A brief guide to aspect in Greek: Part III, The perfect

Part I gave a basic overview of what aspect is, along with one practical benefit of paying attention to aspect. Part II examined some of the various points of agreement and disagreement among scholars on this topic. With this background, we are in a better place to discuss the perfect aspect. Part III attempts to place the meaning of the Greek perfect verbform in the context of the previous discussions with some summary of my chapter on the perfect in Black & Merkle (2020) (Amazon link).

Aspect and Events Structure

Recall our definitions from Part I for understanding the perfective aspect (aorist) and the imperfective aspect (imperfect & present forms).

  • 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”).
  • 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.).

With these two definitions in mind, imagine watching as a person walks through a doorway. Depending on what perspective you wanted to communicate, you might say:

  1. Professor Hilbert went through the door.
  2. Professor Hilbert was going through the door.

The first of these is the perfective aspect:

The second of these is the imperfective aspect:

Your decision to use one of these or the other might be influenced by different factors. If the event is one of several that happen in sequence, the perspective you present will be perfective, as in example 3:

  1. Professor Hilbert went through the door.
    Professor Hilbert walked across the parking lot.
    Professor Hilbert got into his car.
    Professor Hilbert drove away.

But if you are more interested in some other event that happened concurrently, you might choose a perspective that is imperfective like in example 4.

  1. Professor Hilbert was going through the door when he saw a man with the same purple scarf.

Alternatively you might also choose the imperfective perspective if you want to highlight something that interrupted the event. Of these two aspects (perfective vs. imperfective), only the imperfective aspect can be interrupted. In English, nobody would say the second sentence with the asterisk.

  1. Professor Hilbert was going through the door, but he was interrupted.
    *Professor Hilbert went through the door, but he was interrupted.

When we use the perfective aspect, we are choosing to set boundaries for the event that cannot be violated. Choosing the perfective aspect, forces us to abide by its constraints: we cannot cut the action off before it is finished. Instead, we accept it as a whole event: beginning, middle, and end.

When we use the imperfective aspect, the boundaries are no longer in view. It is only the process without anything holding it in place, only the middle of the event. You can interrupt it, lay it out as context for other events.

In English, the perfective and imperfective aspects are also a foundation upon which we can express more complex kinds of event structure. Consider the sentences in example 6.

  1. Rachel went across the street (Perfective aspect, no internal structure).
    Rachel was about to go across the street (Impending event with Perfective aspect).
    Rachel began going across the street (Inceptive event with Imperfective aspect).
    Rachel was going across the street (Imperfective aspect, process in progress).
    Rachel finished going across the street (Terminative event with Imperfective aspect).
    Rachel has gone across the street (Finished event with English perfect tense).
    Rachel is across the street (Result State).

By combining words like begin, finish, and others, English speakers can communicate any part of an event from its instigation to its completion. These kinds of verbs are all aspect-like, since their lexical meaning is related to similar expressions of how an event unfolds, as grammatical aspect does. In fact, if you look up Semantic Domain 68 in Louw & Nida’s (1989) Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, you will find the entire domain is titled “Aspect” (an overview of LN68 is available here). All verbal constructions presented in example 6, above, represent phases of an event, which can be visualized in the chart below.

English does not treat the beginning, middle and end of an event as grammatical aspects. These are instead lexical constructions that build on the two basic English aspects (perfective and imperfective) in order to express more complex phases of an event. However, it is common in languages around the world for these event phases to be expressed grammatically rather than lexically. For example, Manipuri, a Tibeto-Burman language, has grammatical aspects for all these event phases (Bhat and Ningomba 1997, 251-267), summarized in examples (7-10) below.

  1. Inceptive: the –gət suffix
    məhak-nə phu-gət-li
    he-nominative beat-start-nonfuture
    ‘He began to beat.’
  2. Continuative: the -rì suffix
    məhak hoytup ca-
    he apple eat-continuative
    ‘He is eating an apple.’
  3. Change: the -re suffix
    əŋaŋ əsi caw-re
    child this big-change
    ‘This child has grown big.’
  4. Terminative/Cessative: the -rəm suffix
    yumthək ədu yu-rəm-mì
    roof that leak-stop-continuative
    ‘That roof had been leaking (but it stopped).’

