Read this! Imperatives and the countability of events

I noted in my previous post (Once and twice: The countability of events) that I’ve been reading David Armstrong’s (1981) article, “The Ancient Greek Aorist as the Aspect of Countable Action.” As I said before, there really aren’t any surprises. Armstrong’s claims hold for the Koine period quite well. This wouldn’t have been a surprise to Armstrong either, since he made occasional reference to Modern Greek along side Classical and Homeric. When a phenomenon functions the same in Classical and Modern, its pretty likely that it’ll be that way in the Koine Greek as well. But my own digging through the data has been worth the time. Armstrong’s corpus was limited to published lexicons, concordances, and grammars. He didn’t have access to digital texts. Our modern ability to quickly look at massive amounts of data provides for a useful opportunity to test linguistic claims more consistently.

Beyond that, Armstrong also doesn’t look at some specific issues that are important. How does aspect interact with mood and modality? The relationship between aspect and the Greek imperative has attracted a lot of attention from scholars without a whole lot of agreement. I don’t have time at the moment to get into the details of various views (e.g. Porter vs. Fanning). The difference between their views is also documented rather well elsewhere.

The imperative is particularly difficult, though, for the interpretation of aspect. Often times the choice of an imperfective imperative over a perfective imperative appears inexplicable, leaving many struggling to understand what’s going on. This was quite visible in a B-Greek* discussion a few months ago on a thread dealing with the imperative with verbs of speaking.

But what I’m seeing with adverbial numbers here makes it quite clear that aspectual distinctions continue consistently in the imperative mood. Thus, the aorist (perfective) imperative co-occurs with cardinal count:

ἔκχεον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν τρὶς ὕδωρ εἰς ὄνομα πατρὸς καὶ υἱοῦ καῖ ἁγίου πνεύματος.
Pour water on his head three times in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Didache 7.3).

You can count events presented in the perfective aspect. This is not the case with the imperfective imperative, however. The only times you find cardinal count adverbs with imperfective imperatives are when they’re presenting a indefinitely repeatable event. That is to say, while the event itself is internally countable, there is no end to its repetition. As Armstrong puts it,

Such situations of distinguished frequency count occur regularly when what in question is actions, themselves internally capable of count, indefinitely repeated; in such situations it is not the internal count (‘doing this three times’) but the frequency of the multiple action itself (‘always doing this three times,’, doing this three times every year’, and so on) that dictates the choice of the aspect” (8).

This point is also consistent across the Koine period. Daniel prayers three times a day. His prayers are individually countable. But the aspect of “pray” is determined by the atelic nature of the activity. He never stops praying three times a day. In such cases, imperfective aspect has scope, not merely over the verb, but over the whole of the predication, including the number of times it is done. The same is true for the numerous sacrifices the Jewish priests perform in the LXX. The sacrifice itself is countable, but because the priests perform the “two sacrifices a day” indefinitely, the predication itself is not bound and thus it necessitates an imperfective verb.

This situation is maintained for imperfective (i.e. present) imperatives:

Τρὶς τῆς ἡμέρας οὕτω προσεύχεσθε.
Pray in this manner three times a day (Didache 8.3).

Here again, in the imperative, the imperfective is used with τρίς, but the imperfective aspect is necessary because the event is still atelic. The author is instructing regular prayer that must not stop after just a single day.

So again, aspect doesn’t change in the imperative. It’s functions in just the same way. And I think that viewing the perfective vs. imperfective distinction in terms of countability may very well be helpful in understanding other more difficult to interpret imperatives as well.


*Incidentally, on the subject of B-Greek, the new forum format recently past its one year anniversary. And I have to say, the change has been very exciting. To those of you who have refrained from participating in the e-mail list because of the elementary level of the content, you might want to look at how some of the more technical sub-forums have developed. There has been some excellent discussion over the past year.


Armstrong, David. 1981. “The Ancient Greek Aorist as the Aspect of Countable Action.” Pages 1-12 in Syntax and semantics, vol. 14: Tense and aspect, ed. P. Tedeschi and A. Zaenen. New York: Academic.