Aspect and the Greek Verb
This is a Class Handout prepared for students in Greek at Southern Seminary.
In preparation for the class with which this handout is associated, the students are
required to read the following:
Bache, Carl. “Aspect and Aktionsart: Towards a Semantic Distinction.” Journal of
Linguistics 18 (1982): 57‐72.
Evans, Trevor V. Verbal Syntax in the Greek Pentateuch: Natural Greek Usage and
Hebrew Interference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Chapters
Naselli, Andrew D. “A Brief Introduction to Verbal Aspect in New Testament
Greek,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 12 (2007): 17‐28.
Porter, Stanley E. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. Biblical Languages: Greek 2. 2nd
ed. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992, 1994.
Porter, Stanley E. and Matthew Brook OʹDonnell. “The Greek Verbal Network
Viewed From a Probabilistic Standpoint: An Exercise in Hallidayan
Linguistics,” Filología Neotestamentaria 14 (2001): 3‐41.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New
Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. pp. 499‐512.
The handout and lecture seek to assess the contributions of the readings and provide
a description of aspect in Hellenistic Greek.
Aspect is concerned with the differing portrayals of an event, either
seen from without as a bounded whole (Perfective) or seen from
within as an unbounded process (Imperfective). Aspect, then, may be
defined as the relationship between an event and the frame within
which it is portrayed or viewed. If the event is seen as a whole within
the frame of the viewer, then it is perceived globally; conversely, if the
boundaries of the event (either its beginning or end) extend outside of
the frame of the viewer, then the event is perceived as an ongoing
process. Aspect is generally grammaticalised in the language.
Class Handout by Peter J. Gentry – 04/01/10 – All Rights Reserved – Page 1
Aktionsart is concerned with the procedural characteristics of the action
or event, e.g. durative vs. instantaneous or punctiliar, inceptive or in‐
gressive vs. terminative, progressive vs. non‐progressive, characteristic
or habitual, repeated vs. single. Aktionsart is generally lexicalised in
the language and is also a function of pragmatic effect as opposed to
grammaticalised semantic meaning.
[NB: In the literature there is confusion in regard to terminology. What is labelled
’aspect’ here is referred to by some linguists as Viewpoint Aspect, and what is la‐
belled Aktionsart here has been referred to as Situation Aspect or Phasal Aspect.]
2. Inflectional Categories and Aspect
Although Hellenistic Greek offers a choice of three different aspects, aspect
selection by the speaker is a function of two sets of binary options:
[ASPECT1] Fientive or Stative?
The first choice is to present the event or process as an action or as a state. The
former is Fientive, the latter is Stative. Fientive is the default or unmarked selection.
[ASPECT2] Perfective or Imperfective?
Once fientive is selected, the action may be portrayed either as Perfective or
Imperfective. Perfective is the default or unmarked selection.
The inflection of the verb in Greek was divided along functional lines into
two types: fientive and stative. In the first, the verb represents an action, event or
process; in the second the verb represents a state. The first category, fientive, is the
default or unmarked selection. The second category is grammaticalised as the Per‐
fect (Pluperfect, Perfect, Future Perfect).
If the binary choice fientive is selected by the speaker, a second binary choice
is available in terms of how the event may be portrayed: the speaker must select
either Perfective or Imperfective aspect. Perfective is the default or unmarked selec‐
tion. Using a line from Hallmark Greeting Cards, the Perfective is used “when you
don’t care enough to send the very best.” The primary purpose in using the aorist is
simply to say that something happened in a chain of somethings. Imperfective as‐
pect, however, “sets the stage for the action that follows. Conversely, what follows
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is rooted in the state of affairs set up by the imperfective.”1 From a historical lin‐
guistic viewpoint, support for describing the system according to these two sets of
binary options comes from the morphology of the personal endings. The personal
endings for the Perfect/Pluperfect cannot be derived from the same set for the re‐
mainder of the conjugation patterns (Primary vs. Secondary and Active vs. Medio‐
Passive). The 1st sg. is an example.2
Scholars such as Constantine Campbell, T. V. Evans, and Stanley Porter pre‐
sent an opposite arrangement of binary options: first the speaker selects either Per‐
fective or Imperfective Aspect (Aspect I in Porter and O’Donnell’s description of the
Greek Verbal Network) and then the speaker selects the Imperfective or Stative as a
sub‐category of Imperfective. This proposal is considered erroneous; the approach
advocated here is based upon Andrew Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and
Porter in his book Idioms of the Greek New Testament is also incorrect in his
description of three “planes of discourse” in which he describes the Perfective as
background, Imperfective as foreground, and Stative as frontground.3 There is no
particular prominence for the Stative aspect. There is only a default vs. marked
binary opposition between Perfective and Imperfective.
