On The Placement Of Infinitives In Greek Grammars

I was thinking about Greek tense and mood stats yesterday evening. I’ve actually been thinking for some time that infinitives need to be moved up in the traditional Greek curriculum. Looking at the numbers, along with a few other factors, confirmed this. First, some numbers (based off of MorphGNT...hope I didn’t parse your data wrong Tauber...):

The Numbers


Here are the numbers if you break them out by both mood and tense:

5863 indicative aorist
5586 indicative present
3664 participle present
2274 participle aorist
1687 indicative imperfect
1611 indicative future
1383 subjunctive aorist
1248 infinitive aorist
990 infinitive present
836 indicative perfect
829 imperative present
764 imperative aorist
671 participle perfect
430 subjunctive present
85 indicative pluperfect
49 infinitive perfect
42 optative aorist
23 optative present
12 participle future
10 subjunctive perfect
5 imperative perfect
5 infinitive future


On the surface, if you look at the numbers factor only it would be natural to cover all the indicatives, then the participles, and then the infinitives. And that is indeed the approach of some grammars (for example, Mounce covers infinitives after indicatives, participles, and even subjunctives). Some do it a little early, such as Stevens, who puts it before participles.

The issue of the goodness/badness of the traditional approach to introductory Greek grammar (I am personally leaning very strongly in the direction of badness) might make this an irrelevant point anyway, depending on how you construct your grammar, but whatever the approach, I think leaving infinitives till late is suboptimal.

First students would need finite verbs. Sentences are built around finite verbs, so present and aorist indicatives need to be learned immediately. So it is a little hard to argue that students should not be first learning at least some finite verb forms. And as it turns out, present and aorist finite verb forms are the most common anyway.

Second, in terms of frequency, you will find participles, but I would certainly not learn them early. I think they belong well after the basics, with the exception of some inductive exposure.

Next in the frequency list comes the future and imperfect indicatives, as well as the aorist subject.

In the middle of the pack are the present and aorist infinitives.

So Where?

So put infinitives halfway through the discussion of verbs? I would say no, and here is why. First, there are very few infinitive forms. Learning the infinitive forms will be easier than just about anything else morphologically in the Greek verb system.

Second, infinitives are still quite common. There are about 8000 verses in the NT. That means on average you will have an infinitive every four verses.

Third, in terms of syntax, the syntax of the infinitive is not overly foreign. Several of the very common uses are similar to English usage (purpose, complementary, and the substantival uses generally).

Fourth, Students get so used to the indicative mood it is hard for them to switch to the non-indicative moods. Mixing in a non-indicative early may help with that. How often do you hear "That’s an aorist? How come there’s no augment?" Perhaps we shouldn’t let that get so ingrained...

Fifth, if you start infinitives early enough, you could actually consider having the students memorize the infinitive forms of verbs and not necessarily the present active indicative first person singular form. If I remember right this was one of Buth’s points in his essay in Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography. Please forgive me if I forgot which chapter that was in :). I haven’t decided if I like the approach, but I think it merits strong consideration. And if you don’t have that volume, get it. It is excellent.

Anyway...those are my thoughts thus far on the topic.


Mike 2008-02-12 09:36:11

Croy puts the infinitives pretty early.

Eric 2008-02-12 10:27:37

I don’t have a copy of his grammar. I guess I’ll have to pick that up...