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I am reading about aorist and preterite verb forms. It seems that they are both forms which express perfective aspect and past tense. Is the difference between them simply in differing terminology or are there semantic differences as well?

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    Preterite always means some kind of Past. Aorist, on the other hand, usually means some kind of Past, but may well contrast with what's called Preterite and/or Perfect, depending on the language, the linguist writing the grammar, and the scholarly culture they are in. Most of these terms mean something in Greek, for instance, but they are often used non-contrastively in systems where they're familiar terms.
    – jlawler
    Apr 15, 2013 at 2:48
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    Which language? Aorist is a notoriously fuzzy term.
    – kaleissin
    Apr 16, 2013 at 14:01
  • I have seen a Turkish grammar which uses "aorist" to refer to a non-past tense. I don't know whether or not this is customary in Turkish grammar.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 18, 2013 at 22:17

4 Answers 4

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Unfortunately, a lot of linguistic terms are used ambiguously/differently, and the term "aorist" is one of them.

Usually, aorist is understood as a combination of perfective (aspect) and past (tense) (Plungian 2012). Preterite is a simple past, aspectually non-marked - thus, such combinations as Perfective Preterite and Imperfective Preterite are possible. Under this proposal, aorist is a kind of preterite (i.e. Aorist=Perfective Preterite).

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    Well, it depends. It is a Greek word invented for Greek, and, in most contexts, I would say aorist really only refers to the aspect in Greek, because aorist subjunctives, optatives, infinitives, participles, and imperatives are common. Only when the tense is already implicitly understood to be the past does calling a verb an "aorist" mean that it is a past (and therefore indicative) aorist. This would happen, for example, if you asked, "is this verb an aorist or an imperfect?", because one would only ever confuse an indicative aorist with a (necessarily indicative) imperfect.
    – Cerberus
    May 9, 2013 at 6:09
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    Agreed. In (Ancient) Greek, aorist is an aspect (perfective) and its use is not restricted to past tense forms.
    – Alex B.
    May 10, 2013 at 23:06
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I teach my pupils the matter like this (and I hope it’s useful for anyone who reads this thread):

Greek has three ways of representing actions (I’m leaving out future tense because it merely expresses tense).

[1] as actions in process or repeated actions – durative [all forms belonging to the præsens stem] e.g. θνῃσκ- = to be dying

[2] as (merely) completed or single actions pointing towards completion – completive [all forms of the aorist [stem]: (‘aorist’ and ‘aorist stem’ mean the same in this way of representing). θαν- = to expire one’s last breath

[3] as a result of actions – resultative [all forms of the perfect stem] τεθνα-/τεθνηκ- = to have died -> to be dead

Then I explain to them that this basic stem related meaning is conveyed in all forms belonging to that specific stem (durative/præsens, completive/aorist, resultative/perfect).

Then I explain that all these stems have present tenses, past tenses, participles, imperatives, subjunctives, optatives and infinitives.

The next thing I need to do is explain that the aorist doesn’t/can’t have a present tense, because the idea of ‘completedness’ and ‘present tense’ are incompatible. Another thing that needs to be clarified is that the perfect present tense is something different than the perfectum of Latin, but usually soon after this they realise there are only three past/preterite tenses in Greek [imperfectum (ἔθνῃσκεν), aorist past tense (ἔθανεν) and plusquamperfectum (ἐτεθνήκει) – all marked by the augment].

So, not all forms belonging to the aorist (stem) express past tense (θάνοι τάχα καὶ ἡσυχῇ - may he pass away soon and peacefully, πολλὰ δῶρα βούλομαι σχεῖν – I want to get/have any presents, τὴν θύραν ἀνοῖξον – close the door, ἡσθήσομαι οἴκαδε ἀφικόμενος - I will be happy (after) having arrived home).

‘Aorist (stem)’ and ‘past’ only coincide in those verb forms that have the augment.

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What distinguishes the Greek aorist tense from other past tenses is its denoting uninterrupted/non-continuing action: it is punctiliar, though the action in point of time can be lengthy, such as 'they fought against each other'. 'Fought' in the aorist could be momentary or take years; but the action is singular and completed. The Greek perfect tense differs greatly from the aorist by including the idea that the result of the action abides. For example, "He is risen." Risen in the Greek perfect means He rose and remains risen. In the ancient Greek middle voice, the aorist adds the idea that the whoever took the action participated in the outcome.

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I have heard the term preterite, although not usually applied to English. Still, I am aware that English does possess three past tenses: aorist, which is also called the simple past; present perfect; and past perfect.

For example:

  • Simple Past: I saw the movie.
  • Present Perfect: I have seen the movie.
  • Past Perfect: I had seen the movie.

So the Present Perfect adds an Auxiliary Verb. The Past Perfect is formed by conjugating that Auxiliary. This explanation may not be 100% correct but the website Englishpage.com seemed to help me.

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    Notice how in this answer, aorist == simple past, and in Alex B.'s answer, aorist != simple past. It is not possible to compare something called an "aorist" in two or more languages. However, if there is an aorist in a language there is also at least one other past tense.
    – kaleissin
    Apr 18, 2013 at 18:46

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