A brief guide to aspect in Greek: Part I, The basics

Can you recommend the best blogpost or resource for introducing lay people to Verbal Aspect theory?

Dr. Joey Dodson on Twitter

Is this the best blog post for introducing people to aspect?
I’m not sure, but I hope that it will be helpful, nonetheless.


When it comes to introducing Greek grammar, the terms tense and aspect can have an intimidating effect on students. They often have an an intimidating effect on teachers, too. The term aspect is especially foreign. Aspect is not a category discussed in grade school English grammar classes. And grade school is likely where the majority of students, especially in North America, gained their knowledge of English grammar.

The goals in part I, for both English and Greek, are (1) simplicity and (2) practicality. In this introduction, we won’t cover the perfect or future, whether in English or Greek. We want to answer two questions:

  • What is aspect?
  • What is the most practical take away for paying attention to aspect?

In Part II, we’ll break down the different perspectives, proposals, and disagreements among scholars and researchers. In Part III, we’ll discuss the Greek perfect after getting a better sense of where the disagreements lie.

What is aspect?

The good news is that while the word might be foreign to you, more likely than not you still have a notional sense of aspect in practice. Both traditional English grammar and traditional Greek grammar use the term tense to subsume both the grammatical categories of tense and aspect.

Consider the sentences in the chart below. As an exercise, go ahead and copy the table into MS Word or a Google Doc and try to match the right grammar term to each of the sentences in the table.

You might be a bit rusty with these English grammar terms, but do your best.

SentenceGrammar Label
Mary watched the film at the theater.
Mary was watching the film at the theater.
Elizabeth sings beautifully every Sunday.
Elizabeth is singing beautifully.
  • Simple Present Tense
  • Progressive Present Tense
  • Simple Past Tense
  • Progressive Past tense

I hope that these labels are transparent enough that you can guess with some confidence.

Here are the answers.

SentenceGrammar Label
Mary watched the film at the theater.Simple Past Tense
Mary was watching the film at the theater.Progressive Past Tense
Elizabeth sings beautifully every Sunday.Simple Present Tense
Elizabeth is singing beautifully.Progressive Present Tense

Regardless of how you did, can you see the relationships here? The use of was and the –ed suffix are signals of the English past tense. What about the pattern below?

  • is/was + –ing ending = progressive
  • A bare verb = simple

Do you notice how the helping/auxiliary verb + –ing signals progressive past and progressive present?

This represents aspect in English, even though we usually just describe English tenses as having two types:

  • Simple Past/Present Tense
  • Progressive Past/Present Tense

These two types are English aspects. We use them all the time to communicate in daily life.

It depends on the grammar, but often the simple forms are described as perfective aspect and the progressive forms as imperfective aspect (e.g. Dixon 2005). I use these two terms, perfective and imperfective, because this will help us to connect our understanding aspect in English to aspect in Greek.*

* A good resource for understanding how an imperfective aspect relates or compared to the progressive aspect in English is the webpage on aspect at the Surrey Morphology Group’s grammatical features website. At some point in the future, I would like to use their discussion to better illustrate the differences between English and Greek aspect.

Now that you hopefully have better grasp of what you already have known intuitively about aspect, we can try to better answer the first question: What is aspect? And how does it relate to tense?

When we speak or write, we use the category of aspect to communicate how situations happen, progress, or unfold. Think of it this way: If tense (past, present, future) is used to communicate where/when an event happens in time, then aspect is used to communicate how an event happens in time.*

* As a point of reference for for more advanced readers: there is a common discussion about whether aspect is about how an event objective took place in the world or simply the subjective perspective/viewpoint of the speaker/writer. This discussion is a distraction: all facets of language are grounded in the subjective perspective of the speaker. Sometimes, a speaker communicates the aspect an event from what they consider their neutral viewpoint. Other times, they manipulate that viewpoint for some other communicative purpose. This includes not just aspect, but also tense and every other grammatical category. A good example of this is my discussion of aspect and imperatives: Perspectival uses of Aspect in the Imperative.

Speakers use the perfective aspect when they aren’t interested in communicating anything about how an event or situation unfolded, leaving any internal structure undefined.

  1. Todd ate an apple.

Speakers use the imperfective aspect when they specifically want to communicate that the event is in progress or otherwise has some kind of internal structure or flow (repetition process, habituality, etc.).

In English, progression is the central function, rather than repetition or habituality. This is why its more common to call the English a progressive aspect rather than an imperfective aspect. It has a narrower set of functions.

  1. Todd was eating the apple.

At the bare minimum, this is all that aspect is: how an event or situation presented as structured or not structure, how it progresses or is contained. There are a variety of ways that this simple difference might be realized in speech and writing.

How we use aspect in English

For example: we can locate a perfective verb within the progress of an imperfective verb.

  1. While Rachel was reading a book, Michael cooked dinner.

Similarly, because the perfective aspect presents a situation as an undifferentiated whole, we can effectively use it to create a sequence of two or more events.

  1. After Rachel finished chapter 5, she helped Michael in the kitchen.

This ability to locate a perfective verb inside the progress of an imperfective verb has significant implications for how we use aspect to structure the stories we tell.

