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Hellenistic Greek © 2009, 2015
Lesson 13: The Imperfect Tense and Aspect
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The Lesson at a Glance

Imperfect Indicative

You will learn to recognize the Imperfect Active Indicative in this lesson. The imperfect expresses imperfectiveaspect and is normally found in statements about the past. It is formed using the present tense stem plus an augment and the "secondary" endings—the same endings you have already learned for the second aorist.

Grammatical Discussion

Imperfect Active Indicative

Although it has a variety of uses that you will learn with further study, the primary function of the imperfect tense is to convey imperfective (progressive) verbal aspect in narrative past-time contexts. "We were eating" in the following sentence would be expressed using the imperfect in Hellenistic Greek.

We were eating dinner when my sister arrived.

The difference in meaning between the imperfect and the aorist is the difference between perfective verbal aspect (action seen as complete: aorist) and progressive verbal aspect (action viewed as being in progress: imperfect).

This difference is not always easy to convey in English translation. A useful means of conveying the difference in many narrative contexts is to use the simple past for the aorist and the progressive past for the imperfect. Thus ἐδίδαξα (aorist) would be, “I taught,” but ἐδίδασκον (imperfect) would be, “I was teaching.”


οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷthe angels were ministering to him (Mark 1:13)


καὶ ὅσα ἐν Ἐφέσῳ διηκόνησεν, βέλτιον σὺ γινώσκεις
And how much he ministered in Ephesus, you know well (2 Timothy 1:18)


εἰς τὴν συναγωγὴν ἐδίδασκεν

He was teaching in the synagogue (Mark 1:21)


ἀπήγγειλαν αὐτῷ. . . ὅσα ἐδίδαξαν.
They told him. . . how much they taught (Mark 6:30).

While this is a convenient way to distinguish the imperfect from the aorist in many contexts, it is not always possible in English. There are several English verbs that either cannot be given a progressive form or are not normally used as progressive.

Examples of English Verbs That Do Not Allow Progressive Forms

English Verb

Example Sentences

have [meaning possess]

He was having a red car.
He had a red car.


John was owning a large boat.
John owned a large boat.


She is knowing Greek very well.
She knows Greek very well.


I am liking to study Greek.
I like to study Greek.


She was prefering fudge over icecream.
She prefered fudge over icecream.

Greek, however, may express these same actions or states using the imperfect aspect. When this occurs, we cannot use a progressive verb form in our English translation, so we must look for other ways to convey the imperfective aspect of the Greek verb. If we properly understand the distinction between Imperfect and Aorist, this will seldom be a problem.

The following table helps clarify that distinction. It compares a few English sentences to the verb form that would be used to express the same meaning in Hellenistic Greek. Study the table and see if you can express what separates sentences 2, 3, 5, and 6 from sentences 1 and 4.

Example English Sentence

Verb Form Needed in Greek


James had a heart attack.



James was having a heart attack.



James had a generous heart.



Sarah bought a bicycle.



Sarah was buying a bicycle.



Sarah owned a bicycle.


The imperfect implies that the action or state expressed by the verb is ongoing or in progress. Its end point is not in focus.

Formation of the Imperfect Active Indicative

The imperfect form is distinguished from the present tense form by an augment and the "secondary" endings that you have already learned. These are exactly the same endings as the second aorist.

The distinguishing feature of the imperfect is its use of the present tense stem with these endings.

The table below is repeated from the previous lesson, but the heading of the last column is changed to indicate that the basic personal endings used for the imperfect and second aorist active indicative are the same. These are compared with the ones used for the first aorist (on the left).

As we saw in the previous lesson, there is only one difference in the two sets of endings. For the imperfect and second aorist, the first person singular adds a -ν. Because of this addition, the first person singular and the third person plural are the same in the imperfect and second aorist. Context must be used to decide between them.


First Aorist

Imperfect &
Second Aorist

1st Person



2nd Person


3rd Person


He, She, It



1st Person




2nd Person


You (Y'all)


3rd Person


Comparison with the First Aorist

What clearly distinguishes the first aorist endings from the imperfect and second aorist endings is that they are attached to different thematic vowels, and only the first aorist adds sigma (σ) before the thematic vowel.

The thematic vowel of the imperfect and second aorist is an omicron (ο) in the first person and in the third plural but an epsilon (ε) in all other forms.


First Aorist

Imperfect & Second Aorist

1st Person




2nd Person




3rd Person


He, She, It



First Aorist

Imperfect & Second Aorist

1st Person




2nd Person


You (Y'all)


3rd Person




Observe the forms of the verb πιστεύω in the table below.

Because πιστεύω uses first aorist forms, the aorist and imperfect have the same stem and must be distinguished by their endings. The first aorist adds σ before the ending, and the two tenses use different thematic vowels.

(First) Aorist


1st Person



2nd Person



3rd Person



1st Person



2nd Person



3rd Person



Compariston with the Second Aorist

Now study the forms of λέγω in the table to the left.

Because λέγω uses second aorist forms, the aorist and imperfect use the same endings. There can be no confusion between the second aorist and imperfect forms, though, because they use different stems.

(Second) Aorist


1st Person



2nd Person



3rd Person



1st Person



2nd Person



3rd Person



Exercise One: Recognizing Imperfect Active Indicative Forms

Click here to practice recognizing imperfect active indicative verb forms.


Although this lesson has focussed on the imperfect active indicative verb forms, the following vocabulary list focusses on first declension nouns. Rather than learn new verbs here, you should review the ones you have already studied (mostly in lessons 9 & 12).