3. Overview of Aspects Grammaticalised in Greek
+ Ptc. and Infin.
+ Ptc. and Infin.
1 Private communication, Randall Buth, SBL, New Orleans, 2009. This provided the argument dem‐
onstrating that most historical presents are perfective in nature, since the subsequent action is not
rooted in it, but simply follows sequentially. See S. Runge, “The Verbal Aspect of the Historical
Present Indicative in Narrative,” Paper presented at The Society of Biblical Literature, New Orleans,
2 See Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1995), 454, 570‐571.
3 Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament. Biblical Languages: Greek 2 (2nd ed.; Sheffield:
JSOT Press, 1992, 1994), 23.
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+ Ptc. and Infin.
to be in the process of dying
to be dead
The verbal forms in the indicative mood / modality are marked for both tense
and aspect. Fanning included tense in his system, but Porter completely excluded it
from his. T. V. Evans has shown that Porter’s arguments concerning the augment are
flawed. The augment is a morpheme signalling Past Tense. So, for example, the Pre‐
sent Indicative = Present Tense + Imperfective Aspect and the Aorist Indicative =
Past Tense + Perfective Aspect. Thus ancient Greek in both the Classical and Helle‐
nistic Periods has as many as five aspectual tenses: present, imperfect, aorist, perfect,
and pluperfect. The future indicative is a special case because it lacks the aspect dis‐
tinction Perfective vs. Imperfective. The future perfect would mark future tense plus
stative aspect. Thus the Imperative, Subjunctive, and Optative have no tense or tem‐
poral reference whatsoever.
For Porter, the verbal forms are marked for aspect and not tense. What, then,
is the function of the augment? Clearly this is a morpheme attached to the verb.
Schmidt and Silva are perplexed by Porter’s “complete disregard of the augment as
In Indo‐European verbal systems, the augment is found only in Indo‐Iranian,
Armenian, and Greek. Originally an independent particle, it was attached at a later
time to ‘past’ forms of the verb. Few examples are found in the Mycenaean Period.
There is a mixture of augmented and unaugmented forms in Homer. In the Classical
Period, the augment is a required feature of the imperfect, aorist, and pluperfect in‐
dicative forms. There is a parallel development in Sanskrit. Phonetic changes in the
Hellenistic Period brought about a weakening of this requirement, but doubly aug‐
mented forms reveal a hypercorrection to show that the feature was still considered
required (e.g. ºnšJxa). Shift from pitch to stress accent resulted in the loss of the
augment in Modern Greek.
4 Argument here is based upon T. V. Evans, Verbal Syntax in the Greek Pentateuch: Natural Greek Usage
and Hebrew Interference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 45‐51.
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The traditional view is that the augment marks past time. This view is unac‐
ceptable to Porter. Strangely his position contradicts his own conviction that a dif‐
ference in form normally correlates with a difference in function.
An explanation for the mixture of augmented and unaugmented forms in
Homer can easily be given: it is due to the artificial diction and demands of poetic
metre. Homeric Greek is also dialectally heterogeneous. The evidence from Homer
does not disprove the consensus view. Porter is relying on older outdated research
on Homer.5 Each participant in the epic poetry is described by characteristic epithets
and phrases. When one shifts from Nominative to Genitive or Dative, the metrical
constraints may result in changing the dialect in which the characteristic epithet is
expressed. Similarly metrical constraints allow innovations or require archaic forms
and so the use or non‐use of the augment may be easily explained.6 The feature of
the augment can be construed as a past time marker attached to indicative forms in
appropriate contexts and then later becoming systematised throughout the imper‐
fect, aorist, and pluperfect indicatives. Evans notes that the introduction of the
augment signals introduction of an additional value—which is interpreted here as
temporal reference—to the semantic baggage of indicative forms. Its subsequent
grammaticalisation does not indicate loss of that value from the indicative’s usual
formal semantics, merely the loss of its special connection with the augment. The
endings of verbal forms came to convey temporal value in addition to person and
voice. Why are there seven verb‐forms in the Indicative Mood and only three in the
non‐Indicative Moods? The answer is simple: the forms in the Indicative mark both
aspect and tense (the future forms mark only tense and not aspect); outside of the
Indicative they mark only aspect. Since there are only three aspects, there are only
three verb‐forms outside of the Indicative.
