[B-Greek] Beginner's question about infinitives

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Wed May 20 15:24:54 EDT 2009

On May 20, 2009, at 9:41 AM, Mike Noel wrote:

> I am working through Machen in an attempt to learn Greek.  So far so
> good.  However, I am confused by one of the composition sentences that
> I'm working on.  The task is to translate from English to Greek.

I endeavored to teach NT Greek using Machen for a small tutotiral  
class three or four times; I ultimately became thorougly disenchanted  
with it, one major reason being the made-up sentences, both the Greek  
to English and the English to Greek, but especially the English to  
Greek, which often seemed to me to run counter to ordinary Koine  
syntax and idiom and to display a phraseology more English-sounding  
than Greek-sounding. But that's beside the point of your questions.

> "They said that it was lawful for them to take these garments."
> My answer was:
> εἴπον ὅτι ἔξεστιν λάμβανειν  
> αὐτοὺς τὰ ἱμάρτια ταύτα.

It's ἱμάτια hIMATIA], isn't it (no R)? --not to be confused  
with῾ἁμαρτίας [hAMARTIAS]  "sins."

Re: transliteration: use only "N" for Nu, not "V" even if a "V" looks  
like a lower-case printed or cursive Nu.

> The answer key indicated that this was wrong for two main reasons.
> First, wrong form of λαμβανω (LAMBANW) for the infinitive and  
> wrong
> case of αυτους (AUTOUS) for the pronoun.  I think I understand  
> the
> problem with the pronoun but I'm confused about the infinitive verb.
> The solution indicated that the correct form of λαμβανω  
> (LAMBANW) was
> λαβειν (LABEIV).  The difficulty here is that it seems to be  
> using the
> present tense infinitive form on the aorist principle part.  I could
> understand λαβσαι (LABSAI) since that would use the aorist  
> infinitive
> with the aorist stem.  The question on whether to use the present or
> aorist tense for that verb is a different question (and I'm not
> entirely sure what the answer is there but that's not my main
> confusion).  So why is the present infinitive being used on the aorist
> stem?  Or am I seeing it wrong?

(1) With regard to the infinitive:

I wouldn't raise such an objection to use of the present infinitive  
LAMBANEIN in place of the aorist infinitive LABEIN. The aorist is  
probably the better choice for the sense "grab" or "snatch," but the  
present infinitive could bear the sense "try to take" or "keep taking"  
-- if one supposes that it is wrong to make the attempt or wrong to do  
something habitually. Since the aorist of LAMBANW is ELABON -- a  
"thematic" or "second" aorist, the infinitive of he aorist must be  
LABEIN. There is no "first" aorist form ELAYA which might  
theoretically yield an active infinitive LAYAI. We have to learn the  
verbs the way the ancient speakers and writers used them; we don't  
write "goed" for the past tense of "go"; we have to use "went."

(2) With regard to the pronoun:

Here the major consideration is the ordinary construction of the  
impersonal verb EXESTIN, which means, more or less literally, "power/ 
possibility/authority to do X (this being expresssed by an infinitive)  
belongs to Y (this being expressed by a dative of the person who holds  
he power/possibility/authority). So "for them" is going to have to be  
in a dative form expressing the sense of "for them." That would be  

One more note about English to Greek translation exercises. Although  
the compiler of such exercises almost certainly had in mind one right  
way for the English sentences to be formulated in Greek, the fact is  
that there are usually several equivalent ways of expressing a thought  
idiomatically in another language -- certainly this is true of Greek.  
So I would suggest: learn what you can from what your textbook tells  
you about the right way to turn those English sentences into Greek,  
but don't get hung up on the Machen answer always being the only right  

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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