Present tense as a zero tense

Dennis Hukel HUKEL at irwd.com
Mon Nov 1 17:15:27 EST 1999


Stephen Pegler wrote:

<<If someone wishes to respond, I would like to ask:
How then are the aorist zero tense and the present zero tense different in 
meaning or force?
How would your understanding handle present forms which refer to the past, 
future or are in some way atemporal?
For me, one of the attractive features of Verbal Aspect theory (according to 
Porter, McKay, and Carson) is that all of the moods are treated the same way 
- aspect, not time.  Your understanding is that the indicative retains a 
present time force from the morphology.  (Is that a fair appraisal?)  A model 
that treats all the moods the same way is a neater model, scientifically 
speaking (which does not, true, make it necessarily correct unless there is 
other evidence that supports it).

Hope this sounds better,
Stephen Pegler
Bannockburn, IL>>

Dear Stephen,

I had hastily responded to Dr. Wheeler's e-mail, so I appreciate being able to respond to your inquiry.  To answer your questions in more or less the order you asked them:

The Greek Present tense (so called, even though it may also refer to past or future time) differs from the Aorist in that the Present always has the action itself in view (perhaps "in focus" would be better) while the Aorist does not (the action is reduced to a mere reference).  This seems to be the only aspectual difference I can tell, so the Present tense is nearly a "zero" tense, but I would give that honor to the Aorist.  In English if you want to emphasize the action (without over-emphasizing it), it is natural to use the progressive forms--this just happens to give English speakers a sense of being "in the midst of the action" (thus the use of the word "internal").  There is another way of looking at the Present (& Imperfect) which is not "internal", i.e., like looking at a rainbow--you see a band of light with striated details with the ends fading from view.  This model of the "Incomplete " aspect seems just as valid without being "internal".

When the Greek Present tense is not strictly dealing with present time, the Present Progressive in English also has the flexibility for the hearer/reader to understand the intended timeframe from the context.  The Present tense does not strictly deal with the exact point of present time anyway, in that this point is included in the duration of the act or state in view (and in the Historical Present, that "point of present time" may be in a past timeframe; likewise with a future timeframe, such as "I am going tomorrow"). 

I have reread Stanley Porter's chapter on the Future tense and have come to understand his basic description of its aspect as "expectation".  This may seem odd at first, but it does seem to work as "expectation" carries over into the Infinitive and Participle forms quite well with the contexts in which they appear in the NT.  In the indicative, the aspect of "expectation" would usually suggest a future timeframe, but it could begin at the "point of present time" as in the Ten Commandments we repeatedly hear "Thou shalt not..." which undoubtedly meant to the hearer/reader a timeframe beginning "from right now".  The English simple future tense has this flexibility also, as long as you understand the context.

I do not think the indicative mood in Greek tenses were thought of as "timeless" though.  The New Testament was written during a long transitional period which culminated in the Greek tenses expressing time over aspect.  I just hope we can balance them out to the degree that they were intended to be understood in the first century.

Dennis Hukel
hukel at irwd.com





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