Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Imperfect, and How to Think about Grammar

When I was first introduced to the Greek language some fifty years ago, my textbook told me that “the tense which denotes continued action in past time is called the imperfect.” It was all simple and clear. When you came across a verb that matched a certain form in the chart you declared it an imperfect and translated it accordingly. Matthew 8:24 records that when a furious storm arose on the lake Jesus was sleeping — imperfect, “continued action in past time.” No problem.

But as time passed I began to notice that the imperfect was not simply “continued action in past time.” Various nuances called for new designations. For example, something might begin to take place in the past so this was called an ingressive imperfect. If the imperfect in Matt 8:24 were in this category the clause would mean that Jesus “was starting to fall asleep.” However, if it was an iterative imperfect then we would understand that Jesus “kept going to sleep.”

But wait, there are more. If customary imperfect, then Jesus “was asleep as usual” (perhaps the motion of the boat and the fresh wind always put him to sleep). If the imperfect was conative it could be something he desired (he “wanted to go to sleep”), attempted (he was “trying to go to sleep”), or almost happening (he was “about to go to sleep.”)

Are you a bit confused? I hope not. Grammar has gotten a bad name because it seems so legalistic with all its “rules.” But here is another way to look at it. Grammar is nothing more than an orderly description on how language operates. It changes over time because the way people talk and write changes. In fact grammar differs in different areas at the same time. In the United Kingdom is is perfectly okay to say, “If I was there it never would have happened.” Here in the United States correct grammar calls for, “If I were there ...“

So what is the advantage of knowing that an imperfect may denote several different shades of meaning? The answer is that it adds both depth and precision to the translation. Consider Luke 1:59b, “and they were giving him the name of his father Zechariah.” Since we learn in the following verse that his mother said, “No! His name is to be John” we reason that the imperfect must be voluntative, “they wanted to call him Zechariah.” Other options make less sense unless; for instance, you would like to believe that the family had decided on the name Zechariah but Elizabeth would have none of it and demanded that he be called John What grammatical category would this be?

It is always context that determines the more probable translation of an imperfect and that is exactly what makes translation an art as well as a science. So consider the “rules” of grammar as a set of helpful observations that will aid you in arriving at the intended meaning. If you know the possible ways an imperfect may be rendered, you can enjoy the creative experience of allowing the context to suggest which is probably what the text intended.

Bob Mounce