The Classification of Greek Conditionals with some Comparisons with Latin |
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Ancient Greece

The Classification of Greek Conditionals with some Comparisons with Latin

Introduction: the analysis and purpose of conditional sentences.

In any language, the ability to construct or translate conditional sentences is amongst the more demanding challenges which grammar sets us. Conditionals are more complex than other types of adverbial clause, because in the sentences in which they occur, careful attention has to be given to both clauses. A Conditional sentence consists of two clauses: (i) a subordinate adverbial clause, called the ‘protasis’, which expresses the condition or premise; and (ii) a main clause, called the ‘apodosis’ or consequence, which states what stems from that condition and therefore naturally follows after it in order of time. The ‘protasis’, in English the ‘if-clause’, is dependent, and expresses a supposition or imaginary event; the ‘apodosis’ is the principal clause, and states what will be the outcome if the ‘protasis’ is realised.

The intention of this paper: how Greek Conditionals can best be classified.

Ancient Greek is no exception with regard to the relative complexity of Conditional sentences. Indeed, in Book II of their popular textbooks, ‘Athenaze’, Balme &Lawall (hereafter abbreviated to B&L) posit as many as nine types of Conditional sentence which can be found. On the face of it, this system of classification appears to be especially complex. This paper seeks to consider the extent to which such complexity is helpful, and looks particularly at the meaning and value of the description ‘Open Conditions’, under which B&L label six of their nine categories of Conditional sentence. In so doing, the classification and designations applied by B&L are compared with those used in the older grammar books of North & Hillard (hereafter abbreviated to N&H) and Abbott & Mansfield (hereafter abbreviated to A&M), and some parallel consideration is also given to the constructional analyses applied in a number of Latin grammar books to see how far these share or differ from the usages with regard to Greek Conditionals.

Similarities between the classifications of B&L and N&H.

In B&L, ‘Open Conditions’, whether these are ‘Particular’ or ‘General’, are described as those ‘in which nothing is implied as to whether the condition is fulfilled or not’; these are contrasted with ‘Contrary to fact or remote conditions, in which it is implied that the condition was/is not fulfilled or is not likely to be fulfilled in future time’. This distinction is maintained by N&H, but they make an initial, and thus an apparently more fundamental, distinction between Present and Past Conditions on the one hand, and Future Conditions on the other. Present and Past Conditions they divide between conditions ‘Where we simply assume the condition without implying anything as to its fulfilment’ and those ‘Where we imply that the condition is not or has not been fulfilled’; Future Conditions they divide between those where ‘We make a distinct supposition of a future case’ and those where ‘We may put the case less vividly, more “remotely”, i.e. in a form which represents the condition as less likely to be fulfilled’. Although the term ‘Open Condition’ is not specifically employed by them, N&H’s former type of condition, in both Present and Past Conditions and Future Conditions, is exactly equivalent to what B&L call an ‘Open Condition’; and, at the same time, N&H’s latter type of condition equates to B&L’s ‘Contrary to fact or remote condition’.

Where A&M’s classifications parallel those of B&L and N&H.

A&M follow the same basic structure for conditionals as both B&L and N&H, and they follow the latter in making a basic distinction between ‘Conditions in Present or Past Time’ and ‘Conditions in Future Time’. However, the nomenclature employed by A&M differs significantly from these other two grammar sources. What B&L call an ‘Open Condition’, they describe, in the case of Present and Past Conditions, as a ‘Fulfilled Condition’, where ‘the speaker assumes the fulfilment of the condition, even though the words imply no knowledge about it’; and, in the case of Future Conditions, as a ‘Distinct Future Condition’, in which ‘the Future Condition is distinctly and vividly pictured in the speaker’s mind, as in speaking of a thing near and practical, and he states what will be the result, if something happens or shall happen’. These conditions are contrasted by A&M with B&L’s ‘Contrary to fact or remote conditions’, but which they call ‘Unfulfilled Conditions’ (Present and Past), where ‘the speaker implies that the condition is not (or was not) fulfilled, and states what would be (or would have been) the result in the case of its fulfilment’; or as an ‘Indistinct Future Condition’, where ‘the Future Condition, being somewhat remote and unpractical, is less distinct and vivid to the speaker’s mind, and he states what would be the result, if something should happen or were to happen’. Despite some differences in the labelling of the different types of conditional sentence, there appears to be a basic symmetry between the systems of classification adopted by all the three Greek grammar sources under consideration.

A&M’s divergent view of ‘Open Conditions’.