Keep this idea of phasal aspect in mind as we look through examples of the Greek perfect below.

The Greek perfect

In surveying varying perspectives on the Greek perfect back in Part II, we observed that despite different perspectives on this verb-form existing, each of them is attempting to explain more or less the same pattern in the language and trying to account for that pattern, as in examples (11-13).

  1. Perfective
    λαβὼν παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν
    Taking a child, he made him stand among them (Mark 9:36).
  2. Imperfective
    ἵστημί σοι πάντα τὰ ἀφαιρέματα
    I set before you all the tribute (1 Macc 15:5).
  3. Perfect
    Ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου ἑστήκασιν ἔξω
    Your mother and your brothers are standing outside (Lk 8:20).

Examples of the perfect that look like this are fairly simple for everyone’s approaches. The same is true for perfect verbs like the following in examples (14-15).

  1. Perfect of μανθάνω, ‘learn’
    μεμάθηκεν ἡ γλῶσσα αὐτῶν λαλεῖν ψευδῆ
    Their tongue has learned/knows how to speak lies (LXX Jer 9:4).
  2. Perfect of ἔρχομαι, ‘come/go’
    λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι καὶ Ἠλίας ἐλήλυθεν
    I tell you that Elijah certainly has come/is here (Mk 9:13).

Each of these perfects (in 13-15) present a situation or state that persists relative to an implied prior event. This prior event is not necessarily in the discourse or text. It functions as part of the paradigm: the present or aorist verb-forms communicate the process. The perfect form in that same verb’s paradigm communicates the situation or state that persists following that process. The perfect’s connection to the prior event is relational rather than textual.

  1. after the process of standing → be standing
    after the process of learning → knowing
    after the process of coming → being here

With these kinds of verbs in the perfect, the question seems like a simple one: how do we describe this result state? Is its persistence an example of an alternative form of imperfectivity (Evans 2001, Campbell 2007)? Is it effectively stative (Porter, 1989, McKay 1994)? Is it a state which results from a prior occurrence (Fanning 1990)? No particular theory is going to collapse because of verbs like the perfect ἕστηκα ‘am standing’ or verbs like this. The more difficult verbs to fit within these descriptions are verbs like those in examples 17-19.

  1. Perfect of δίδωμι, ‘give’
    κἀγὼ τὴν δόξαν ἣν δέδωκάς μοι δέδωκα αὐτοῖς
    The glory which you have given me I have given them (John 17:22).
  2. Perfect of λαλέω, ‘speak’
    Ταῦτα λελάληκα ὑμῖν παρʼ ὑμῖν μένων
    These things I have spoken to you while I remain with you (John 14:25).
  3. Perfect of γράφω, ‘write’
    ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Πιλᾶτος· Ὃ γέγραφα γέγραφα.
    Pilate replied, “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22).

How do we describe these? The challenge for the different definitions of the perfect from Part II involves requires the kinds of perfects in examples (13-15) to the kinds of perfects in examples (17-19). For the longest time, I myself struggled to connect these two sets of sentences with perfect verbs. But the answer is relatively simple when we look closely enough at the chart above from Shibatani (2006). I repeat it below, with the relevant portion highlighted.

Each of the perfect verbs in examples (13-15) correspond to the resultative/result state phase of an event. Each of the perfect verbs in examples (17-19) represents the termination phase of the event.

The perfect is a phasal aspect in Greek, but it is not limited to the termination phase only or the resultative phase only. Instead, it subsumes both the termination phase of an event and the result state of an event. Those two categories might look vastly different to us in English, but that is a result of English grammar more than anything else. In the chart , the termination/completion of a process/event exists immediately beside the final resulting state of that process. We see this overlap the most in examples above where two glosses are possible, such as example (15) above: has come/is here. Other examples of perfects that illustrate the same proximity include the following:

  1. λανθάνω, ‘escape from x’
    ποῖος δὲ τόπος ἐστὶν τῆς συνέσεως; λέληθεν πάντα ἄνθρωπον
    And what is the place of understanding? It has escaped/is hidden from all people (LXX Job 28:21).
  2. θνῄσκω, ‘I die’
    πατὴρ μοι Βαθουῆλος ἦν· ἀλλ ̓ ὁ ἤδη τέθνηκε
    My father was Bethuel, but he has died/is dead already (Josephs, Antiquities 1.248).

