28 The Imperfect Tense

2013.04.0169

Stamped handle of Rhodian amphora, detailing the year (Ἐπὶ Κλειτομάχου) and month (Βαδρομίου) that the vessel was made. Hellenistic Period. Athenian Agora Excavations.


Primary and Secondary Tenses

The seven tenses of ancient Greek can be divided into two inflection families: PRIMARY TENSES and SECONDARY TENSES (S 360). In general, PRIMARY TENSES refer to action in the PRESENT or FUTURE; SECONDARY TENSES refer to action in the PAST.

One of the main distinctions between the inflection of PRIMARY and SECONDARY verbs is the personal endings that each uses. This is clear in the following chart, which shows the overall scheme of verb endings (pdf version here: Greek Verbs: Master List of Endings).

Here we can see that we have learned the three sets of PRIMARY ENDINGS (-μι, –ω or –μαι). Note the differences and similarities between these endings and the SECONDARY ENDINGS.

 


The Imperfect Tense

The first secondary tense that we are learning is the IMPERFECT. While it is among the most commonly used tenses of FINITE verbs, there is NO INFINITIVE form of the imperfect.

There are three steps to forming this tense.

1. In the Greek conception, the IMPERFECT tense is essentially the PRESENT tense shifted back into the past. In other words, the IMPERFECT was conceived of as a state of existence, or an action that was still going on in the past (S 1889). As a result, to form verbs in the IMPERFECT, Greek begins with the PRESENT TENSE STEM, not the verb stem.

  • δεικνυ show
  • λυ loosen
  • λαμβαν take

 

2. To the beginning of this stem is added the AUGMENT – (S 429). This augment used to be a separate word that indicated that the verb was in the past. Gradually it became a prefix that signifies the past tense for indicative verbs.

With the addition of the augment, we now have the IMPERFECT TENSE STEM.

  • ἐδεικνυ show
  • ἐλυ loosen
  • ἐλαμβαν take

 

3. SECONDARY personal endings are added to indicate person and number. As seen in the chart above, there are two sets of active secondary personal endings: those for athematic verbs (-μι verbs), and those for thematic verbs (-ω verbs).

Observe that for the secondary endings of –μι verbs, the 3rd person singular has no ending. This form simply stops with the ending of the verb’s present stem.

ν = I (1st person singular)

μεν = we (1st person plural)

ς = you (2nd person singular)

τε = y’all (2nd person plural)

  = (s)he, it (3rd person sg)

σαν = they (3rd person pl)

Note that –ω verbs have nearly identical secondary endings to –μι verbs. The main differences are that  –ω verbs:

  • Add the thematic vowel
  • Have identical 1st person singular and 3rd person plural ending

ον = I (1st person singular)

ομεν = we (1st person plural)

ες = you (2nd person singular)

ετε = y’all (2nd person plural)

ε  = (s)he, it (3rd person sg)

ον = they (3rd person pl)

 

Bringing It All Together…

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of δείκνυμι (athematic) (GPH p. 157)

ἐδείκνυν

ἐδείκνυμεν

ἐδείκνυς

ἐδείκνυτε

ἐδείκνυ

ἐδείκνυσαν

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of λύω (thematic) (S 383; GPH p. 70)

ἔλυον

ἐλύομεν

ἔλυες

ἐλύετε

ἔλυε

ἔλυον

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of λαμβάνω (thematic)

ἐλάμβανον

ἐλαμβάνομεν

ἐλάμβανες

ἐλαμβάνετε

ἐλάμβανε

ἐλάμβανον

 


More -μι Verbs

While the formation of the imperfect tense is relatively straightforward, there are a handful of –μι verbs that exhibit slight irregularities:

  • δίδωμι give
  • τίθημι put, make
  • φημί say
  • ἵστημι stand
  • ἵημι throw
  • εἰμί be

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of δίδωμι (S 416; GPH p. 124)

ἐδίδουν

ἐδίδομεν

ἐδίδους

ἐδίδοτε

ἐδίδου

ἐδίδοσαν

Note that δίδωμι uses –ου– in the singular (S 746b).

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of τίθημι (S 416; GPH p. 146)

ἐτίθην

ἐτίθεμεν

ἐτίθεις

ἐτίθετε

ἐτίθει

ἐτίθεσαν

Note that τίθημι uses –ει– in the 2nd and 3rd person singular (S 746b).

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of φημί (S 783; GPH p. 169)

ἔφην

ἔφαμεν

ἔφης or ἔφησθα

ἔφατε

ἔφη

ἔφασαν

This verb shows no irregularities!

 

Verbs with Initial Vowels

The remaining –μι verbs on our list all begin with a vowel or diphthong. If the verb stem begins with a SHORT vowel or DIPHTHONG, the augment – is not added (though see ἔχω, below, for an exception). Rather, the initial short vowel itself, including the short vowel of a diphthong, is augmented through LENGTHENING (S 435)!

Short initial vowels lengthen as follows when augmented:

  • α = η (not long α).
  • ε = η 
  • οω
  • ιι (this ι is long)
  • υ = υ (this υ is long)
  • αι or ει = ῃ
  • οι
  • = ῃ
  • αυ or ευ = ηυ

If the initial vowel is long – e.g. ἡδύνω sweeten – no lengthening occurs, since the vowel is already long.

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of ἵστημι (S 416; GPH p. 135)

ἵστην

ἵσταμεν

ἵστης

ἵστατε

ἵστη

ἵστασαν

This verb has an initial vowel augment, but it does not affect the way the vowel is written, since long and short ι are written the same.

