Imperfect Tense: A Closer Look
An Expanded Discussion of the Imperfect Tense
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Daniel Wallace, in his text Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, devotes 14 pages to the imperfect tense in Greek — and the imperfect is undeniably one of the simpler tenses! As you can imagine, we will not attempt a complete explanation of the tense. However, we can offer the first few ideas that a student should have in mind when he or she is trying to interpret a verb in the imperfect tense.
The basic idea of the imperfect tense is continued action in past time. While the aorist tense gives you a snapshot of an event, the imperfect tense points a video camera at it. You see the event in process.
The most common translation uses the pattern “was/were ____ing.” I was reading; they were being pursued.
A closer look at the imperfect tense reveals several potential shades of meaning.
1. Progressive imperfect
The most basic usage, the progressive imperfect describes a process happening in the past. It catches the process in mid-act, without giving any information about the beginning or the end of the process.
You can compare it to stepping into a church service while the choir is singing an anthem: you can tell that they are in the process of performing the song, but you don’t know when they began or when they will end.
Mark 12:41 — “Many rich were casting large sums of money” [into the treasury]. When Jesus arrived at the temple, people were already lined up to present their offerings; they had begun before his arrival, and they would continue afterwards.
2. customary IMPERFECT
An imperfect verb can sometimes refer to an action that usually or regularly happened in the past. This action normally happened at regular intervals, and it continued over a significant period of time. You might translate it with the phrase “used to.”
Luke 2:41 — “his parents used to go to Jerusalem each year.”
3. ITERATIVE IMPERFECT
This usage is similar to the customary imperfect, in that it describes repeated action in the past, but the action did not occur on a regular schedule.
Matthew 3:6 — “They were being baptized in the Jordan River by him.”
4. Ingressive or inceptive imperfect
An imperfect tense can be used to indicate the beginning of an action, with the suggestion that the action will continue for a while.
Translators often add the words “began to” in order to make the usage clear.
Mark 1:31 — “Her fever left, and she began to wait on Him.”
5. TENDENTIAL imperfect
This use of the imperfect describes an action that someone was attempting to do, but had not yet been able to complete.
Matthew 3:14 — “And John tried to hinder him” [from being baptized]. John was in the process of trying to keep Jesus from being baptized, but he was obviously unsuccessful in carrying out his intention.
How can you tell which of these uses appears in a particular verse? It comes down to our usual formula: context and common sense. When you encounter an imperfect tense, try out each of these ideas and ask yourself which one makes the best sense in this context. You may not do it perfectly, but that’s OK — after all, you too are imperfect!