Preterite and Imperfect

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at
Fri May 24 10:36:39 EDT 2002

>===== Original Message From tmcos at =====
>Dear Friends,
>  Could any of you provide some insights into an easy way to distinguish the 
preterite in biblical Hebrew from the imperfect? Many thanks.

Well, there are a couple of different issues involved here. One is that the 
preterite is not always distinguishable formally from the imperfect, so you 
have to have some way of handling the identical forms. (I realize some would 
contend that there is no real difference between these two conjugations, but 
since your post assumed the distinction, I'm not going to address that issue.) 
The other issue is what formal markers can be observed. Let me handle that one 

Obviously, the most prevalent formal marker (in voweled texts) is the a-class 
vowel in the va-prefix and lengthened following consonant. This feature is 
consistent regardless of root pattern, and it generally appears on preterite 
forms. Some weak forms also exhibit differences. The preterite tends to be 
shorter and to retract accent. If you glance through some verbal paradigms, 
you can see where differences appear. It's good to spend some time 
specifically learning the unique forms. Another difference seems to relate to 
nunation, which belongs more properly to the imperfect. It can be observed not 
only as a visible nun but as consonantal lengthening in some pronominal 
suffixes. (If you're at Toronto, you might want to see if you can talk to V. 
DeCaen, who participates on this list and has been doing some work on 

When formal features are of no help, you can look for positioning in the 
sentence. In Classical BH prose, the imperfect does not generally appear at 
the beginning of a clause. Of course, since most of the more ambiguous 
occurrences are in poetry, that's probably not of much help. The verbal 
behavior of poetry is a tough nut to crack. I haven't done that much with it 
myself, so I can't provide too much help.

Well, that's a start anyway. Others probably know quite a bit more than I 
about this.

Trevor Peterson

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