Aspect and imperatives: General vs. specific

“X-rays may not be used to fit shoes.”

RCW 70.98.170
Prohibition — Fluoroscopic x-ray shoefitting devices.

The operation or maintenance of any x-ray, fluoroscopic, or other equipment or apparatus employing roentgen rays, in the fitting of shoes or other footwear or in the viewing of bones in the feet is prohibited. This prohibition does not apply to any licensed physician, surgeon, *podiatrist, or any person practicing a licensed healing art, or any technician working under the direct and immediate supervision of such persons.

[1973 c 77 § 27; 1961 c 207 § 17.]

Source: Dumb Laws

Commands and prohibitions are funny things. Usually the distinction between general and specific is fairly clear: either you’re giving a specific command for a specific situation in the world or you’re not. You’re instead generalizing for “best practices.”

The middle ground is a little more confusing. Laws are supposed to be general, not specific—the whole point of writing a law is that it can be applied to many cases, not merely a single individual case. Yet so often they get weirdly detailed in what they prohibit or require. The legal ordinance above from Washington (state, not D. C.) surely implies that there was a specific case that brought the law about!

For this post, then, we finally arrive at the popular distinction between imperfective and perfective imperative of general vs. specific. The train of thought with these goals back at least as far back as Blass (1898), but it’s current popularity among NT scholars as being “the meaning of imperfective and perfective imperatives” can probably be attributed to Fanning’s (1990) discussion of the distinction in the usage. In the words of Blass (1898, 194) himself:

The present imperative (with which must be taken the hortatory conjunctive, 1st pers. plur.), both positive and negative by μή, is used in general precepts (even to individuals) on conduct and action; on the other hand the aorist imperative (or conjunctive) is used in (the much less common) injunctions about action in individual cases.

It perhaps goes without saying, but I must take the time to reiterate: this is not the meaning of aspect in the imperative. And it should not be surprising to anyone that after Blass makes this definitive sounding statement, he then goes on over the next two pages (the majority of his discussion on the topic) to lay out all of the exceptions. That should send up red flags to anyone looking at the meaning of a grammatical category. Clearly, Blass’ statement of meaning cannot be taken as schematic for either the imperfective or perfective imperatives. And when we look for “the meaning of X” that search should always be predicated on finding a schema for the category’s usage.

In the case of this usage—and it is a true usage despite what I have just said—we can tie Blass’ account of meaning to schema of the imperfective and perfective aspects by reframing his description in terms of an actual linguistic concept: referentiality. That is, imperfective imperatives being used for “general precepts on conduct and action” are, by definition, non-referential. At the time of utterance, there is no specific or definite situation that one could point to and say, “The speaker is talking about that.” Likewise, perfective imperatives used for “individual cases” are necessarily referential. The speaker is giving a command because she wants some event to come about by a specific person at a specific point in time. In the context of imperatives, that’s referentiality. The command either has a specific referent or it does not.

We can tie this back to aspect fairly easily.

The perfective and imperfective aspects are defined in terms of their internal temporal structure. The imperfective conveys an event that is open ended, ongoing or incomplete in some way in its temporality (John was walking to the store), while the perfective convey an event structure that is self-contained without reference to any kind of internal temporal structure. We could conceptualize it as the difference between a solid object like a rock and free flowing liquid like water. One is discrete and the other is not. One can be counted the other cannot (cf. Once and Twice: The Countability of Events and Read This! Imperatives and the Countability of Events). This is called boundedness. The imperfective aspect’s temporal structure is unbounded and the perfective aspect’s temporal structure is bounded.

Between these two descriptions, I hope you can see the parallels between the boundedness and referentiality.  A bounded event structure (perfective) can be easily used to communicate referential events, while an unbounded event structure (imperfective) readily lends itself to non-referential events.

We see this at play in the imperatives below:

οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ· Δὸς ἡμῖν ἵνα εἷς σου ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξ ἀριστερῶν καθίσωμεν ἐν τῇ δόξῃ σου.
So they said to him, Grant to us that one at your right hand and one at your left, we may sit in your glory (Mark 10:37).

παντὶ αἰτοῦντί σε δίδου, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἴροντος τὰ σὰ μὴ ἀπαίτει
To everyone who asks you, give and from anyone who takes what is yours , do not ask for them back (Luke 6:30).

In the first of these two examples, John and James use the bounded nature of the perfective aspect to make their very specific command, while in the second example, Jesus uses the unbounded imperfective aspect to give a non-specific, non-referential command/exhortation.

Pairs of examples like this can be multiplied:

ἀλλὰ ἐλθὼν ἐπίθες τὴν χεῖρά σου ἐπʼ αὐτήν, καὶ ζήσεται.
But come place your hand on her and she will live (Matt 9:18).

