Distinguishing Perfects

There are a variety of reasons why the English Perfect and the Greek Perfect must be distinguished in spite of their shared name and similarities.

Greek students are generally taught to use their intuition in terms of deciding whether to translate a Greek perfect with an English perfect or with an English present. But rarely (ever?) is there any discussion of how these two grammatical forms differ in their usage in a cross-linguistic sense. That is, the English Perfect can be used in the context X where the Greek Perfect would be infelicitous or ungrammatical.

Well today, I’m going to give you at least one way that I found about two weeks ago (I had to search for it to find it again). This assumes that the Greek of Joshua is relatively close enough to natural Greek that this is a valid usage. I haven’t had time to check other texts.

Joshua 13:8: ταῖς δὲ δύο φυλαῖς καὶ τῷ ἡμίσει φυλῆς Μανασση, τῷ Ρουβην καὶ τῷ Γαδ, ἔδωκεν Μωυσῆς ἐν τῷ πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου κατ̓ ἀνατολὰς ἡλίου, δέδωκεν αὐτὴν Μωυσῆς ὁ παῖς κυρίου…
But to the two tribes and the half tribe of Manasseh, Reuben and Gad, Moses gave (an inheritance to them) in the land beyond the Jordan eastward. Moses the servant of the Lord gave them …

From there, it goes on to list the lands they received. What’s striking about this. Well for one, we see the Perfect’s move toward the Aorist, but we also see a significant way in which the Greek Perfect is very, very different from the English Perfect.

Moses is dead. Moses was dead when the book was written and Moses was dead when the events described here in chapter 13 transpired (assuming for the sake of argument they did – this is a linguistics blog not a history blog). The English perfect cannot be used with a subject the speaker knows to be deceased. The sentence:

*Moses the Lord’s servant gave them X.

is not felicitous in English.

And that, my friends, is one way in which the Greek and English Perfects are different. This sort of example is relatively easy to recognize intuitively when dong translation, but it is still helpful to recognize and understand the reason why you’ve used the English past perfective verb “gave” instead of the perfect. And that’s what I’m interested in here. The why of things.


There is a pragmatic felicity condition on the use of the perfect: the subject of a Perfect sentence must be in a position to receive the participant property. Perfect sentences are infelicitous when this is not met. In the following well-known example the person referred to by the subject NP is not alive at the RT [Reference Time]. Consider (20), uttered in 1989.

(20) Einstein has lived in Princeton.

This sentence is grammatical but infelicitous when uttered at a time after the death of Eisten (Jespersen 1931:60), Chomsky (1970:85). We explain this in terms of the participant property. Einstein cannot bear the participant property in 1989, the time of the utterance of (20), and so it is pragmatically impossible to ascribe it to him. this is the force of the example. The felicity requirement, then, is reoughly as in (21):

(21) Felicity condition for the present Perfect
The person to which the subject nounphrase [sic] refers must be pragmatically able to bear the property ascribed to them.

The notion of ‘Current Relevant’ is sometimes invoked to explain the infelicity of sentences like this. (Jesphersen 1931: 47, 57, et seq; McCoard 1978, ch. 2).

Carlota Smith, The Parameter of Aspect (2nd ed.; Studies in Linguistics & Philosphy 43; Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1997), 108.

Also, I should note that an English Past Perfect, which is traditionally associated with the Greek Pluperfect would also be acceptable here: Moses had given…