How to Use the Imperfect in Ancient Greek?

Written by Dyami Millarson

The imperfect is the counterpart of the aorist in Ancient Greek (see my article on how to use the aorist). When one understand the aorist, one should be able to grasp the imperfect easily. The uses of the imperfect and aorist as past tenses are overlapping in many cases. However, the general rule of thumb is that the aorist expresses a simple action and the imperfect a continuous action. When one imagines a verbal action as continuous, one invokes the framework of duration; this means that the continuous action is more like a story or movie. One might think of the perception of time as expressed in the Ancient Greek verb as a kind of two-dimensional game where one may express simple actions which are spontaneous events without any imagined or perceived duration and where one may express continuous actions which are situations spanning a certain period of time. To summarise, simple actions just happen, continuous actions take a while.

While the Ancient Greek imperfect possesses a sense of duration, one may use the imperfect in Ancient Greek to express a habit. So when one marks an action with the imperfect, it may be implied that such an action is habitual: I used to work hard when I was young age. In addition, the imperfect may be used in Ancient Greek to mark the inception of beginning of an action, but while the aorist may also be used to mark the inception of an action, the imperfect is not used to imply that an action resulted in something, which is what aorist is used for. The aorist may be used to mark that an action was started and completed in the past, while the imperfect may, in contrast, be used to mark that an action was started and not necessarily completed in the past. Just like the aorist, the imperfect may be used to describe an action in the past that was already the past when the speaker is telling is narrative about the past. This kind of layered past occurs in English as the pluperfect or past perfect: when the man had left the house, the mouse ate the cheese. When the mouse was experiencing the eating of the cheese as his present, he already experienced the man’s leaving of the house as the past and so when the mouse’s eating of the cheese became the past, it is convenient to mark the man’s leaving of the house as the past of that past. One should note, however, that the existence of the past of the past requires a context; when there is no framework of a narrative occurring in the past, there is no reason for the past of the past to exist.

It is generally helpful to understand the imperfect in relation to the aorist. Both are used as past tenses, both may be used to indicate inceptions of actions, and both may be used to express the past of the past. However, the imperfect expresses continuous actions and the imperfect does not indicate whether an action is completed and therefore there is no result implied. So this would be the distinction between the aorist and the imperfect: “the man shot a bird” (aorist from an Ancient Greek perspective) and “the man was shooting a bird” (imperfect from an Ancient Greek perspective). One may grasp from the latter example that “was shooting” does not imply a result, while the former example does. The man in the latter example shot the bird and maybe he is eating it now with his family, whereas we do not know what happened with the man who was shooting the bird, because we have no idea whether he succeeded in shooting the bird or not. In any case, the man who was shooting the bird was engaging in a continuous action, while the man who shot the bird engaged in a simple action. I hope this clarifies the distinction. To summarise, the aorist is equivalent to the past simple and the imperfect is equivalent to the past continuous. Nonetheless, one should be careful with drawing such parallels because the Ancient Greek verbal system is not entirely the same as the English one, but building metaphorical bridges between the different systems may certainly help the student to grasp the similarities and differences of the two systems. Of course, languages are never entirely the same and this cannot be reasonably expected when one seeks to draw parallels between English and Ancient Greek in terms of verbal tenses.

Usually the distinction of simple vs. continuous action is enough to distinguish the aorist and imperfect as past tenses. However, when that distinction does not work, one ought to remember that he aorist denotes the completion of an action, whereas the imperfect does not denote this. So the aorist may be used for a continuous action if it is completed in the past, but this would simultaneously mean the perception of that continuous action has shifted to perceiving that action as a single event. When a simple action is not completed in the past, it is an on-going process, meaning the imperfect ought to be used.

7 comments

  1. I am studying Greek. I am very thankful for this post. I was having trouble understanding the Aorist and Imperfect. I shall print this article and any other you have on Greek.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Very delighted to hear my articles are helpful to you as you are studying Ancient Greek. If you have any questions regarding Ancient Greek or if you are interested in knowing more about a particular topic, please tell me because I can write an article about it to share my knowledge with you.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I read Latin and Greek many years ago. I found the grammatical discipline in the written language helped me so much when it came to writing documents in a professional environment. I hadn’t come across the aorist for a long time, it brought back memories of life as an undergrad!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Definitely, I can relate to that, Latin and Greek helped me a lot as well. In fact, Latin and Greek inspired me to start studying the Frisian languages. As I learned about dead languages and language death and the difficulties in language revival, I became interested in saving living languages that are endangered and preventing language death; prevention is the best cure. So, Latin and Greek and other ancient languages such as Gothic are definitely sources of inspiration for this blog!

      Liked by 3 people

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