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of ἵημι

ἵην

ἵεμεν

ἵεις

ἵετε

ἵει

ἵεσαν

As with ἵστημι, this verb has a long vowel augment, but it does not affect the way ι is written. Notice also that, as with τίθημι, this verb uses –ει– here in the 2nd and 3rd person singular (S 746b).

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of εἰμί (S 768; GPH p. 178)

or ἦν

ἦμεν

ἦσθα

ἦτε

ἦν

ἦσαν

The irregularities of the imperfect of εἰμί are many, and require memorization (S 771).

 


Contract Verbs

Recall that the rules of vowel contraction operate in verbs when the stem ends in one of the short vowels α, ε, or ο. In the imperfect, this final vowel of the stem contracts with the thematic vowel of the secondary endings of –ω verbs.

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of αἱρέω (S 385; GPH p. 111)

(ρεον →) ᾕρουν

(ρέομεν →) ᾑροῦμεν

(ρεες ) ᾕρεις

(ρέετε →) ᾑρεῖτε

(ρεε ) ᾕρει

(ρεον →) ᾕρουν

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of ἐρωτάω (S 385; GPH p. 102)

(ρώταον →) ἠρώτων

(ρωτάομεν →) ἠρωτῶμεν

(ρώταες ) ἠρώτας

(ρωτάετε →) ἠρωτᾶτε

(ρώταε ) ἠρώτα

(ρώταον →) ἠρώτων

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of δηλόω (S 385; GPH p. 119)

(ἐδήλοον →) ἐδήλουν

(ἐδηλόομεν →) ἐδηλοῦμεν

(ἐδήλοες ) ἐδήλους

(ἐδηλόετε →) ἐδηλοῦτε

(ἐδήλοε ) ἐδήλου

(ἐδήλοον →) ἐδήλουν

 

The Imperfect, Indicative, Active of ἔχω

ἔχω is one of a handful of verbs in which the augment  is added to a verb that begins with a vowel (S 431). In such instances, the augment CONTRACTS with the initial stem vowel:

(ἔ-εχον →) εἶχον

(ἐ-έχομεν →) εἴχομεν

(ἔ-εχες →) εἶχες

(ἐ-έχετε →) εἴχετε

(ἔ-εχε →) εἶχε

(ἔ-εχον →) εἶχον

 


 

Translation

The IMPERFECT TENSE indicates an action in the past that was ongoing, or used to take place over a period of time. Think of it as a bit of video of an action from the past. Therefore, the imperfect is usually translated as was/were verbing, used to verb, or kept verbing.

For example:

  • ἐδίδουν = I was giving, I used to give, I kept giving
  • ἐδίδοσαν = they were giving, they used to give, they kept giving

 

 

Prefixes

Finally, note that the AUGMENT attaches to the beginning of the verb’s present tense stem. Even if the verb is a compound with a prefix, the augment is normally added directly to the STEM, not the prefix. For example:

  •  παρα + δίδωσι = παραδίδωσι  she hands over, delivers
    • παρα + ἐδίδου = παρεδίδου she was handing over, delivering
  •  προς + τίθημι = προστίθημι I add to
    • προς + ἐτίθην = προσετίθην I was adding to
  • ἐν + βάλλουσιἐμβάλλουσι they are throwing into
    • ἐν + ἔβαλλονἐνέβαλλον they were throwing into
  • σύν + λαμβάνω = συλλαμβάνω I am collecting
    • σύν + ἐλάμβανον = συνελάμβανον I was collecting

 

– τὸ τέλος –

 


Key Terms and Concepts

  • PRIMARY TENSES
  • SECONDARY TENSES
  • AUGMENT
  • AUGMENTING VERBS THAT BEGIN WITH A VOWEL
  • AUGMENTING VERBS WITH PREFIXES

Exercises

Ι. Conjugate in full the following verbs in the imperfect. Note that there is no infinitive.

  1. ἀκούω
  2. ἔχω
  3. εἰμί
  4. γράφω

ΙΙ. For the following verbs, determine the most likely form of the dictionary entry (i.e., the Present, Indicative, Active, 1st Person, Singular)

e.g.: ἐφύετε: φύω

  1. εἶχον
  2. ἔλυε
  3. ἐγράφομεν
  4. ἤθροιζες
  5. ἠθέλετε
  6. ἔφευγον
  7. ἔλεγε
  8. ἐδείκνυς
  9. ἐδίδοτε
  10. ἐτίθεσαν

ΙIΙ. For the following verbs, 1). Fill in the correct accent, 2). Change from the present tense to the imperfect tense, 3). Change to its opposite number (singular to plural, plural to singular) in the imperfect. Watch the accents for any contract verbs! And remember the rules for augments added to verbs with prefixes.

e.g.: φυετε: 1) φύετε  2) ἐφύετε 3) ἔφυες

  1. κελευομεν
  2. παυουσι
  3. φοβει
  4. λαμβανω
  5. ἀποδιδομεν
  6. νομιζομεν
  7. γιγνωσκετε
  8. διδασκω
  9. δηλοι
  10. ἀπαγγελλουσι

Readings

κατὰ Ἰωάννην 5:16-23: AGE Ch. 28a.

Xenophon Anabasis 4.1.6-10: AGE Ch. 28b.

 

 

License

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The Imperfect Tense by Wilfred E. Major and Michael Laughy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.