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I think I have a good working knowledge of what generally differentiates the ancient Greek aorist and present stems semantically. However, when it comes to imperatives, I am sometimes at a loss, especially with biblical passages of the New Testament.

For the convenience of someone looking up examples, here are links to searches on Bible.hub of two different imperative forms of πορεύομαι: πορεύου and πορεύθητι. I chose this verb, since I knew that both present-stem and aorist-stem forms existed in situations that otherwise seemed identical to me.

As a first proposition, I thought I could differentiate between the two forms by testing what would violate the commands. For instance with φύλαξον or φυλάξατε, I can theorize that the use of the aorist means that the goal of preventing the bad occurrence must be achieved and never violated, but with φυλάσσου and φυλάσσεσθε, merely engaging in the act of being on guard was sufficient. I notice the change in voice that might support this idea, just as some Greek verbs presumably use the middle in the present stem to emphasize the activity, but the active voice in the aorist stem to emphasize the result (i.e., ἔρχομαι vs. ἤλθον).

Most of the imperatives in Homer I can recall seem to match this theory. Here is one example from the Iliad 1.32: ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι. I understand this to mean "Get going and stop bothering me so you can more safely head home." None of the verbs require achieving any further goal than engaging in the activity described.

When, however, I apply this proposition to the cases of πορεύου and πορεύθητι I linked to above, I can't make the distinction work to my satisfaction. Any proposals?

As I now examine two of the cases of πορεύθητι for this post, I notice that they are followed by additional aorist imperatives, which might mean that the aorist is required to sequence the two commands as you might do with the equivalent participles. However, I would still have to explain a sentence such as ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δή τινα μάντιν ἐρείομεν ἢ ἱερῆα in which the two present-stem verbs are not so carefully sequenced, perhaps because the idea of the activity represented by ἄγε is meant to carry over into the activity of ἐρείομεν. Does this proposal answer the question? Again, any ideas?

In summary, can you explain what the difference is in the semantics between the present and aorist imperatives? Whatever I propose in one case seems sometimes to be contradicted by other cases. My interest is not particularly limited to Biblical examples or Koine, so examples from other periods of Greek would be welcome.

I would even ask about Modern Greek if it were not off topic, since I think Modern Greek retains the two types of imperatives and presumably the same difference in semantics. I even tried to apply the tiny bit of Russian I know, which almost universally makes a distinction between perfective and imperfective forms, but the little I know doesn't seem to match up well with what I see in Greek.

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  • Bringing up modern Greek to illuminate ancient Greek is certainly on topic here.
    – cmw
    Dec 14, 2021 at 1:46
  • 1
    Specifically on ἐρείομεν, verbs meaning "ask" in Greek often use the present stem when the aorist might be expected (not just in the imperative). I think this may be because the act of asking is conceived as part of a larger ask-answer exchange and is therefore in a sense open-ended (as long as the other person hasn't answered, you're still "asking").
    – TKR
    Dec 14, 2021 at 18:40

2 Answers 2

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tl;dr: In ancient Greek the aorist imperative is used for urgent, positive one-time commands. The present imperative or subjunctive are used in other cases.

Wikipedia says:

The present imperative is used for general commands ... The aorist imperative is used when the speaker wishes something done at once:

This seems to fit your NT examples. (Translations below are from the WEB.)

Matthew 8:9 -

The centurion answered, “Lord, I’m not worthy for you to come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I am also a man under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and tell another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and tell my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion is describing how he's used to giving peremptory orders and having them carried out immediately. Hence he uses the aorist πορεύθητι.

Acts 9:11-15 -

The Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah‡ for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, 12 and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

Jesus appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him to go to Saul. The command is given using the aorist, which implies that Jesus wants Ananias to go ahead and do it right away, not just some time later whenever he feels like it. Ananias expresses fear that Saul will persecute him. Jesus then gently reassures him and repeats the command using the more generic πορεύου, which isn't as harsh and seems to be the default, unmarked form for this verb.