Sentences like this can help illustrate how what we conceive of as two separate concepts/ideas in English are merged together in Greek: ‘is dead’ is an effective equivalent paraphrase of ‘has died.’ The one implies the other. Understanding this relationship covers the majority of Greek perfects you will encounter.

Advanced questions

There are a number of other patterns and complexities that I could add here. For examples, there is the historical discussion of how the resultative sense developed into the termination sense or how the Greek perfect has always been limited to a smaller set of verbs than the imperfective and perfective aspects, and how the Greek perfect interacts with verbs that do not refer to events.

I encourage readers who are interested in learning more about the intricacies of the Greek perfect to check out my chapter (Aubrey 2020) in Black & Merkle (2020): The Greek perfect tense-form: Understanding its usage and meaning (a draft is available online: The Greek perfect). The concept of transitivity, in particular, plays a hugely important role in how the perfect functions, especially as it relates to grammatical voice (I have also written a brief blog post on this question).

My thesis (Aubrey 2014) offers a deeper dive into how the Greek perfect raises challenges for the application of categories and labels to grammatical forms. Methodology is particularly relevant here because the three standard views of the perfect described above and in the previous part of this series are based on real patterns expressed by the perfect. I am not convinced any of them represent the best way forward for either descriptive grammar or pedagogy.

There is also a larger collection of literature dealing with these issues for earlier eras of the language, such as Claflin (1939) on voice and the perfect. Additionally, Haug (2004, 2008) examine historical shifts in transitivity and the perfect between Homer and Classical Greek. Willi (2018) is the best and most comprehensive analysis of the Greek verb’s origins to date. The primarily limitation of all this research on the perfect for Indo-European, Homeric, and Classical Greek is the assumption that, more and faster semantic change by the time of the New Testament than is actually the case. This appears to be the product of placing more trust in the conclusions of New Testament Greek reference grammars than is deserved when it comes to diachrony and change. The more accurate reality is that the semantics of the perfect in post-classical period has significantly more in common with Classical Greek than is traditionally assumed.

Works cited & suggested resources outside New Testament Greek

Aubrey, Michael G. 2014. The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect. MA Thesis. Trinity Western University.

Aubrey, Michael G. 2020. The Greek perfect tense-form: Understanding its usage and meaning. Pages 55-81. In Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key issues in the current debate. Edited by David A. Black and Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bhat, D.N.S. and M.S. Ningomba. 1997. Manipuri grammar. Munich: Lincom Europa.

Black, David A. and Benjamin L. Merkle. 2020. Linguistics and New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins and William Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, Constantine. 2007. Verbal aspect, the indicative mood, and narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament. New York: Peter Lang.

Claflin, Edith. 1939. Voice and the Indo-European perfect. Language 15: 155-159.

Evans, Trevor V. 2001. Verbal syntax in the Greek Pentateuch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanning, Buist. 1990. Verbal aspect in New Testament Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haug, Dag. 2004. Aristotle’s kinesis/energeia-test and the semantics of the Greek perfect. Linguistics 42, no. 2: 387-418.

Haug, Dag. 2008. From resulatives to anteriors in Ancient Greek: On the role of paradigmaticity in semantic change. In Grammatical change and linguistic theory: The Rosendal papers, edited by Thórhallur Eythórsson, 285-305. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Porter, Stanley E. 1989. Verbal aspect in the Greek of the New Testament with reference to tense and mood. New York: Peter Lang.

Shibatani, Masayoshi. 2006. On the conceptual framework for voice phenomena. Linguistics 44:2, 217-269.

Willi, Andreas. 2018. Origins of the Greek verb. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Links to books on Amazon are affiliated links. You help us keep the lights on for our site when you use them.