Musings on Verb Terminology

I’ve been frustrated by how we refer to the different forms of the Greek verb for some time now, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about it here.

Its been at least 100 years since grammarians agreed that time was only expressed in the Indicative Mood.

And yet we continue to talk about Present Infinitives, Aorist Infinitives, Present Participles, etc.

At least “aorist” makes some sense since its more of an aspectual term rather than a temporal one. But even still, there really isn’t too much “present” about Present Subjunctives, Infinitives, Participles.

What if we began describing verbs rather than applying a label? That is, what if we began talking about the individual morphemes of verbs rather than applying a single label for the whole thing.

Let’s look at a couple verbs:





Or at least something like that.

But what I want to emphasize here is that Tense is separate from Aspect. The distinction between Imperfective and Perfective Aspect is the existence of the –σα suffix for 1st Aorists. Imperfective Aspect is a default value for such verbs (represented by a Null marker, but this doesn’t mean I advocate the existence of null morphemes).

But Present and Past Tense are marked by the augment and agreement suffixes  – completely separate from Aspect. So when we look at the Infinitive form for 1st Aorist verbs:





In this case, the Aspect morphemes and the Infinitive morphemes meld together (depending on your theory of word formation). And quite clearly, there is no morpheme marking any sort of Tense (I’m intentionally not talking about the Future verb-forms here).

So we could easily get away with referring to the Perfective Infinitive and the Imperfective Infinitive and successfully avoid confusing students with our unhelpful use of the term “Present Infinitive.”

I cannot tell you how many times in my 2nd year Greek class in college students would protest to how another student translated a participle or infinitive with an English past or present when the Greek verb was a present or an aorist form simply because it had been ingrained in their heads – PRESENT TENSE INFINITIVE and AORIST TENSE INFINITIVE.

Some of the students in my class never got it. And probably never will.

We need to do better than that.

I’m not suggesting what I’ve proposed above is perfect or it should be implemented.

But something needs to change.

We’re only confusing our students.

10 thoughts on “Musings on Verb Terminology

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  1. Perhaps students need to learn Russian before Greek. I have taught Greek to Russian speakers (using a Russian translation of Machen) and I think they found it much easier than typical English speakers do. I would be surprised if they confused the two infinitives, which correspond so well with the two Russian infinitives.

    1. a Russian translation of Machen. That must have been interesting.

      I think that Russian speakers learning Greek would be closer to English speakers learning Spanish. The languages are highly similar.

      1. Interesting indeed. Sadly I no longer have my copy. At the time I didn’t know the English original to compare with. But I learned most of what I know about Greek accents from it, which was helpful. I learned Greek from Wenham, who almost ignores accents. The Soviet schools my students had studied at taught proper traditional Russian grammar (I’m not sure you can learn Russian without it!), so they had no problems with the grammatical terminology.

      2. In Russian we use imperfect when we are not sure about completing an action in the past. If we are sure about finishing this action, we use Simple past tense (Aorist) or simple past tense with refering to the present time (perfect). (The difference between Russian and Greek past tenses is only that we do not have different forms for aorist and perfect – We only have incompleted (progressive) past tense and completed past). When we treat past actions , first we pay attention on completion of these actions. Sequence of actions we mean by using prepositions and participles.

  2. Agreed: traditional fundamental grammatical terms too often don’t adequately describe or confound the nature of what they refer to; too much of what linguists have offered in their place is not much clearer or precisely accurate than traditional terms. Even “aorist” has been construed differently as meaning “unlimited” or “undefined.” ATR has nice comments on the inadequacy of the traditional terms, but he was perhaps too wise to suggest alternatives.
    “Tense” is not good, but it’s not the worst of the terms for traditional verbal categories; “voice” doesn’t really convey any meaning at all; “mood” means something different in English from Latin ‘modus’. I have the impression that language reveals its most profound helplessness when it comes to describing the features that make language function.

    1. I always liked the way ATR also provided Greek terms for most of his grammatical discussion. Most linguists I’ve talked to use the term modality rather than mood, too. Perhaps that would be better.

  3. ‘Scuse my tremendous ignorance in all matters of grammar, but when you say:

    “Its been at least 100 years since grammarians agreed that time was only expressed in the Indicative Mood.”

    Are you referring to Koine Greek or English?

    Also, have you have the Wikipedia article on Aspect vs. Tense:

    They note:

    “In most dialects of Ancient Greek, aspect is indicated uniquely by tense.”

    But I think you disagree.. ?

    (Very interesting – just trying to understand it all)

    1. I’m referring to Greek. AT Robertson in particular has a good discussion of the subject and its problems.

      As for Wikipedia, I’d say this is an instance where the freedom for anyone to edit anything has resulted in bad information. That sentence sounds like its from someone who has studied some Greek, but has not studied Aspect or Tense more generally. The confusion likely arose from the fact that we use the word “Tense” to refer to Aorists, Perfects, Presents, Futures, Imperfects. The only one of those labels that could truly get away with that label is the Future and even then there are plenty of complications.

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