As a random koine example from the Bible using another verb, I looked up the Septuagint for Isaiah, "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up to the high mountain." This turns out to be translated using the aorist imperative ἀνάβηθι. This sort of seems to make sense given the fact that the text is trying to communicate urgency.

Your Homeric example is Iliad 1.32 -

ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.

This is a harsh command to go away at once, so you would think that Agamemnon would use the aorist. However, the imperative ἴθι is from the verb εἶμι, which doesn't have an aorist.

I looked around for other examples from Homer. For the verb δίδωμι, Homer uses the aorist δός, and only much more rarely two forms of the present, δίδου and δίδωθι (each only once). The form δός is quite common, so it looks like it's not always true that the present is the default and the aorist is marked. The sole example of δίδωθι is in Odyssey 3.380:

ἀλλά, ἄνασσ', ἵληθι, δίδωθι δέ μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, αὐτῷ καὶ παίδεσσι καὶ αἰδοίῃ παρακοίτι·

But, queen, be gracious and give good renown to me and my children, and also to my honored companion.

It totally makes sense here that Homer doesn't use the aorist, because this is a request that can't possibly be carried out immediately but rather a request to do something in general in the future.

The only other example of the present imperative for this verb is Odyssey 3.58, a prayer to Neptune, in which δίδου is used in a request to the god to allow a safe return home. (There are a bunch of uses of δίδου that are the imperfect, not the imperative.) This is a one-time command, but it's not something that the speaker expects the god to do for him immediately but rather at some point in the future. I suspect that the urgent/not urgent distinction is no longer carried by aorist/present because modern Greek has a different way of softening requests, which is to use the formal plural.

You have an interesting idea of comparing with modern Greek. The grammar course that I had handy (Hugo Greek in Three Months) presents it as follows. The present imperative is used if the action is going to continue or be repeated, while the aorist imperative is if the action is going to occur just once. This matches up nicely with the example of δίδωθι in the Odyssey, and it also seems pretty consistent with WP's explanation for ancient Greek. But it does seem that there has been at least some change in semantics (assuming the Hugo book is accurate), since Acts 9:11-15 uses both forms to command a one-time action. WP seems to confirm Hugo's statement that the modern distinction is purely about one-time versus continuous action, with the aorist no longer connoting urgency.

So in summary, I think in ancient Greek the aorist imperative is used for urgent, positive one-time commands, while in all other situations one uses the present imperative (or aorist subjunctive with μη, see Monro). Neither form is rare or exclusively literary, and both have continued to be used up to the present day in spoken modern Greek.

Some verbs seem to use the present far more frequently, while others (δίδωμι) hardly ever do. I don't know whether this is due only to semantics and context or whether there are sometimes just arbitrary conventions that a particular verb tends to exist only in the present imperative or only in the aorist imperative.

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  • 1
    The usual present imperative 2sg of δίδωμι is δίδου, which occurs several times in Homer.
    – TKR
    Dec 14, 2021 at 17:26
  • @TKR: Thanks for pointing that out. Actually, it looks to me like almost all the uses of δίδου are the imperfect, not the imperative. Project Perseus seems to tag only one of these as an imperative (Odyssey 3.58).
    – user3597
    Dec 14, 2021 at 19:57
  • That may well be right -- I hadn't looked at the examples in context.
    – TKR
    Dec 14, 2021 at 21:12
  • Thank you for the detailed response. I had read the explanation in Wikipedia, but it did not seem satisfying to me. How would you fit into that theory the use of ἔγειρε in Luke 5:24 and the use of Ἔρχου in Matthew 8:9. These seem to be cases of "urgency" and yet the present is used. Dec 17, 2021 at 23:51
  • Other examples would be ἔννεπε in verse 1 of the Odyssey as opposed to εἰπὲ in verse 10, and ἄειδε in verse 1 of the Iliad and μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε in verse 32. The change from ἔννεπε to εἰπὲ might convey increased "urgency" or pleading, but how do the others fit? Dec 17, 2021 at 23:59
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Having given this topic further thought, I think I can explain all the imperatives I have encountered to my satisfaction and so want to give an answer that might help others and is what I would have liked to read when first learning about this aspect of Greek.