This happy convergence is then vitiated, however, by the statements in A&M that ‘conditions in Present or Past Time … either are or are not now fulfilled, but from their nature are no longer open’ and that ‘conditions in Future Time … are still open’. Because of this distinction, A&M state that Conditional clauses in Present or Past Time require their verbs to be in the Indicative Mood, and those in Future Time have their verbs in the Conjunctive. From these statements, it is evident that the term ‘Open Condition’ represents something very different in A&M from what it means in B&L and, by implication, in N&H, athough they do not employ the label as such. To both of these two sources an ‘Open Condition’ is one in which nothing is implied as to whether the condition will be, is being, or has been fulfilled; to A&M, on the other hand, ‘Open’ appears to mean a Future Condition, whether its fulfilment is likely or not, since a Future Condition is still capable of fulfilment, whereas conditions in Present or Past Time either have or have not been fulfilled and therefore ‘by their very nature’ are no longer open. ‘Open’ conditional sentences, as defined by A&M, can therefore be identified by mood: the ‘protasis’ of a ‘Distinct Future Condition’ uses ‘ἐὰν’ and the Subjunctive; and the ‘protasis’ and ‘apodosis’ of an ‘Indistinct Future Condition’ use ‘εἰ’ and the Optative, and ‘ἄν’ and the Optative, respectively. In all other Conditional sentences in Present and Past Time, the mood of the verbs, whether in the ‘protasis’ or the ‘apodosis’ is Indicative. (Exceptions to this are in the case of ‘General Conditions’, which follow the rules of the Indefinite Construction, and in the graphic use of ‘εἰ’ with the Future Indicative in the ‘protasis’ of a Distinct Future Condition, which B&L call a Future Particular or Minatory Condition.)

The threefold classification of the Latin grammar books Kennedy and North & Hillard.

There is, therefore, a clear difference between A&M on the one hand, and B&L and N&H on the other, as to what constitutes an ‘Open Condition’. In seeking to determine whose view is correct, it may be instructive to compare the position of these three Greek grammar sources with the views of their Latin counterparts as explained in grammar books of similar authority and status. In the cases of Kennedy and North & Hillard (hereafter abbreviated to N&H Lat.), conditions are not initially divided according to tense but according to the following threefold classification: (i) ‘one that is open, i.e. nothing is implied about the fulfilment or the possibility of fulfilment’ (Kennedy), or ‘Open Conditions, i.e. those in which we assume the condition without implying anything as to its fulfilment’ (N&H Lat.). (It is interesting to note that in their Latin edition N&H ascribe the label ‘Open’ to exactly the same type of condition where, in relation to conditions in Present and Past Time, this label is , for some reason, omitted in their Greek work); (ii) one that ‘is conceded only as a supposition and is unlikely to be fulfilled’ (Kennedy), or ‘Conditions in which it is implied that the fulfilment of the condition is improbable but possible’ (N&H Lat.); and (iii) ‘one that is contrary to known fact’ (Kennedy), or ‘Impossible Conditions, i.e. those in which it is implied that the fulfilment of the condition is impossible’ (N&H Lat.). This threefold classification adopted by both Kennedy and N&H Lat. is really identical to that of B&L in relation to Greek, who divide conditions into Open, Future Remote, and Past and Present Contrary to Fact conditions, and who, like these two Latin grammar sources, include some conditions in Future, Present and Past Time as ‘Open’. Kennedy and N&H Lat. therefore define ‘Open Conditions’ in the same way as B&L, and not as they are defined by A&M, who see them as attributes of Future time and opportunity.

Wilding: analysis by Mood.

A further method of classifying Latin conditionals is that employed by Wilding, for whom ‘Conditional sentences fall into two chief types, according to whether the Mood of the Main Clause is the Indicative (or Imperative), which we will call the Open type, or the Subjunctive, which we will call the Remote type’. There is, indeed, a certain similarity between the approach of Wilding and that of A&M in respect of Greek Conditionals, in that both see the mood of the verbs as identifying the nature of the conditions; but there is a considerable difference between the nature of the Conditional sentences in Greek which employ the Conjunctive and those in Latin which use the Subjunctive. In Greek, it is only Conditional sentences in Future Time in which the Conjunctive is employed (leaving aside General Conditions), whereas in Latin the Subjunctive appears in both the ‘protasis’ and the ‘apodosis’ in those sentences categorised as ‘Remote’. This category includes those conditionals described by B&L as ‘Contrary to fact’, but in Greek these employ the Indicative Mood in both the ‘protasis’ and the ‘apodosis’, athough the fact that the ‘apodosis’ of ‘Contrary to fact’ Conditional sentences always includes the particle ‘ἄν’ does perhaps indicate a residual link to the Conjunctive.

Simpson and the ‘closing door’.