χεῖρας ταχέως μηδενὶ ἐπιτίθει
Lay hands on no one in haste (1 Tim 5:22).

ὁ δὲ κύριος πρὸς αὐτόν· Ἀναστὰς πορεύθητι ἐπὶ τὴν ῥύμην τὴν καλουμένην Εὐθεῖαν καὶ ζήτησον ἐν οἰκίᾳ Ἰούδα Σαῦλον ὀνόματι Ταρσέα, ἰδοὺ γὰρ προσεύχεται,
The Lord said to him, “Get up; go to the street called Straight and look in the house of Judas for one named Saul of Tarsus. For there he is praying (Acts 9:11).

δέδεσαι γυναικί; μὴ ζήτει λύσιν· λέλυσαι ἀπὸ γυναικός; μὴ ζήτει γυναῖκα·
Are you bound to your wife? Do not seek release. Are you from a wife? Do not seek a wife (1 Cor 7:27).

On the other hand, this is not the meaning of aspect and the imperative. It is merely a contextualize realization of the meaning of each aspect, where the speaker has chosen to present an event structure in a particular way. Consider Mark 10:21:

ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ ἠγάπησεν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ἕν σε ὑστερεῖ· ὕπαγε ὅσα ἔχεις πώλησον καὶ δὸς τοῖς πτωχοῖς, καὶ ἕξεις θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανῷ, καὶ δεῦρο ἀκολούθει μοι.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go sell all that you have and give the proceeds and you will have treasure in heaven (Mark 10:24).

The imperfectives ὕπαγε and ἀκολούθει are also part of this command along with the perfectives πώλησον and δὸς. The context certainly requires a referential interpretation. Jesus is speaking to a specific person who has asked a specific question about what he must do to inherit eternal life (vs 17). Now ὕπαγε only appears in the imperfective aspect for imperatives, so that’s less complicated (though we will come back to it momentarily), but ἀκολουθέω takes either aspect in the imperative. Indeed, just a few chapters later, Jesus instructs his disciples with another specific/referential imperative:

Ὑπάγετε εἰς τὴν πόλιν, καὶ ἀπαντήσει ὑμῖν ἄνθρωπος κεράμιον ὕδατος βαστάζων· ἀκολουθήσατε αὐτῷ,
Go into the city and a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him (Mark 14:13).

The difference between these is not merely an issue of “exceptions to the rule” as Blass would have us believe. Rather it is a choice on the part of the speaker to conceptualize the event in a particular way. For either Mark 10:24 or Mark 14:13 the speaker could have chosen the other aspect to communicate the same thing simply with a different conceptualization. The imperative ἀκολούθει in Mark 10:24 uses the imperfective aspect to communicate that the event of following Jesus is unbounded not in its referentiality, but in its temporal endpoint. There is no defined endpoint at which a person is done following Jesus. It’s open ended. But Jesus didn’t need to draw attention to that. Had he used the perfective aspect to present the commanded event as referentially bounded, the open ended nature of following Jesus wouldn’t have been less true; it simply would not have received any attention.

Mark 14:13, on the other hand, present the commanded event as referentially bounded and nothing more, but Jesus could have used the imperfective instead just as easily, where it could have communicated the progressive/ongoing nature of translational motion.

Translation motion brings us back to the imperfect imperative ὕπαγε. It appears to be inherently limited to the imperfective aspect when used in the imperative. But that doesn’t make it an exception because the limitation on its usage is directly tied to its semantics: translation motion. Exceptions aren’t exceptions when they’re motivated by their semantic relationship to a grammatical category.

That brings us back to the theme of all my posts thus far about aspect and the imperative mood. There is no “meaning of aspect and the imperative.” There is the meaning of aspect and the meaning of the imperative mood. And they’re just doing the same thing they always do. Aspect does not change when we move from the indicative mood into the imperative.

Rijkoff – The Noun Phrase

Jan Rijkoff, linguist/typologist, wrote a superb monograph presenting language variation and typology of the syntax and semantics of noun phrases across a wide variety of languages.


  • Offers a new, semantic model of the noun phrase
  • Based on data from a representative sample of the world’s languages
  • Introduces the notion of Seinsart (‘mode of being’) and the new grammatical category of nominal aspect

Over the past week, he has been uploading individual chapters to his page (link).

It’s worth your time.

Mark Janse , “Cappadocian Clitics and the Syntax-Morphology Interface”

Mark Janse , “Cappadocian Clitics and the Syntax-Morphology Interface.” Pages 257-281. In Themes in Greek Linguistics II. Edited by Brian D. Joseph, Geoffrey Horrocks, and Irene Philippaki-Warburton. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998.