First, let me outline the original problem again. There are fairly good descriptions in grammar books about how the aorist and imperfect tenses differ in narrating past events and how they differ in participles. There is less said about how the aorist and present stems differ in infinitives, apart from usages that parallel the difference in participles, such as in indirect statement. The grammars say next to nothing about imperatives and do not give enough information to predict what form to use or what the nuances of each form might be.

Some materials that teach Koine Greek say things like the aorist is used to express urgency. Whether this is true or not, this notion really describes a pragmatic use of the aorist and a secondary implication of its use, rather than fully explaining the semantics. In any case, I think urgency is not really a factor in choosing between the two forms.

In considering past events, any focus on a change in the situation tends to imply the use of the aorist; however, almost all imperatives imply a change in the situation. I now see that this notation of change is actually different in the two forms.

One could also equate the aorist stem with expressing telic events and the present stem with atelic events; however, I now see that this is not the case. The mere fact that an event is telic does not indicate that the imperative use expresses the necessity of reaching the endpoint that makes the expression telic. This is even more obvious when you consider that for the present tense, there is only one general choice of stem to use (i.e., the present stem) regardless of whether an event is telic or atelic.

The semantic difference I propose for imperatives is that the aorist stem presupposes that the speaker is focusing only on a result as necessary to satisfy the implied conditions; whereas the use of the present stem focuses on the importance of engaging in or initiating the action commanded, with whatever additional goal to be accomplished in due course.

The present stem is the default, so that if engaging in the action is the result wanted, the present stem will be used. Also, you have to look beyond the meaning of the verb in isolation, but consider any arguments used with it and any previous or follow-up actions described.

Here are 10 specific cases to illustrative the differences mostly with my translations to illustrate the difference in meaning. I tried to choose either well-known passages or passages where the same verbs are used in different forms:

  1. The first verse of Homer's Odyssey begins as follows:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον,...τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.

Speak to me, O Muse, of that twisty and twisting one,... Bring us up to speed about these things, o goddess, daughter of Zeus, from some point in the story.

The form ἔννεπε is an present imperative and εἰπὲ is an aorist imperative. The first form, ἔννεπε, uses the present stem because it calls on the Muse to begin the tale. The idea is not "get the tale told" and so the present stem is appropriate.

Τhe second imperative form, εἰπὲ, is an aorist imperative. This form is used because the bard has gone on at some length to give the particulars of the tale the Muse should sing about, but then makes a specific request to orient the audience from some point or another before launching into the full tale. "Getting the audience informed" is a focus on a result and so makes the use of the aorist form appropriate. If you just translate both verbs as "tell," this difference in meaning is lost.

  1. the Iliad 1.32:

ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.

So get going and don't be bothering me so you can return home more safely

Here, both ἴθι and μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε are present imperatives, though the command is given with urgency and menace. King Agamemnon does not care where the priest goes, but just wants him to get going, so a present imperative is appropriate. The action actually is the result wanted. As for ἐρέθιζε, Agamemnon is already angry and upset with the priest's request and wants him to stop asking for his daughter back and stop his extended pleas. Not continuing to be bothersome calls for the present imperative.

  1. Odyssey 3.380:

ἀλλά, ἄνασσ', ἵληθι, δίδωθι δέ μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, αὐτῷ καὶ παίδεσσι καὶ αἰδοίῃ παρακοίτι·

But, queen, be gracious and give good renown to me and my children, and also to my honored companion.

It totally makes sense here that Homer doesn't use the aorist, because this is a request that can't possibly be carried out immediately but rather a request to do something in general in the future.

This is from user3597's answer and makes perfect sense. The requests are to engage in habitual action. The actions are the result desired, so the present imperatives are appropriate here.

  1. Gospel According to Matthew 2:20

“Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ πορεύου εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ..."

"Arise and then take the child and his mother and head to the land of Israel..."

