Porter's Claims from Contrastive Substitution: Runge on Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb (Part 5 of 6)

This is a continuation of a series Shawn Wilhite and I are writing on Steven Runge’s recent article, “Contrastive Substitution and the Greek Verb: Reassessing Porter’s Argument,” Novum Testamentum 56 (2014): 154–73.

In part I, we introduce the problem and define contrastive substitution.

In part II, I highlight the background and the reason Runge reexamines Stanley Porter’s analysis of constrastive substitution.

In part III, Shawn highlights how Stanley Porter misrepresents Curtius and Collinge, two of three sources Porter uses to confirm contrastive substitution.

In part IV, Shawn engages Porter and his final of three sources, Carl Bache.

In the following post I analyze Porter’s claims from contrastitive substitution. Porter claims on the basis of contrastive substitution that the Greek verb does not encode absolute tense. One issue is how Porter attempts to seperate tense from aspect. Porter then takes his statement one step further and argues that the Greek indicative verb does not encode any tense.

Seperating What Cannot Be Seperated

One of the main articles that is cited throughout Porter’s work is “Figure and Ground: The Interrelationships of Linguistic Categories.”[1] But as Runge explains, Porter often cites Wallace in support for his claims but he “does not engage Wallace’s discussion of what can reasonably be concluded from applying contrastive substitution.”[2]

In Wallace’s essay, he argues how the “classical trinity”[3] is difficult to separate, which is exactly what Porter does when he separates tense from aspect. Wallace says,

The problems with the classical trinity [i.e. tense, mood and aspect], as I shall detail in this section, are two. One, it is an arbitrary division of verbal semantics into compartments which are not quite as easily separable as one is led to believe. Time, aspectuality, and modality—the semantic fields to which the formal categories of tense, aspect, and mode [mood] are supposed to refer—are almost inextricably scrambled together[4]

Porter claims throughout Verbal Aspect[5] that the indicative does not encode absolute tense. But as Wallace stated above the distinction between tense, mood, and aspect is arbitrary and cannot actually be seperated. Therefore, when Porter tries to separate tense from aspect he is going against the grain from the linguists he cites for support. See also these quotes from Bache and Lyons:

… at this point there is not, and cannot be, in universal grammar any sharp distinction between tense and aspect, on the one hand, or between tense and modality, on the other.[6]

Thus, in our metalanguage we must specify aspect, tense and Aktionsart as separate categories and the distinctive intersection between them as intercategorical relations.[7]

Porter makes it seem on the surface that these linguists actually support his claim but when you read their works they are not arguing what Porter seems to be claiming. Therefore, if Porter is going to argue for the separation of tense and aspect he needs to provide a methodological framework to do so. The frameworks and arguments of the Bache, Lyons, and Wallace do not support Porter’s claim.

Contrastive Substitution

Porter argues on the basis of contrastive substitution that since verbs with the same tense can be used in different temporal context then they do encode any temporal reference. But no one would argue this. For example, in the English verbal system verbs do not encode any temporal reference. The use of different tense forms in the same temporal context does not prove that tense is not a semantic property but is “shown to accomplish a pragmatic effect normally associated with modality.”[8] Therefore, it is valid to say the Greek indicative verbs do not encode absolute tense but this claim is “both valid and meaningless” because it does not disprove the tenselessness of the indicative verb.[9]

Picirrili also shows the flaw in Porter’s logic examining how in English we commonly use a “past tense” verb in a “present tense” context to bring about a pragmatic effect. He says,

Part of Porter’s “logic” is that exceptions to a definition disprove the definition. In other words, if the Greek aorist and imperfect indicative, say, can be used for present time—as in wishes or polite forms, for example—this demonstrates that they do not really “mean” past time. I would simply raise a question by means of an English illustration, questioning only the logic of such an argument. If I say, “I wish I were you,” then it appears that I am using a past tense “were” to refer to the present time. Does that prove that “were” is not really a past time verb in English? Now the analogy of English usage says nothing about Greek usage, to be sure. But the logic holds: if English can use a truly past time verb, in certain circumstances, for the present time, without negating that it really is a past time verb, then logically Greek might do the same.[10]

By Porters theory, English, on the basis of contrastive substitution, would not encode any tense in the verb. The only valid conclusion one can make is the verb does not grammaticilize absolute tense. As we will examine in the next section this claim is quietly changed to argue that the Greek indicative verb does not grammaticalize any tense.