Once you learn the following sixteen words, you will know all of the first declension nouns that appear fifty times or more in the New Testament. These same nouns appear frequently in other Hellenistic Greek literature as well.


ἀγάπη, -ης, ἡ

love, loving concern; fellowship meal


ἁμαρτία, -ας, ἡ

sin; sin offering


ἀρχή, -ής, ἡ

beginning, authority
Contrast ἐξουσία, -ας, ἡ


γῆ, -ῆς, ἡ

earth, dirt, land


γραφή, -ής, ἡ

writing, written message, written document, scripture


διαθήκη, -ης, ἡ

covenant, pact, agreement


εἰρήνη, -ης, ἡ



ἐντολή, -ής, ἡ

commandment, order (that which is commanded)


ἐξουσία, -ας, ἡ

authority, power
Contrast ἀρχή, -ής, ἡ


ἡμέρα, -ας, ἡ

day, lifetime, time period


οἱκία, -ας, ἡ

house, household


ὅς, ἥ, ὅ

who, whom, which, that


σοφία, -ας, ἡ

wisdom, insight, intelligence, skill


συναγωγή, -ής, ἡ

gathering, synagogue


φωνή, -ής, ἡ

sound, voice


χαρά, -άς, ἡ

joy, gladness; reason for joy

Exercise Two: First Declension Noun Practice

Practice recognizing the case forms of the words presented in the vocabulary list for this lesson.

Reading and Translation

1. ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς

He was teaching them (Mark 2:13)

2. καὶ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς ἐν παραβολαῖς πολλά [πολλά = much, many things]

And he was teaching them many things in parables (Mark 4:2)

3. καὶ ἤκουον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

And his disciples were listening (Mark 11:14)
And the disciples were listening to him

The word ἤκουον could be either 1st singular or 3rd plural aorist active indicative of ἀκούω. The broader context of Mark 11 makes it clear that it is 3rd plural.

Since the object of ἀκούω may be given in either the accusative or the genitive case, the function of the word αὐτοῦ (genitive singular) is ambiguous in this sentence. It could modify οἱ μαθηταὶ (“his disciples”), or it could be the object of ἤκουον. In that case, the sentence would be translated: “And the disciples were listening to him,” or “And the disciples heard him.”

4. καὶ ἐδίδασκεν καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς

And he was teaching and saying to them: . . .

5. [Guess at the meaning of οἱ Φαρισαῖοι in the following sentence.]

οἱ Φαρισαῖοι ἔλεγον τοῖς μαθηταῖς

The Pharisees were talking to the disciples (Matthew 9:11)

6. [καταγελάω = I laugh]

κατεγέλων αὐτοῦ

They were laughing at him (Matthew 9:24).

While we frequently translate genitive case forms using "of" or "from," it is clear that αὐτοῦ is the object of κατελέγων ("They were laughing") in this sentence. In English we do not say "laughing of him" or "laughing from him." We saw "laughing at him." I have translated αὐτοῦ as "at him" to make its function in the sentence clear. Check your favorite translation of the Bible, and you will see that this is standard.

7. [πρός + an accusative case form = to, toward]

ἤγαγον αὐτοὺς πρὸς αὐτόν

They were bringing them to him
They brought them to him (Luke 4:40)

This same set of words could mean, "I brought them to him," but the context of Luke 4:40 indicates that ἤγαγον is 3rd plural, not 1st singular.

8. [τίλλω = I pluck, I pick; Translate τοὺς στάχυας "the heads of grain"]

καὶ ἔτιλλον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἤσθιον τοὺς στάχυας

And the disciples were picking and eating the heads of grain (Luke 6:1)

9. [ὁ αὐτός = the same]

τὰ αὐτὰ ἐποίουν

They were doing the same things
They used to do the same things
They used to act the same way

While the form of τὰ αὐτὰ could be either nominative or accusative neuter plural, it functions here as the object of the verb ἐποίουν. That is, it functions as accusative.

10. [γάρ = for; The little Greek word γάρ never appears as the first word of a phrase, but the English word "for" must be the first word of the phrase in which it appears.]

τὰ αὐτὰ γὰρ ἐποίουν τοῖς προφήταις

For they used to do the same things to the prophets

Words like γάρ, that never appear as the first word in their phrase, are called postpositive. There was a small group of such words in Hellenistic Greek. You will learn others in the lessons that follow.

11. [πατήρ = father, ancestor; This noun is third declension. You have not studied third declension nouns yet, so use the article (οἱ) in the sentence below to determine what case, gender, and number πατήρ has.]

οἱ πατέρες αὐτῶν

Their fathers
Their ancestors

κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ = in the same way, according to the same principle

12. κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ γὰρ ἐποίουν τοῖς προφήταις οἱ πατέρες αὐτῶν

For their ancestors acted the same way toward the prophets (Luke 6:23).
For their fathers used to do the same things to the prophets

13. αὐτὴ ἀπέθνῃσκεν

She was dying (Luke 8:42)

14. [τις = a certain one; Ἰερουσαλήμ and Ἰεριχώ are names of cities. Can you guess which cities?]

ἄνθρωπός τις κατέβαινεν ἀπὸ Ἰερουσαλὴμ εἰς Ἰεριχώ

A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30)

15. [ταῦτα = these, these things]

Ἰησοῦν. . . ταῦτα ἐποίει ἐν σαββάτῳ.

Jesus. . . was doing these things on the Sabbath (John 5:16)

Vocabulary Practice Quiz

Click here to take a practice quiz on the new vocabulary presented in this lesson.

Choose an earlier lesson to review vocabulary: lessons 9 & 12.