The Tense of Verbs: A Suggested Structure |
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Ancient Greece

The Tense of Verbs: A Suggested Structure

Of the various parts of speech, the verb is perhaps the most interesting. In their Finite forms (i.e. when verbal substantives and verbal adjectives are excluded) verbs are ‘limited’ or ‘modified’ by the concepts of Person, Number, Tense, Mood and Voice. This short monograph by Sabidius sets out to analyse the use and function of ‘Tense’ in the deployment of verbs with reference to English, Greek and Latin.

Learners of Latin are familiar with the following six tenses in the Indicative Mood: Present; Future Simple, Imperfect, Perfect, Future Perfect, and Pluperfect, and are expected to be able to conjugate verbs with regard to these different tenses, to which Greek adds a further one: the Aorist. However, the names of these tenses are in fact a muddled or confused hangover of the real tense-system or structure which lies behind them. This article seeks to identify the ‘ideal’ structure which underpins our use of verbs in all three languages.

Besides expressing the time of an action, i.e. whether it occurred in the Past, Present or Future, the tense form also expresses the character of the action, i.e. whether it is completed or incomplete, and whether it is momentary or continuous. As will be demonstrated in the analysis set out below, English is more able than the classical languages to reflect these important differences of character in the deployment of its verb forms. In the case of the classical languages, and Latin in particular, it is often only through the context that one can determine how a particular verb form can best be translated. The structure suggested here provides examples in all three languages – it is regretted that the Greek words are shown in a transliterated form because the ‘Symbol’ font is not available to the user of ‘blogspot’ – and verbs exemplified are shown in the Active Voice for the sake of simplicity.


1. Past Incomplete Momentary = Past-Aorist.
( I did; epoiesa, feci.)

2. Past Incomplete Continuous = Past-Imperfect.
( I was doing; epoioun, faciebam.)

3. Past Completed = Past-Perfect (Pluperfect.)
( I had done; epepoipeke feceram.)

4. Present Incomplete Momentary = Present-Aorist.
( I do; poio; facio.)

5. Present Incomplete Continuous = Present-Imperfect.
( I am doing; poio; facio.)

6. Present Completed = Present-Perfect.
( I have done; pepoieka; feci.)

7. Future Incomplete Momentary = Future (Simple)-Aorist.
( I shall do; poieso; faciam.)

8. Future Incomplete Continuous) = Future (Simple)-Imperfect.
( I shall be doing; poieso; faciam.)

9. Future Completed = Future Perfect.
( I shall have done; poiekos esomai; fecero.)

(In the above schema, you will note that, after the time and character of each tense, its correct title is shown, with its more familiar name being underlined.)


i) Neither Greek nor Latin can make a distinction between the Incomplete Momentary and the Incomplete Continuous in either Present or Future Time. This can only be identified by studying the context.

ii) Latin equates the Past Incomplete Momentary (Aorist) with the Present Complete (Perfect). Once again, one has to derive the correct tense in translation from studying the context. Greek, however, does make this distinction in its verb forms.

iii) The Past Incomplete Momentary is variously known as the Aorist, the Past Historic, the Preterite, the Historic Perfect, or (with regard to Latin) the Perfect without ‘have’. The word ‘aorist’ means ‘indefinite’ and so an aorist tense, in whatever time, has no implications of continuity or repetition.

iv) An alternative and emphatic form of the Present Incomplete Momentary (Present) ‘I run’ ( for obvious reasons a different verb is used here as an example) is ‘I do run’. In the same way in the case of the Past Incomplete Momentary (Aorist), the emphatic form of ‘I ran’ is ‘I did run’. These emphatic forms are most likely to be an appropriate way of translating from Greek or Latin verb forms when direct speech is involved.

v) The Past Incomplete Continuous (Imperfect) is a tense which can legitimately be translated in a number of ways in English. Apart from the standard ‘I was doing’, one can say ‘I continued to do’; ‘I used to do’; and ‘I proceeded to do’. In addition there is the ‘Incipient Imperfect’: ‘I began to do’; and the ‘Conative Imperfect’: I tried to do’. In both Greek and Latin, only the Imperfect is available to express all these different shades of meaning. Again, the translator has to look up the context to determine the best way to translate an Imperfect, and it is not always clear.

vi) In English usage, it is possible, in respect of all three time dimensions, to add, by the use of modal auxiliaries, to the Perfect (Simple) a Continuous tense. Thus: ‘I had been doing’ (Pluperfect Continuous); ‘I have been doing’ (Perfect Continuous) and ‘I shall have been doing’ (Future Perfect Continuous). In the classical languages, it is necessary to employ adverbs idiomatically to express the same sense, e.g. ‘iam diu facio’, I have long been doing.


In the above structure, tenses are classified, firstly, according to the time of the action, whether Past, Present or Future, and then sub-classified according to character, that is, as to whether the action (the present tense is used only for the sake of exemplification) is completed or incomplete, and, if incomplete, whether it is imperfect (progressive) or aorist (indefinite). Under this system of classification, ‘Perfect’ means that the action is completed, ‘Imperfect’ that the action is incomplete and is continuing or recurring; and ‘Aorist’ that the action is incomplete only in the sense that it is happening at a particular moment in time and it is unclear whether it is continuing or not. While it is difficult not to continue to use these terms to describe the three specific tenses with which it is usual to identify them, it is worthwhile noting that, when used properly, they are generic terms relating to the character of the action rather than to time.

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