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Grammar:Tutorial/Meaning of perfect and imperfect

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The conjunction ו Meaning of perfect and imperfect Positions of words in a sentence

A quote from this Web page:

There is no such thing as "tense" in biblical Hebrew. (Modern Hebrew, on the other hand, does have tenses.) Biblical Hebrew is not a "tense" language. Modern grammarians recognize that it is an "aspectual" language. This means that the same form of a verb can be translated as either past, present, or future depending on the context and various grammatical cues. The most well known grammatical cue is the "vav-consecutive" that makes an imperfective verb to refer to the past.

I recommend you to read some articles about Hebrew tenses such as this article.

There are also forms commonly called “reverse perfect” and “reverse imperfect” which are (in absence of vowels) just perfect and imperfect with a prefix ו (so called vav of reversal).

Vav of reversal is called so because the meaning of reverse perfect is similar to imperfect and the meaning of reverse imperfect is similar to perfect.

Modern science position is that similarity of reverse imperfect with imperfect is a coincidence from the position of history of the language. But this may be not a coincidence from theological positions.

Regular perfect and imperfect

Typically perfect is translated as past time.

For verbs describing a change of a state of a subject, this may be translated as present perfect in English or a corresponding adjective.

Typically imperfect is translated as:

  • future;
  • a regular (recurring) action (present simple in English).

Patterns of usage of reversed imperfect and reversed perfect

Most of Tanakh text is reverse imperfect sentences, following one after an other. This is typically translated into English as past simple and is understood as a senquence of events of the past happening one after an other.

For prophecies is typical “a story about the future” consisting of reverse perfect sentences, following one after an other.

When in a sequence of reverse imperfects (or reverse perfects) is met a regular perfect (or imperfect), this is understood as an emphasizing, contrast, or a distraction (such as introducing a dialogue), in a negation, after subordinating conjunctions, when starting a new episode.

Different viewpoints

There are different views on how perfect and imperfect should be translated:

  1. Temporal: Perfect means past regarding some reference of time (not necessarily the present) and imperfect means future regarding some reference of time (not necessarily the present).
  2. Aspectual: Perfect means accomplished action (either in past, present, or future) and imperfect means not finished action (either in past, present, or future). Accordingly to Lambdin, imperfect may sometimes mean an accomplished action.

In this article it is expressed the opinion that imperfect means future but not necessarily regarding the present time point, but a future regarding some time point (in past, present, or future). Moreover the reversed imperfect just means the future regarding the previous sentence (before the vav of reversal). In other (simple) words this means that reverse imperfect should be translated “and then” (that is “and after the time of the previous sentence”).

But this article is not so bold about reverse perfect.

The opinion of Victor Porton

In my opinion (half aspectual, half temporal):

  • Imperfect means a future (to some point of reference, not necessarily present) event or a regular (recurring) event.
  • Perfect means an accomplished (in past, present, or future) event.