  1. Michael was cooking [imperfective] dinner. He chopped [perfective] the tomatoes, onions, and peppers. He seasoned [perfective] the steaks with a generous amount of salt and pepper. While he was heating [imperfective] the skillet, Rachel finished [perfective] her book and came [perfective] into the kitchen. She put on [perfective] a green apron. Michael was wearing [imperfective] a blue one. She was looking [imperfective] at the oven when she asked [perfective] what temperature it should be set for. Michael said [perfective] it should be 350°F.

We could continue the story until Michael drops the hot skillet on his foot while putting it in the oven after searing the steaks, but let’s not belabor the point. Instead, you can see in this English example, how we, as English speakers, leverage aspect to give structure to narrative and story-telling. The progressive expressed by the imperfective verbs take place concurrently with one or more perfective verbs.

This English pattern is relevant because it is one of the few places where there is overlap between English and Greek aspect usage.

How aspect is used in Greek

Aspect in Greek has the same pattern for structuring narrative. It becomes especially important when we pause and realize that narrative constitutes over 60% of the New Testament. The form that aspect takes is different than in English. In the indicative, where we also have tense, it looks like this:

Indicative Verb FormTraditional LabelTense & Aspect in the Indicative
ἔλυσαAorist TensePast Tense & Perfective Aspect
ἔλυονImperfect TensePast Tense & Imperfective Aspect
λύωPresent TensePresent Tense & Imperfective Aspect
For regular thematic verbs, the -σ suffix on the aorist denotes perfective aspect, just as the augment ἐ- prefix denotes past tense.

In narratives in Greek, we find the same pattern: the perfective aspect (the aorist) is used by speakers and writers to string sequences of events together.

  1. Καὶ ἤρξατο αὐτοῖς ἐν παραβολαῖς λαλεῖν· Ἀμπελῶνα ἄνθρωπος ἐφύτευσεν, καὶ περιέθηκεν φραγμὸν καὶ ὤρυξεν ὑπολήνιον καὶ ᾠκοδόμησεν πύργον, καὶ ἐξέδετο αὐτὸν γεωργοῖς, καὶ ἀπεδήμησεν.
    And he began speaking to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and put around it a fence and dug a hole for a winepress and built a watchtower and then leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey (Mark 12:1).

In Mark 12:1, Jesus tells a story. Do you see all the perfective/aorist verbs? A man planted (ἐφύτευσεν) a vineyard and put around (περιέθηκεν) it a fence and dug out (ὤρυξεν) winepress hole and built (ᾠκοδόμησεν) a watchtower and then leased (ἐξέδετο) it to tenant farmers and went on a journey (ἀπεδήμησεν). These are all aorists, perfective aspect verbs—in both Greek and the English translation. Both languages follow the same pattern: using the perfective aspect to present a sequence of events as a narrative.

The imperfective aspect is used by speakers and writers to establish contextual situations, concurrent happenings, but not sequencing narrative events.

  1. Ἦσαν δὲ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἀναβαίνοντες εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, καὶ ἦν προάγων αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐθαμβοῦντο, οἱ δὲ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἐφοβοῦντο. καὶ παραλαβὼν πάλιν τοὺς δώδεκα ἤρξατο αὐτοῖς λέγειν τὰ μέλλοντα αὐτῷ συμβαίνειν.
    They were on the road going up to Jerusalem and Jesus was going in front of them. And they were shocked and those who were following him were afraid. And taking aside the twelve again, he began to tell them the things that were about to happen to him (Mark 10:32).

The verbs in bold are all in the imperfective aspect. They do not move the narrative forward. Instead, they set the scene and context for the story. They lay out what other things were happening at the same time, but they do not create a sequence of events for the narrative. The one narrative-advancing event in the story comes at the very end of the verse where Mark tells his audience that Jesus began to speak to them (ἤρξατο αὐτοῖς λέγειν). The imperfective verbs simple establish the context of Jesus’ speech to his twelve disciples: they are traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus was walking in front of them, they are amazed that Jesus is so determinedly headed toward Jerusalem despite what awaits him, and they are afraid. And in that context, Jesus began (ἤρξατο) to tell them the things that were about to happen to him.

Summary definitions and conclusion

Speakers use the perfective aspect when they aren’t interested in communicating anything about how an event or situation unfolds, leaving any internal structure undefined (note: that’s what the Greek word ἀόριστος/aorist means: “undefined”). One simple way this plays out is the use of perfective aspect verbs to advance a narrative by providing a sequence of events.

Speakers use the imperfective aspect when they specifically want to communicate that the event is in progress or otherwise has some kind of internal structure or flow (repetition, process, habituality, etc.). One simple way this plays out is the use of imperfective aspect verbs to provide context, framing, and setting the scene for a piece of narrative.

Perfective and imperfective aspects can be used and manipulated by Greek writers in a variety ways. Narrative is one, but only one. This introduction provides the initial taste of what’s possible. In Part II, we’ll break down the different perspectives, proposals, and disagreements among scholars and researchers. In Part III, we’ll discuss the Greek perfect after we have a better sense of where the disagreements lie.