Basics of Verbal Aspect: 4 of 5
by Constantine Campbell
Verbal aspect and the present indicative
The present tense-form is regarded as imperfective in aspect. Imperfective aspect provides the view from the inside—an action is presented as though unfolding before the eyes. This is the view of the parade from the street, as the parade goes by, rather than the view from the helicopter. This means that the present portrays actions with a view from the inside; we watch as the action unfolds before our eyes. This is easy to appreciate in English: "he is walking down the street" is clearly cast before us as though we are watching it happen.
The historical present
A big issue for our understanding of the present indicative is the very commmon phenomenon of the "historical present". Historical presents provide a good example of why some scholars do not think that tense is built into Greek verbs—the simple fact is that many Greek presents refer to the past, not the present. In the New Testament, historical presents are particularly common in Mark and John. Mark has 151 historical presents, while John has 167. In Mark’s Gospel, 30% of all the present indicatives are historical presents. That’s a lot of historical presents! Here’s a couple of examples.
Verbal aspect provides a more powerful way of understanding the present indicative than simple tense does. As we can see, regarding the present indicative as a ‘present tense’ means that, in Mark anyway, 30% of presents will be ‘exceptions’ to the rule. By understanding the present indicative as imperfective in aspect, however, there are no exceptions, because this understanding is not dependent upon temporal reference. Whether referring to the past, present, or even future (as do some presents in John), the present indicative is always imperfective in aspect.
Since the present is imperfective in aspect, it is capable of a range of Aktionsart functions that flow out of imperfective aspect. There are lots of factors that need to be considered when working out what a present is doing in the text (see my book for more details), but for now we’ll just look at some key uses of the present.
Progressive. Present indicatives often depict a process or action in progress. This is a very common usage of the present, and is a natural expression of imperfective aspect.
Stative. Present indicatives often depict a state. This is also a natural expression of imperfective aspect. Imperfective aspect combines with a stative lexeme to create a stative Aktionsart. A stative lexeme is a word that describes a state of being, rather than a process or transitive action, like know, trust, live.
Iterative. Present indicatives can also depict iterative actions, which are events that repeatedly occur. There are two key ways in which an iterative Aktionsart may be created. First, imperfective aspect combines with a punctiliar lexeme (see yesterday’s post), which creates the sense of a repeating punctiliar action. Second, imperfective aspect combines with any non-stative lexeme in a context that requires the action to be repeating.
As with the aorist, there’s much more that could be said about verbal aspect and the present indicative. In my final post tomorrow, I’ll reflect a little more on how to use aspect for better exegesis and translation.
Constantine Campbell (Ph.D., Macquarie University) is lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological college in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia.
by Constantine Campbell
by Constantine Campbell Verbal aspect and the aorist indicative Having set up some theoretical categories in my first two posts, I’ll now offe...
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