Mark Janse is a descriptive linguist focusing on Greek dialectology with a particular interests in dialectology, non-standard Greek dialects, and Greek historical linguistics. He is a professor in the Department of Linguistics at Ghent University in Belgium. Anyone interested Ancient Greek should follow his research, even if you’re limited to the Classical period or New Testament Greek. Panchronic and pandialectic approach to language study are only going to become more and more important in the coming years and Janse’s research is a solid example of how to do it right.

This particular paper presents a synchronic and descriptive account of the placement of pronominal clitics in Cappadocian Greek. All of Janse’s data comes from a collection of annotated texts from roughly a hundred years ago. In fact, when Janse wrote his article (1998), it was thought that Cappadocian was extinct. But in 2005 that Mark Janse and Dimitris Papazachariou discovered a community of speakers in Turkey. The community, though very small, is surprisingly healthy.

Cappadocian pronouns are only marked for number, as in table 1.


Cappadocian pronouns “float.” They either attach to the verb or they attach to some element that appears earlier in the clause. Janse argues that in order to understand the distribution of clitic pronouns, we must distinguish between syntactic constraints and discourse constraints.

The default position for Cappadocian clitics is post-verbal. But there are syntactic factors which also appear to be syntactic motivations, according to Janse. Thus the clitics are “pulled forward” by modal and negative particles, subordinating conjunctions, relative pronouns and interrogative words. He provides the following examples.


In (1) we have a clitic appearing pre-verbally following a negation particle, in (2) by a relative pronoun, and in (3) by a interrogative pronoun.

Janse uses the term “echo structures” for some of these. These involve the attachment of the clitic pronoun to a fronted constituent that takes argument focus.[1] The term “echo” comes from the fact that many of these follow from one of Janse’s syntactic constraints above: clauses where the interrogative pronoun attracts the clitic pronoun. This is seen in the following examples:


But Janse emphasizes that this phenomena is only occasional. He provides the following instances of clauses where the focal constituent does not pull the pronoun forward.


His conclusion is that “clitic float” is a relic of Ancient Greek where preverbal pronouns were “pulled forward” and attached to the categories because of their relationship to sentence stress in conjunction with discourse factors.

The ordering of clitic pronouns is fixed both internally and externally. Internally, first and second person clitics cannot co-occur and a first or second person clitic must order before a third person clitic, as seen below.


This is also the case with pre-verbal clitics, as seen in (9) through (11).


But while this is the general rule, there are exceptions, such as the one in example (12).


Cappadocian Greek, according to Janse (268), allows for a redundant clitic pronoun when there is a strong pronoun pre-verbally. This suggests that the strong pronoun functions in a cleft-like, left dislocated position that then requires a resumptive pronoun to satisfy the requirements of the clause.

Externally, as examples (6-11) also demonstrate, clitics have a preference to attach as a group. Janse notes that in rare instances that clitics can be split:


Janse uses such examples as evidence that templatic approaches to clitic placement do not work well for Cappadocian Greek as compared to other languages.

He concludes with the observation,

“Cappadocian clitic pronouns are far from being morphologicalized. They behave in sometimes very unpredictable ways. Their distribution is determined partly by syntactic, partly by discourse constraints. Multiple clitic pronouns cannot be described in a template framework, since their relative order is not fixe … [and they] do not necessarily cluster together. … [The] Cappadocian clitic pronouns are clitics in the traditional sense: they constitute and category sui generis, somewhere halfway between full words and affixes on the pronoun-to-affix cline” (278).

This is a striking claim, especially in light of the conclusions by Zwicky (1994) on clitics cross-linguistically, that some entities called clitics are actually affixes, whether at the word level or the phrase level and other entities are syntactically and morphologically independent, but phonologically dependent (i.e. bound words) (xix). This last linguistic entity finds an excellent parallel with the pronominal forms described by Janse here.

[1] It appears also that all of these instances of argument focus are also contrastive.

Brief reading notes on Chomsky (1965)

Noam Chomsky’s (1965) Aspect of the theory of syntax presents a revised version of generative grammar that constrains the power of its syntactic transformations in order to maintain the predictive goals of generative grammar: produce all the grammatical sentences and only the grammatical sentences. In other ways, Aspects also functions as an apologetic to his detractors who have not jumped on the band wagon with him. And to that end, Chomsky presents a defense of his overall paradigm. What is striking in his preface is that in order to challenge those to continue to hold to the behaviorist perspective on language as well as his critics, Chomsky appeals back to some of earliest work modern linguistics: Wilhelm von Humboldt. In fact, Chomsky goes as far as to claim that the concept of a generative grammar should be considered even as ancient of Panini.