Here the Angel is telling Joseph that it is no longer necessary to stay as a refugee in Egypt because the danger has passed and so he is to get up, take his family and head to Israel.

There are three verbs to consider: Ἐγερθεὶς, παράλαβε, and πορεύου.

Ἐγερθεὶς is an aorist participle, but is translated in English with an imperative. In a combined action or imperative, English tends to use two verbs, but Greek often prefers a participle followed by the main verb. Another good example of this structure is the famously laconic answer King Leonidas gave to the Persians asking for earth and water in submission: μολὼν λαβέ (come and take (them)).

If used separately, this would have been Ἐγέρθητι, an aorist imperative. Both forms are aorist to background them as actions prior to the main command, which in this case is to take the child and mother.

In the phrase παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ, παράλαβε must be aorist for us to envision the result of reaching for the family members and not just the process.

The last imperative, πορεύου, is present imperative because what is desired is for Joseph to leave. The arrival in Israel is not the focus. Here the process is the result desired, requiring the present imperative.

  1. The Gospel According to Luke 5:24:

“Σοὶ λέγω, ἔγειρε καὶ ἄρας τὸ κλινίδιόν σου πορεύου εἰς τὸν οἶκόν σου.” "I tell you, arise, take your bedding and head home."

This sentence appears like number 4, but uses a different mix of forms. The setting is that Jesus is commanding a paralyzed person to get up and walk home despite his paralysis.

The first imperative, ἔγειρε, is present-stem to focus on the surprising action. It is foreground, not background as in number 4. In effect, Jesus is showing that with God's power the person can actually get up on his legs despite the paralysis.

The participle ἄρας is like Ἐγερθεὶς in number 4. It is a backgrounded aorist participle and the first part of a two part action.

The imperative πορεύου is the second part of the action. It is a present imperative because the emphasis is not on what happens when the man gets home, but on his ability to walk home at all. The action is the result desired and so the verb is in the present-stem form.

  1. Luke 13:31

“Ἔξελθε καὶ πορεύου ἐντεῦθεν, ὅτι Ἡρῴδης θέλει σε ἀποκτεῖναι.” "Get out of here and get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you"

I think this could have been said in many ways, but by using the aorist imperative Ἔξελθε, the speakers are saying that presence means death and so the desired result is not just starting to leave, but successfully vacating that place. On the other hand, the word πορεύου is present-stem because the destination is irrelevant. Once leaving has taken place, being in the process of heading away is the result desired; hence, the present imperative is good for this meaning.

  1. Iliad 1.33:

κλῦθί μευ ἀργυρότοξ᾽ Hear me/Hear my prayer, you of the silver bow

The word κλῦθί is aorist imperative. The meaning is not just "listen to what I am saying and consider it." The result desired is to have the prayer granted and so the aorist is needed here.

  1. Iliad 1.62

ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δή τινα μάντιν ἐρείομεν ἢ ἱερῆα Let's get going and put the question to a seer or a priest

Here, Achilles is desperate for a result, the end of plague that had been raging for 10 days, but this plea does not directly address the result. He is pleading for action, rather than just idly suffering from the wrath of some unknown god for some unreason. The action is the result desired so both verbs are in the present imperative.

  1. Matthew 8:9:

καὶ λέγω τούτῳ ‘Πορεύθητι,’ καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ ‘Ἔρχου,’ καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου ‘Ποίησον τοῦτο,’ καὶ ποιεῖ.

and I say to this one, "On with you!" And he goes. And to that one: "Proceed!" And he proceeds. And to my slave: "Do this," and he does it.

From a discourse perspective, the speaker, a Centurion with a sick servant, is trying to illustrate that since he can give underlings a variety of different types of commands, he believes Jesus can too and command that his servant be healed without even having to visit him. As a result, the imperatives are of three different types and show both aorist and present-stem.

The word Πορεύθητι is aorist and so refers to a desired result. I think it is appropriate if you saw your servant starting to do something, but actually not moving fast enough. You can't just tell them to go, because they are already going. They are just dawdling. So you say, "On with you" or "Get out of here and be on your way." Don't just start doing it, get it done. This is what I think is the flavor of Πορεύθητι. It is a command to a dawdler to "be gone."

