Passing grammar notes: Aspect and grounding in narrative

The telling of stories is a natural piece of human interaction and communication. It is done for pleasure; it is done to convey important information. And often times, it is done for some combination of both. In our introduction to background and foreground, we presented a typology of kinds of information presented in a narrative. We called the primary storyline of a narrative the foreground and we called the contextualizing or circumstantial information the background of the narrative.

Here I want to briefly summarize one grammatical means by which a speaker/author distinguishes the foreground storyline from the background of the narrative: aspect, and more specifically: aspect in indicative verbs. Mark 2:13-14 represents a useful illustration of the normal, unmarked relationship between aspect and narrative structure.

13 Καὶ ἐξῆλθεν πάλιν παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν· καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς. 14 καὶ παράγων εἶδεν Λευὶν τὸν τοῦ Ἁλφαίου καθήμενον ἐπὶ τὸ τελώνιον, καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· Ἀκολούθει μοι. καὶ ἀναστὰς ἠκολούθησεν αὐτῷ.
13 And he went out again by the sea. And the whole crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And passing by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at his tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me!” And getting up, he followed him.

The foreground of the narrative, the main storyline, normally defaults to the perfective aspect for moving the story forward. And that is what we see in Mark 2:13-14. The primary sequential events of the story in these two verses are in the perfective aspect with the exception of one (λέγει, he said), a historical present:

  • Καὶ ἐξῆλθεν πάλιν παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν
    And he went out again by the sea
  • εἶδεν Λευὶν τὸν τοῦ Ἁλφαίου
    He saw Levin, the son of Alphaeus
  • καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· Ἀκολούθει μοι
    And he said to him, “Follow me!”
  • ἠκολούθησεν αὐτῷ
    He followed him.

If you pause and think about it, it makes complete sense that the perfective aspect would be the default way to present a linear narrative. Recall the perfective aspect’s basic definition: the perfective aspect presents an event in its totality as a completed whole without reference to any kind of incompleteness or ongoing situation or action. Because the perfective aspect refers to events presented in their entirety, it follows naturally that languages would use this aspect to communicate the sort linear list of events that make up the foreground storyline of a narrative.

Similarly, note the aspect of the clauses that function as background material. All of these are clauses provide some context for the narrative. In particular, these first three clauses all provide the background setting for Jesus’ (foreground) invitation to Levi to follow him. Now, two of these are participles and participles are another grammatical category that defaults to background material (regardless of the aspect).

  • καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν,
    And the whole crowd was coming to him
  • καὶ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς.
    And he was teaching them
  • καὶ παράγων
    And passing by
  • καὶ ἀναστὰς
    And getting up

With the exception of the last participle (ἀναστὰς, getting up), all of the background material in verses 13-14 is conveyed by means of the imperfective aspect. The two indicative verbs are imperfects, and thus imperfective aspect and past tense. For indicatives, the past tense imperfective verb forms are the central means of conveying background material. And again, like the perfective aspect above, this usage is a natural result of their semantics. The fact that the imperfective aspect involves situations that are incomplete without reference to the initiation of an event or the conclusion of an event, they become the normal, default means of referring to situations, events, and actions that are taking place concurrently in the context of the linear foreground storyline. The incomplete nature of the imperfective aspect allows for the referring of other events taking place in a non-linear way. Background information is contextualizing information. It is used to frame the foreground event and its participants. In this instance, the crowds are following Jesus, Jesus is teaching them, and he is passing by Levi. While all of those non-linear events are taking place to set the scene for where Jesus says to Levi, “Follow me!”

Take a moment now and examine how the aspect of the indicative verbs in verse 15-17 continue this pattern:

15 Καὶ γίνεται  κατακεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ, καὶ πολλοὶ τελῶναι καὶ ἁμαρτωλοὶ συνανέκειντο τῷ Ἰησοῦ καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, ἦσαν γὰρ πολλοὶ καὶ ἠκολούθουν αὐτῷ. 16 καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς τῶν Φαρισαίων ἰδόντες ὅτι ἐσθίει μετὰ τῶν ἁμαρτωλῶν καὶ τελωνῶν ἔλεγον τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ· Ὅτι μετὰ τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν ἐσθίει; 17 καὶ ἀκούσας ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς ὅτι Οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν οἱ ἰσχύοντες ἰατροῦ ἀλλʼ οἱ κακῶς ἔχοντες· οὐκ ἦλθον καλέσαι δικαίους ἀλλὰ ἁμαρτωλούς.

15 And he was reclining to eat in his house, and many tax-collectors and sinners were reclining to eat with Jesus and his disciples, for they were many and they were following him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, seeing that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, were saying to his disciples, “Why is he eating with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And Jesus, hearing this said to them, “Those who are in good health have no need of a doctor but those who are sick. I did not come to call righteous people but sinners.”

Resources for further reading

Bernard, Jody. 2006. “Is Verbal Aspect a Prominence Indicator? An Evaluation of Stanley Porter’s Proposal with Special Reference to the Gospel of Luke.” Filología Neotestamentaria 19: 3-29.

Hopper, Paul J. 1979. “Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse.” In Discourse and Syntax, edited by Talmy Givón, 12:213–241. Syntax and Semantics.

Hopper, Paul J. 1982. “Introduction.” In  Tense-Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics, edited by Paul Hopper, 1-18. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Runge, Steven E. 2010. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Wallace, Stephen. 1982. “Figure and Ground: The Interrelationships of Linguistic Categories.” In Tense-Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics, edited by Paul J. Hopper, 201–223. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

10 thoughts on “Passing grammar notes: Aspect and grounding in narrative

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  1. Really fascinating! I also heard from another blog more about the differences in complexity of sentence structure between the Gospels written for laypeople, vs. the more complex sentence structure in fancy oration and speeches and learned pieces.

  2. Given that 15-17 only has a single aorist, I assume that means the majority of the preceding text is considered background information? Is that what you are getting at?

    The bigger question for me is about the usage of participles, under the aspectual background/foreground model are indicative verbs always used to provide the framework, and are participles always considered to provide background information?

    1. Historical presents are foreground (Levinsohn 2003, Runge 2010), so there’s that one, too, in addition to the aorist, but yes: the majority of 15-17 is background information. The principles for looking at aspect and grounding only apply to the indicative.

      1. Cool. And yep, I meant to say “Aorist Indicative” but I was not able to go back and amend my comment after posting. You now have me wondering how much different this is to Campbell it is (Or even Porter, but I am not convinced by the three planes of discourse option)

  3. Mike, have you noticed the new book QUESTIONS AND RHETORIC IN THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis by Douglas Estes from Zondervan. He has a section on the effects of pragmatics for rhetorical impact. Perhaps a brief note on your thoughts whether the book is worthy on the linguistic level?

  4. Mike, this is great! Are you coming to the Friday (Nov 18) afternoon workshop in Denver? And can we alert our workshop registrants to this piece – as an exemplar?

    1. I still need to RSVP, don’t I? I’ll do that this weekend!

      You’re welcome to share this essay, too. I’m working through old lecture notes I wrote on grounding a few years ago and decided I should make them available online.

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