Fanning and Porter

Penner pennerkm at
Thu Dec 5 09:26:33 EST 2002

Dear Harry,

In response to your question,

> Does anybody know what the differences are between Fanning 
> and Porter?

I did my first Master's degree with a focus on Greek Verbal Aspect,
before Mari Olsen's work was available.

A. NT Greek Verbal Aspect theory

“Verbal aspect” is a grammatical category which marks an author's
reasoned subjective choice of the conception of a process. In the NT
Greek system, two major options an author has to portray the viewpoint
are Internal and External, with Stative as a third possibility advanced
by Porter. The internal perspective is expressed through the
Present/Imperfect tenses, the external through the Aorist tense, and the
stative through the Perfect/Pluperfect tenses. The Future tense doesn’t
fit well into Porter's aspect theory, but a study by Mark O’Brien
suggests that its aspect is similar to the Aorist’s.
Verbal aspect has become important in NT Greek studies this century by
replacing other, less adequate ways of describing the semantic freight
of the tenses. First, proponents of aspect theory argue that Greek
tenses do not denote absolute time. Specifically, the aorist tense does
not mean past time, and the present tense does not mean present time.
Second, they argue that Greek tenses do not mark Aktionsart, the kind of
action. The aorist does not mark "once-for-all" action, nor does the
present mark durative action. Whereas Aktionsart is an objective
category (the action is the same no matter how it is viewed), aspect is
Rather, an author chooses a tense based on how he wishes to depict an
event. Porter uses the illustration of a parade to help visualise the
three aspects. A person on the street watching a parade, in the middle
of the action has an internal perspective; the appropriate aspect to
describe this detailed perspective would be Imperfective. A reporter
watching the same parade from a helicopter above sees the entire event;
his perspective is external, and would be grammaticalized with the
Perfective aspect. Finally, the parade organiser might be in an office
looking at the parade as a state of affairs; the stative aspect would
describe his viewpoint.
The major implication of this view on NT exegesis is that we can no
longer use a verb's tense to tell us something about the action itself
(whether it is past or present, once-for-all or ongoing), but that we
must use it to understand the way the author wanted to depict it. The
tense tells us more about what was happening inside the author's mind
than about the external world he was describing.

B. Differences between Porter and Fanning

Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning have independently and almost
simultaneously produced major works on verbal aspect in New Testament
Greek. That they agree so closely in their theories of verbal aspect is
remarkable. That their conclusions vary so greatly is almost as notable.
Both Porter and Fanning hold to the general view of verbal aspect
outlined above in section A, though Fanning would not classify the
Stative as an aspect in its own right, but considers the Perfect and
Pluperfect as combinations of aspect, Aktionsart and tense. They both
consider an author's choice of tense to follow a system of "equipollent
binary oppositions", in a tree of logical branches. At each junction,
the author can follow one of two paths. Once he chooses one branch, the
options in the other are no longer available to him. For example, in
Porter's system once an author has chose the path of [- expectation], he
can no longer arrive at the Future tense.
Where Porter and Fanning diverge is in their goal. Whereas Fanning wants
to help exegetes, Porter writes for linguists. Fanning's focus is
practical, and Porter's is more theoretical. Porter wishes to define a
linguistic system that needs no exceptions. His desire for a perfectly
"clean" system leads him to argue that tenses carry only aspect
Fanning maintains that the meaning of any particular verbal form depends
heavily on lexis (the meaning of the verb itself) and deixis (contextual
factors). He suggests that the verbal form itself takes on this extra
meaning. Porter would agree that pragmatics (the meaning of a specific
use of a verb) depends on these factors, but he would sharply
distinguish pragmatics from semantics (the unambiguous meaning carried
by the tense in general).
Fanning's approach is more conservative and exegetical. He wishes to
maintain continuity with the old understanding of the tenses. He ends up
demonstrating how many of the tense categories (such as historic
present) came to be invented, and how much more neatly they fit the new
model of verbal aspect. Yet in so doing, the difference between aspect
and Aktionsart often becomes blurred. For example, Fanning talks about
the Gnomic Present as "the use of the present to express timeless,
universal occurrences" (p. 208). Porter wants to throw out the old
categories, with their misleading labels and backgrounds in faulty
mind-sets, and create new ones based on the new aspect model. For
example, he rejects the notion that the augment marks any time
significance. In his enthusiasm for rejecting the old view of tenses, he
has gone against years of what seems intuitive to most grammarians.

Ken Penner, M.C.S. (Biblical Languages, Greek Focus), M.A. (Hebrew
Ph.D. Student, McMaster University
pennerkm at
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