookstore in Dallas.)
personally, i like textlinguistics to interface with linguistic universals
and theoretical grammars in order to provide structures and
cross-linguistic controls for proposals. Levinsohn's approach, above, fits
within that.

on the phenomemon under discussion (what textlinguists by concensus would
probably call "backgrounding imperfects" ),
i would say, yes, imperfect verbs in Greek, both verbs of saying and
others, are used with pragmatic applications that are broader than strictly
time/aspect semantics.

below are some of my notes from a beginning text, which include a 'fade
out' backgrounding usage as well as the 'lead-in' discussed above:

"c. Stylistic [5]
"Lk 4.30
        autos de dielqwn dia mesou autwn eporeueto.
        and he, having gone through their midst, was going away (=went

"He actually did go away, but the event is reported in the imperfect as a
stylistic 'fade out' to the scene rather than as one of the main events in
the simple past. (eporeueto is a 'deponent' middle/passive voice in the
imperfect tense.) Contrast Lk 4.13 o diabolos apesth 'and the devil went
away (simple past, [irregular form])', where the event is reported in the
simple past (aorist) as another one of the main events of the story.

"Lk 16.5-6
        elegen tw prwtw, Poson ofeileis tw kuriw mou?
        o de eipen, Ekaton korous elaiou
        he was saying (=said) to the first, "How much do you owe my
        And he (the other man) said "100 jars of oil."

"Semantically, both quotations were complete and could have been introduced
with the simple past (aorist) tense. However, the author stylistically
introduced the first quotation with the imperfect tense so as to portray it
grammatically as a kind of backgrounded lead-in to the conversation.

"[5] The stylistic functions of Greek structures are part of a branch of
grammar called 'textlinguistics' or 'discourse analysis' by linguists.
Greek storytelling was able to produce a
refined, textured, nuanced 'packaging' of a story by judicious use of
participles versus finite verbs,
imperfect versus aorist tenses, (and imperfectives vs. perfectives in
and word order."

randall buth

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