Still, it is likely, however, that his critics would view both of Chomsky’s claims, or at least the claim for Panini, as anachronistic. Nevertheless, it was surprising to me that a statement that many, many people unconsciously associate first and foremost with Chomsky should actually go back nearly 200 years to von Humboldt: “that a language ‘makes infinite use of finite means” (Chomsky v). It is Chomsky claim that what had prevented linguists such as von Humboldt from pursuing such a goal was the development of specific mathematic resources.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Chomsky’s preface to Aspects, as well as the following first section of chapter 1 is the tentativeness of the whole enterprise. All of Chomsky’s language is couched in epistemic modalities (such as “possible,” “perhaps,” “seems”). Statements such as the following are rather common: “In chapter 3, I shall sketch briefly what seems to me in light of this discussion, the most promising direction for the theory of generative grammar to take. But I should like to reiterate that this can be only a highly tentative proposal” (vi). All of this is rather incredibly considering that so many of his critics tend to talk as if Chomsky views his claims as a sort of last work on the subject of grammar and syntax. This surely cannot be the case in light of his words here, not to mention his later writings.[1]

The focus of the first section of chapter one, “Generative Grammars as Theories of Linguistic Competence,” is the goals of linguistic theory, which Chomsky claims should be “concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions … in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance” (3)[2]

What follow from this is an effort to distinguish competence from performance. The latter can only be viewed as a direct representation of the former under the circumstances describe above of the ideal speaker-listener. Practically, speaking this is impossible though. And this reality is reflected in the traditional and structuralist grammars, which provide lists of irregularities, but failure to capture the regular and universal features of language. Here again, Chomsky goes back a couple centuries to past linguistic research which distinguished universal grammar from particular grammar. He goes as far as to suggest that modern linguistic study, as of the 1960s), had failed to deal with the question of universal grammar by showing no interest in the creative aspects of language. And it is exactly this possibility that creative language use that drives Chomsky’s work.

1. For example, the concept of the “autonomy of syntax” continues to be a sticking point for functionalist linguists even today. And yet, according to Newmeyer (2005), Chomsky hasn’t made such a claim about syntax since 1975, but has instead revised his own claims about the nature of language.

2. It should, perhaps, be questions whether this is a valid goal. Specifically, it is not clear why a homogenous community should be ideal when the vast majority of language use in the world is not homogenous. By itself the statement appears somewhat ethnocentric and Chomsky provides no explanation as to why the homogenous situation of English should be treated as preferable to that of multi-lingual communities. Surely a multilingual community would provide just as much information and about universal grammar than any other community.

Empirical data grounding prototype theory

There’s plenty of already existing evidence for the nature of linguistic categorization and prototype theory. I laid much of it out in my (old) discussion of middle voice several years ago, where I explain categorization and cognitive linguistics in the context of discussions of middle voice.

But there’s a recent article on lexical semantics from a group of researchers at UC Berkeley using fMRI scans of people’s brains to map out how lexemes light up the brain. The result is fascinating and beautiful. It also provides additional compelling data for how the relationship between metaphor and meaning is realized neurologically.

Scans Show ‘Brain Dictionary’ Groups Words By Meaning (NPR Article)

On a more “linguisticky” note, if Jack Gallant and his research team work here had been possible in the 1970’s, the linguistic wars wouldn’t have ended they way they did. It’s a solid affirmation, too, of the models put forward in Langacker’s Foundations of Cognitive Grammar.

Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

James Clackson, the classisist/historical linguist, recently published on book on sociolinguistics in Ancient Greek & Rome: Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds. I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen is before. I try to stay up on these things.

Publishers blurb:

Texts written in Latin, Greek and other languages provide ancient historians with their primary evidence, but the role of language as a source for understanding the ancient world is often overlooked. Language played a key role in state-formation and the spread of Christianity, the construction of ethnicity, and negotiating positions of social status and group membership. Language could reinforce social norms and shed light on taboos. This book presents an accessible account of ways in which linguistic evidence can illuminate topics such as imperialism, ethnicity, social mobility, religion, gender and sexuality in the ancient world, without assuming the reader has any knowledge of Greek or Latin, or of linguistic jargon. It describes the rise of Greek and Latin at the expense of other languages spoken around the Mediterranean and details the social meanings of different styles, and the attitudes of ancient speakers towards linguistic differences.
Even better, Staffan Wahlgren just published a review of the volume (link) in Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

To sum up, this is a really good book. It is up to date, well written and an easy read, and it is well produced with only a very few misprints. The factual errors are neither many nor, on the whole, serious. Perhaps it is not unfair to suspect a certain Anglo-Saxon bias: the bibliography mainly lists works in the English language, and there is an very slight tendency to present multilingualism as abnormal. More important, however, is that this is a work with a clear aim and a lot of coherence; it will serve its purpose as an excellent introduction to a vast subject. Comparing it with the many handbooks that are flooding the market, it seems fortunate that it was written by one person only.

I’ll be giving it a look when I get a chance. Introductory texts on topics like this are greatly needed, for classicists, historians, biblical scholars, and linguists alike.


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