The word Ἔρχου is a present imperative. I think this is what you say to someone who is doing one thing, and you want them to do something else. Or, someone knows what to do, but is not sure whether to start yet. The particular action of Ἔρχου is the result you want, so the present imperative is appropriate.

The last imperative, Ποίησον, is an aorist imperative with an object. The idea is that you want a result, which is that the object be completed, not just worked on, so you use the aorist to express this.

By using these three different situations with underlings as examples, the Centurion is implying that surely Jesus has one of these options at his disposal with his servant angels. He can order the process of healing along as with Πορεύθητι if the boy's "guardian angel" is not taking proper care of him. If there is an angel available to take orders, Jesus can tell him to proceed and accomplish the healing as with Ἔρχου . If Jesus has to specify a particular healing procedure that needs to be accomplished, he can tell whatever "spirit messenger" is handy to complete it as with Ποίησον. With so many options to give the appropriate order, surely Jesus does not have to come in person to do the healing.

  1. Book of Acts. 9:11

Ὁ δὲ Κύριος πρὸς αὐτόν “Ἀναστὰς πορεύθητι ἐπὶ τὴν ῥύμην τὴν καλουμένην Εὐθεῖαν καὶ ζήτησον ἐν οἰκίᾳ Ἰούδα Σαῦλον ὀνόματι Ταρσέα

The Lord said to him: "Get up and get to the street called "Straight" and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.

Hear we have three verbs, but one overall direction or command. As usual, the first, Ἀναστὰς, is a backgrounded aorist participle to show prior action. The second verb, πορεύθητι, is a full clause, but is backgrounded by being put in the aorist imperative. It is the necessary result that much be reached prior to the main action, which is to "ask for a man named Saul." The result desired is to locate Saul, not just to ask for him, so this verb, ζήτησον, is in the aorist imperative to focus on the result of the inquiry and not just the process.

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  • I think the distinction you draw makes sense given the semantics of aorist vs. present, though there may be cases that are harder to account for in this way (e.g. Plato Apology 20e μὴ θορυβήσητε). In your first example BTW I don't think εἰπὲ means "bring us up to speed" but rather "tell the whole story". In #8 ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δή is a fixed expression which always takes the present imperative. (Also, terminologically I've never heard of an "imperfect imperative" in Greek -- the standard term is present imperative, likewise stem, infinitive etc.)
    – TKR
    Feb 5 at 21:14
  • You're right about the terminology. Even "imperfective" would have been better if I were going down that road. I'll edit my answer. As for μὴ θορυβήσητε, it reminds me of Matthew 3:9 μὴ δόξητε. I think of both as saying "don't get into such and such a state or have that result, i.e., "don't start making an uproar" or "don't adopt the belief," respectively, as opposed to Luke 2:10 μὴ φοβεῖσθε "Don't stand around afraid," which is like μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε. The first forms presuppose entering a new state (whether true or not); the latter, stopping a current state already begun. Feb 5 at 22:58
  • As for, ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δή, wouldn't the analysis be the same whether or not it is a fixed expression? I am assuming it can never express an "aorist" nuance. The particles I do wonder about are δεῦρο and δεῦτε,, since I could not immediately discern if they carried any specific implication of aspect. Feb 5 at 23:20
  • I'm doubtful about reading μὴ θορυβήσητε with an inchoative sense. With epistemic verbs it makes sense to think of "adopting a belief" or "realizing something" as complete acts in themselves, but that doesn't really work for "start making an uproar" (if anything, the imperfect is what gets used for such inchoative meanings). But maybe the intended sense is something like "don't shout me down", which is perfective in a different way.
    – TKR
    Feb 5 at 23:23
  • I don't think δεῦρο and δεῦτε can be said to have aspect at all, since they're not true verb forms. ἄγε "come on" is followed equally freely by present and aorist forms; its aspect meaning seems to have been bleached out of it.
    – TKR
    Feb 5 at 23:37

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