Changing “Absolute Tense” to “Any Tense”

Throughout, Porter seems to conflate “absolute tense” and “no tense.” On page 77, Porter states, “…Greek does not grammaticalize absolute tense with the Present” but later in the same paragraph he conflates this to say the present verb does not grammaticalized any tense, “thus it may be concluded that Greek does not grammaticalize present reference in the Present tense form, since the same form may be used with a variety of temporarl and non-temporal references.”[11] And then concerning the Aorist, "thus the range of usage fo the Aorist form indicates convincingly Greek does not grammaticalize temporal reference in the Aorist, even in the indicative. Just because a verb does not convey absolute tense does not mean that any temporal sense is conveyed. Also, in later works, Porter silently changes his claim by saying that there is no temporal reference in indicative verbs.[12] See the two quotes below:

In the period since my initial work on verbal aspect, and after having pursued much further research in this area, I believe now more than ever that I was essentially correct in my analysis of the Greek verbal structure as a coordinated system of three verbal aspects grammaticalized by three major tense-forms, in which temporal reference is not grammaticalized in either the indicative or the non-indicative mood-forms.[13]


Verbal aspect theory is the theory that tense-forms in Greek do not grammaticalize temporal relations, but another semantic category concerned with how a speaker or writer chooses to conceptualize and present a process. Contrastive substitution, as well as other determiners, shows that the tense-forms in Greek are not time-based, even in the indicative, but that temporal relations are established through other means. Instead, the tense-forms grammaticalize verbal aspect.[14]

Without having the proper methodological framework to establish the difference between “absolute tense” and “any tense” Porter has quietly changed the “valid and meaningless” claim that the Greek indicative verb does not encode absolute tense to any tense whatsoever. As stated above, this goes against the linguists he cites in support for his argument: the change of a verbal form (aorist and present), in the same temporal context, conveys a pragmatic effect. The pragmatic effect can only occur if tense is a semantic feature of the Greek verb. Otherwise, there lacks a default base to bring about this pragmatic effect.


To conlude, Porter confuses the categories in Bache’s four-fold framework[15] and does not heed to the warnings of Wallace and others that it is impossible to fully separate tense and aspect. He uses only examples used to support his claim and not examining all the evidence, which would disprove his theory. This shows, once again, that not providing a sound methodological framework at the beginning of research can (and often times does) lead to conclusions that do not tell the full story.

This allows Porter to quietly move the discussion from denying “absolute tense” to arguing that temporarility is not encoded in the verb at all. Without the proper methodological framework Porter is able to bypass this error and subsequent scholars have followed suite.

Runge adequetly shows the flaws in his argument concerning contrastive substitution and calls Greek scholars to reconsider the validity of Porter’s claim. The Greek indicative verb does not grammaticalize absolute tense but this is not saying it does not encode any tense at all. The “classical trinity” should remain distinct but not separated.

In the next post, we will conclude this series and examine some of the implications this has for further Greek studies.

  1. Stephen Wallace. “Figure and Ground: The Interrelationships of Linguistic Categories.” In Tense-Aspect: Between Semnatics and Pragmatics, edited by Paul J. Hopper, 201–23. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1982.  ↩

  2. Runge, Steven E. “Contrastive Substitutino and the Greek Verb: Reassessing Porter’s Argument.” Novum Testamentum 56 (2014), 155.  ↩

  3. Wallace, "Figure and Ground, 202.  ↩

  4. Wallace, "Figure and Ground, 202.  ↩

  5. Porter, Stanley E. Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood. 3 edition. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2003.  ↩

  6. John Lyons, Semantics (vol. 2; Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 690.  ↩

  7. Carl Bache, Verbal Aspect: A General Theory and Its Application to Present-Day English (Odense: Odense University Press, 1985), 94  ↩

  8. Runge, Contrastive Substitution, 167.  ↩

  9. Runge, Contrastive Substitution, 167.  ↩

  10. Picirilli, Robert E. “The Meaning of Tenses in New Testament Greek: Where Are We.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 3 (September 2005), 544.  ↩

  11. Porter, Verbal Aspect, 77–78.  ↩

  12. Runge, Contrastive Substitution, 169.  ↩

  13. Stanley E. Porter, “In Defence of Verbal Aspect,” in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 34.  ↩

  14. Porter, “In Defense of Verbal Aspect,” 34; Stanley E. Porter, “Prominence: An Overview,” in The Linguist as Pedagogue (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Matthew Brook O’Donnell; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009) 58–59.  ↩

  15. For an in-depth look at Bache’s four-fold framework see Shawn Wilhite’s earlier post here: http://swilhite.wordpress.com/2014/04/07/baches-linguistic-framework-and-select-contrastive-examples-runge-on-contrastive-substitution-and-the-greek-verb-part–4-of–6/  ↩