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.

2 thoughts on “Aspect and imperatives: General vs. specific

  1. What about the differing aspects of erchou and elthe? Is there really some kind of unbounded conceptualization of erchou in Jn. 1:46, vs. a bounded conceptualization in Matt. 14:29? Especially when the erchou in Jn. 1:46 is paired with ide, which would be perfective?

    I’m a fan of linguistics, but wary of over-reading to make too much of specific forms (remember the whole ‘once-for-all aorist’ thing?). Language is living and messy, and doesn’t always fit into neat categorizations.

    Would it be better to that the imperfective may signal a specific conceptualization, but doesn’t necessarily?

    1. What about the differing aspects of erchou and elthe? Is there really some kind of unbounded conceptualization of erchou in Jn. 1:46, vs. a bounded conceptualization in Matt. 14:29?
      Absolutely! That’s precisely what aspect is…just like negation is creates an event conceptualize where something is denied or rejected.

      Especially when the erchou in Jn. 1:46 is paired with ide, which would be perfective?
      It kind of sounds like you didn’t read to the end of the post with regard to verbs involve translational motion.

      Would it be better to that the imperfective may signal a specific conceptualization, but doesn’t necessarily?
      Well, yes. Of course. But we need to clarify what we’re talking about here when we say conceptualization. Whatever specific conceptualization of the imperfective aspect signals is always going to be somehow tied to unbounded/uncontained internal temporal structure. The unboundedness of the aspect isn’t the conceptualization. It’s the semantic umbrella that covers all the individual realizations, whether that’s:

      The author’s perspectival use
      Iterative or habituality
      Frequency Event Quantification

      All of these (and a few others I haven’t yet examined) are possible ways that the internal temporal structure of the imperfective aspect could be expressed/conceptualized by the speaker or author.

      Yes, language is messy, but the mess isn’t arbitrary. It is motivated; extremely complicated, certainly, but definitely motivated.

      I’m a fan of linguistics, but wary of over-reading to make too much of specific forms
      Believe me. There’s no linguist out there who isn’t wary of that. Linguistics is the cure, not the cause.

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