Alternative theories are not convincing. Campbell argues that the augment is
a morpheme marking spatial reference. This is a possible proposal, but not a plaus‐
ible interpretation of the actual data. The early evidence for development of the fu‐
ture tense and augment does not fit his ideas well.
The exceptional patterns of verbal usage which provide the basis for Porter’s
theory are better taken as fossilised survivals of an older aspectual structure overlaid
by the growing importance of temporal reference. Certainly Campbell does not offer
a view that comprehensively accounts for development and history of the Greek
language as a whole. Balanced views on aspect and tense will probably start to be
restored when a theorist following Porter has the courage to move beyond the com‐
5 J. A. J. Drewitt, “The Augment in Homer,” Classical Quarterly 6 (1912): 44‐59, 104‐20.
6 See Francisco Rodrígues Adrados, A History of the Greek Language: From Its Origins to the Present
(Leiden: Brill, 2005), 89‐91.
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fort zone of the NT and actually seek to pinpoint when the grammatical category of
tense becomes a factor in the history of Greek.
This discussion of the augment is not to say that there not other markers of
tense or temporal reference in the language, but these arguments retain the notion
that tense is grammaticalised through the augment and personal endings (primary
Constantine Campbell follows Porter in arguing that the forms of the verb in
Greek are not marked for Tense.7
Examples from Campbell (e.g. to demonstrate Aorist as NOT past‐referring)
Mark 1:11 kaˆ fwn¾ ™gšneto ™k tîn oÙranîn: sÝ eŁ Ð uƒÒj mou Ð ¢gaphtÒj ™n soˆ
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well
Campbell states: “Suffice to say that no one translates the last clause of this verse, “in
you I was well pleased.” It simply doesn’t fit the theological or literary context to
read the aorist that way. There are many such instances within the usage of the
aorist where this so‐called past tense is obviously not past referring.”8 (p. 36)
What is the difference between Campbell’s example and 1 Cor 1:21?
1 Cor 1:21 ™peid¾ g¦r ™n tÍ sof…v toà qeoà oÙk œgnw Ð kÒsmoj di¦ tÁj sof…aj tÕn
qeÒn, eÙdÒkhsen Ð qeÕj di¦ tÁj mwr…aj toà khrÚgmatoj sîsai toÝj pisteÚontaj:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him,
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who
Campbell’s examples are unfair and untrue because he does not distinguish seman‐
tic meaning and implicature / pragmatic effect for them the way he does for the case
examples given later in his work. By Campbell’s own analysis, there are probably
only 10 ‐ 15 % of instances where the Aorist does not seem to be past‐referring. Why
doesn’t he explore this as a result of implicature / pragmatic effect rather than as a
7 Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008),
8 Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, 36.
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proof that there is no semantic meaning of past in the other 85%? Bernard Comrie,
for example, in his fundamental work on tense, gives examples of the past in English
used for non‐past referring situations: ”I just wanted to ask you if you could lend me
a dollar.”9 This is an implicature in English and does not prove that the form is not a
Later in his work, Campbell provides categories for analysing verbs and
distinguishing semantic meaning from implicature:
Campbell’s Categories for Analysing Verbs
For the category ”Lexeme,” Campbell’s approach to transitivity is based upon
whether the action is effective or not and not upon formal categories supplied by the
language itself. The category of “Context” is the slippery element in the equation as
this category is vague and unprincipled in Campbell’s work.
5. Grammaticalisation of Aspect
Aspect may be grammaticalised by means of vowel gradation (apophony):
e.g: leip- // lip- // loip-. Aspect may be grammaticalised by means of morphemes
affixed to verbal forms, e.g. sigma in the aorist.
6. Basic Aktionsarten (Lexicalised): durative and punctiliar
Every root is inherently, from its lexical nature, either durative or punctiliar.
Thus Aktionsart is lexicalised. Aspect, however, is grammaticalised. We can illustrate
this using the verbs ‘hit’ and ‘sing’ in English. The lexical nature of ’hit’ automatical‐
ly indicates something instantaneous whereas the lexical nature of ’sing’ indicates a
process occurring over time. Nonetheless, one can portray the action differently than
the lexical nature suggests. For example, one can say, “they sang Handel’s Messiah.”
We know this must have taken three hours, but the action is presented globally, and
is viewed as a whole. Conversely, one can say, “he kept hitting me.” An action that
is punctiliar is portrayed as a process. In the morphology of the verbal system in
9 Benard Comrie, Tense (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics; Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1985), 19.
