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Verbal Aspect in Greek

 David Alan Black 

There are three aspects in Greek. I call them imperfective, perfective, and aoristic. Of these, aoristic aspect is the default. An aoristic action is one that the speaker perceives not as an action occurring over time or as a completed action but as a mere occurrence. Aoristic aspect by itself does not specify whether the action is/was/will be prolonged, repeated, or finished -- hence the name aoristos, "undefined."

I continue to use "aoristic" (instead of "perfective") to describe this category of aspect for two reasons.  (1) The term perfective is too easily confused with the Greek perfect tense system, and (2) imperfective (incomplete) aspect and perfective (completed) aspect are binary opposites. One grammar I read this morning admits as much when it observes that the word "imperfective" derives from the Latin word imperfectivum, "not completed." Then what should "perfective" (Latin perfectivum) mean other than "completed"? But when discussing the Greek perfect tense, the later grammar says nothing about the Latin word perfectivum, "completed"! For the sake of simple consistency, then, I retain the more traditional use of "perfective." As I said above, perfective aspect (remember: I'm using the term with reference to the Greek perfect tense system) is the logical opposite of imperfective aspect.

By the way, I'm not the only one who still uses the term aoristic to refer to the aorist tense system in Greek. In her recently published grammar From Alpha to Omega: A Beginning Course in Classical Greek, Anne Groton writes (p. 15): "A Greek verb has one of three possible aspects: imperfective, aoristic, or perfective." I would simply ask: Isn't there less terminological confusion if we say, for example, that the perfect tense indicates perfective aspect, and the aorist tense indicates aoristic aspect?

To summarize: Grammatical aspect in Greek concerns the way an action is presented or regarded.

Imperfective aspect presents an action as incomplete, that is, as an action that is ongoing or repeated.

Perfective aspect (the opposite of imperfective aspect) presents an action as a state resulting from a preceding completed action or it signifies the effects of a completed action that is somehow still relevant.

Aoristic aspect presents an action as a complete whole, that is, an action viewed as neither incomplete nor complete but in its entirety.

Put another way:

Imperfective aspect describes a process.

Perfective aspect describes a state of affairs that exists as a result of a completed action.

Aoristic aspect describes an event without commenting on whether it is a process or completed.

Make sense? Hmm, maybe not. Let's summarize matters even more simply:

Imperfective aspect: Incomplete.

Perfective aspect: Completed.

Aoristic aspect: Complete

There you have it!

December 16, 2019

David Alan Black is the editor of

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