Another Latin grammar source, Simpson, describes ‘Open Conditionals’ as sentences in which ‘Nothing is stated except the logical connexion between two propositions, a connexion such as if the first of them is true then the second is true also’. Against these Conditionals he juxtaposes ‘Other Conditionals’, which he describes, interestingly, as follows: ‘Other kinds of conditional arise when a writer or speaker changes the form of his clauses so as to throw doubt on either the probability or the reality of what is supposed in the Protasis, or if-clause. In doing this he might be said to shut, wholly or partly, a door which was previously wide open’. Simpson then draws ‘a sharp distinction’ between Future Conditionals which he calls ‘limited’ and Present and Past Conditionals which he calls ‘unfulfilled’. About the former he says: ‘A supposition about the former cannot fairly be represented as unreal, i.e. as contrary to existing fact, but it may be made to look improbable’; about the latter he writes: ‘A supposition about either present or past, unlike one about the future, may be already “unfulfilled”, because the facts of the case are not as presented in the if-clause. Here the door, left ajar in “limited” clauses, may be thought of as closed by hard fact’. Thus, Simpson follows Kennedy and N&H Lat. in drawing a distinction between ‘improbable but possible’ or ‘limited’ conditions and ‘impossible’ or ‘unfulfilled’ conditions, whereas Wilding effectively equates the two under the label ‘Remote’ conditions. However, all these four Latin grammar sources follow the B&L definition of ‘Open Conditionals’, and none follow A&M in equating ‘Open’ with Future.

The difference between Latin and Greek in classifying Conditionals.

What then is the most useful and instructive method of classifying Conditional sentences and Conditional clauses? In Latin, the simple approach of Wilding in dividing Conditionals into two camps, ‘Open’ and ‘Remote’, has much to commend it, because the appearance in English of the modal auxiliaries ‘should’ and ‘would’ almost always coincides with the Latin Subjunctive. In Greek, however, the appearance of the Conjunctive, whether Subjunctive or Optative, does not reflect remoteness or improbability, but simply Future Time. In Greek, therefore, the threefold analysis, adopted by the other Latin grammar sources Kennedy, N&H Lat. and Simpson works better, and this is well exemplified in the categorisation deployed by B&L of Open, Contrary to fact, and Remote.

General Conditions.

Another strength of the B&L ninefold classification is that it integrates ‘General Conditions’, both Past and Present, into the schema. These scarcely occur in Latin, but are much more common in Greek. In N&H these ‘General Conditions’ are confusingly omitted altogether from the section on Conditional Sentences, and have to be subsequently understood as falling under the Indefinite Construction. A&M do append to their section on Conditional Clauses a brief sub-section on ‘General Conditions’ which is helpful.


However, this clarification of ‘General Conditions’ by A&M scarcely compensates for their surprising equation of ‘Open’ with Future Conditionals. This is surely an aberration, but it is one which has the capacity to confuse seriously any scholar who is seeking to understand the meaning of ‘Open’ in this context. On balance, the ninefold classification of conditionals adopted by B&L in ‘Athenaze’ Book II, while apparently complex, is convincing, and, if followed, will lead to understanding and precision in both translation and composition of Greek.


A. Greek.

Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall, ‘Athenaze’, Book II, pages 192-194.

M.A.North and A.E. Hillard, ‘Greek Prose Composition for Schools’, pages 112-114,148.

Evelyn Abbott and E.D. Mansfield, ‘Primer of Greek Grammar Syntax’, pages 46-48.

B. Latin.

B.H. Kennedy, ‘The Revised Latin Primer’, pages 187-190.

M.A. North and A.E.Hillard, ‘Latin Prose Composition’, pages 156-157.

L.A. Wilding, ‘Latin Course for Schools’, Part 3, pages 113-114,118-119.

D.P. Simpson, ‘First Principles of Latin Prose’, pages 198-202, 205-206.


A. Open Conditions: Protasis: Apodosis.

i. Past Particular. εἰ + Past Indicative: Past Indicative.

ii. Past General. εἰ + Aorist/Present Indicative: Imperfect Indicative.

iii. Present Particular. εἰ + Present/Perfect Indicative: Present Indicative.

iv. Present General. ἐὰν + Aorist/Present Subjunctive: Present Indicative.

v. Future Particular/Minatory. εἰ + future Indicative: Future Indicative.

vi. Future More Vivid. ἐὰν + Aorist/Present Subjunctive: Future Indicative.

B. Contrary to fact and Remote Conditions.

vii. Past Contrary to fact. εἰ + Aorist Indicative: Aorist Indicative + ἄν.

viii. Present Contrary to fact. εἰ + Imperfect Indicative: Imperfect Indicative + ἄν.

ix. Future Remote/Less Vivid. εἰ + Aorist/Present Optative: Aor./Pres. Optative + ἄν.

Examples in English.

A.i. If he said this, he was lying.

A.ii. If anyone (ever) said this, he was (always) lying.

A.iii. If he is saying this, he is lying.

A.iv. If anyone (ever) says this, he is (always) lying.

A.v. If you lie, you will be punished. If you say this, you will be lying.

B.vii. If he had said this, he would have lied.

B.viii. If he were saying this, he would be lying.

B.ix. If he were to say this / If he said this, he would be lying.

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