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Greek, if a punctiliar root is taken as the point of departure, certain changes can be
introduced morphologically to produce a stem marking Imperfective Aspect, and
conversely, if a durative root is taken as the point of departure, certain changes can
be introduced morphologically to produce a stem marking Perfective Aspect. Most
students are familiar with the latter process as it entails the sigmatic aorist. Students
are not, familiar, in general with the former process as it describes the way present
stems are formed from roots that usually entail Second Aorists.
a. Changes made to durative stems for Perfective Aspect: regular verb
b. Changes made to punctiliar stems for Imperfect Aspect:
1) Non ‐y‐ formations
a) Root stems (i.e. present stem = form arising directly from the root)
1)) Thematic formations e.g. fšr-o-men (cf. for-o-j in nouns)
2)) Athematic formations e.g. ‡-men
b) Stems with vowel gradation and reduplication
1)) Thematic: g…-gn-o-mai
2)) Athematic: t…-qh-mi
c) Addition of nasal infixes
1) -n- : tšm-n-w (œtemon)
2) -an- : ¡mart-£n-w (¼marton)
3) Both -n- and -an- : la-m-b-£n-w (œlabon)
4) -nu- : de…k-nu-mi (œdeixa)
5) -ne- : ¢fik-nš-omai (¢f…xomai)
d) Reduplication and nasal infix
1) Øpisc-nš-omai (ØpescÒmhn)
e) Infixed -sk- / -isk-
1) used alone: ghr£-sk-w (™g»rasa)
2) with reduplication: gignè-sk-w (œgnwn)
[f) Infixed -q- (from which likely derives the passive in -q- + h)
Examples: plh-q-w (pimplhmi), prh-q-w (pimprhmi) flege-q-w (flegw)]
2) Formations with suffixed -i- (produces Imperfective Aspect)
1)) May be added to verbal roots which are inherently punctiliar to produce
imperfective aspect e.g. stšllw < stel-i-w
2)) May be added to nominal roots to make (denominative) verbs
e.g. filšw < file-i-w (f…loj)
3)) Morphology of particular formations
a. Labial stems (p b f)
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kÒptw < kop-i-w
krÚptw < krub-i-w
b. Voiceless velar and dental stems (k c t q)
ful£ssw < fulak-i-w
ÑrÚssw < oruc-i-w
™ršssw < eret-i-w
korÚssw < koruq-i-w
[more rarely voiced velar: ¢ll£ssw < allag-i-w
c. Voiced velar and dental stems (g d)
¡rp£zw < arpag-i-w
gumn£zw < gumnad-i-w
™lp…zw < elpid-i-w
d. Liquid stems (l r)
stšllw < stel-i-w
-ar ca…rw < car-i-w
fqe…rw < fqer-i-w
o„ktþ/rw < oiktir-i-w
-ur martÿ/romai < martur-i-omai
e. Nasal stems (n)
‐an fa…nw < fan-i-w
‐en te…nw < ten-i-w
krþ/nw < krin-i-w
-un plÿ/nw < plun-i-w
f. Sibilant stems (s)
telšw < teles-i-w
g. Digamma stems (#)
kla…w < kla# -i-w
[basileÚw < basilh# -i-w
h. Vowel stems (e a o) (use elongated stem vowel in non‐durative stems)
filšw < file-i-w
tim£w < tima-i-w
dhlÒw < dhlo-i-w
7. Semantic note:
Since the -i suffix was heavily used for the forming of denominatives (i.e. for
making nouns and adjectives into verbs) many formations have a clear factitive‐
causative force and some became especially productive in that capacity. E.g.
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equip with doors
provide with death i.e. put to death
count as just/right
regard with envy
8. The Participle
The Participle is marked only for Aspect and has no Tense, time, or temporal
reference whatsoever.10 It may be that the Perfective Aspect lends itself to time prior
to the main verb and Imperfective Aspect to time concurrent or subsequent, but the
adverbial participle does not in itself, signal either Tense or Relative Time. This is
different, however, from saying that event indicated by the participle has relative
time. When a participle is subordinated to a finite verb in the Present Tense, the
temporal reference of the participle is Present, When, however, that same participle
is subordinated to a finite verb in the Past tense, the temporal reference of the par‐
ticiple is Past. One has to keep clearly distinct (a) the marking of a form and (b) what
information is derived from the context or logic of the action in question.
10 See article forthcoming by Robert E. Picirilli, “Time and Tense in the Circumstantial Participles of
Mark and Luke.”
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