FALL 2000



Source: J.A.C.T. Greek Course: Reading Greek: An Independent Study Guide to Reading Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp. 3-8  (adapted and expanded).

1. The Subject and Object of the Verb

2. The Cases
2.1 What are cases?
2.2 Cases in English
2.3 Singular and Plural
2.4 Gender
2.5 Cases after Prepositions

3. The Verb
3.1 Tenses of the Verb
3.2 Voices of the Verb
3.3 Moods of the Verb
3.4 Person
3.5 Number

4. Particles

5. Conclusion

Link to Greek Syntax



Dikaiopolis sees Athens.

The VERB in a sentence tells us what is happening. Here it is sees. Who is doing the seeing? Obviously, Dikaiopolis is doing the seeing. We call the doer the SUBJECT of the sentence.
Now there is one word left over in our sentence, Athens. This is what Dikaiopolis sees, the object of his vision. We call this the OBJECT of the verb.

What is the SUBJECT and what is the OBJECT in the following sentences?

The poet sings a song.
The judges condemn the criminals.
The Athenians defeat the enemy.


2.1 What Are Cases?

In English the order of the words usually tells us what is the subject and what is the object. "The Athenians defeat the enemy" is very different from "The enemy defeat the Athenians."

Greek, on the other hand, shows the difference by changing the endings of its words. You will be learning the different endings during the course. But for the moment, let us use English letters and say that, if the Athenians are the subject (i. e. if they are doing the defeating) they are Athenai-oi, while if they are the object (i.e. if the enemy are defeating them) they are Athenai-ous.

So in Greek the different endings show us the different jobs the words have to do in the sentence. The order the words come in does not alter the basic meaning of what they are saying (though it can alter the emphasis). So the vital thing is to look at the endings of Greek words.

We have names for the various jobs which nouns perform in a Greek sentence. We call them CASES.

The nominative case is the case of the SUBJECT.
accusative case is the case of the OBJECT.
genitive case means OF.
dative case means TO, FOR, WITH and it covers several other meanings as well.

(There is another case called the vocative -- this is the case by which you address someone: for example, "Be careful, son!")

2.2. Cases in English

We still have some different case-endings in English:

The teacher saw the girl working. He praised her.

He is the subject and is therefore in the nominative; her is the object and is therefore in the accusative. Try filling in the gaps in these sentences:

The boy sees his mother. ____ calls _____.
The mother is looking for her son. ___ cannot find ____.
We are lost. Can our children find ____?

In what cases are she, him, her, we, he, and us?

Note that in "his mother" and "her son", his and her are used as the genitive case: "the mother of him" and "the son of her."

But to return to subjects and objects, look and see what is wrong with the words in black in the following sentences:

She took my wife and I out to lunch.
Her and him were out at the pub when it happened.
Us could not care less.
He doesn't like


2.3 Singular and Plural

In English we usually make a SINGULAR word PLURAL by adding an "s" to it: for example: "apple" = singular, but "apples" = plural. But Greek plurals are more complicated than this because they fall into several different patterns, and they have separate endings for the different cases.


2.4 Gender

Most English words do not have gender. Third person singular pronouns are exceptions: "she," "he," "it," "her," and "him" are inflected in English to indicate not only case and number, but also GENDER.
The first person pronouns and the third person plural pronoun, by contrast, show only CASE and NUMBER: "I," "me"; "we," "us"; "they, them".
The second person pronoun in English, however, is not inflected: "you" could be singular or plural, nominative or accusative, masculine or feminine.

In Greek, every noun has a gender. Sometimes this is intuitively evident: the Greek word for "woman" (gynê), for example, is feminine, as in English; we derive the term "gynecologist" from it. Likewise, the Greek word for "man," "husband" (andr-), as in English, is masculine; the English word "androgyne" combines both Greek terms and means "a man/woman."

More often, however, the gender of a Greek word will not be obvious, although there are certain principles of word-formation which will help you to guess them. The Greek word for "general" (stratêgos), for example, is masculine; but the Greek word for "army" (stratia) is feminine.

The GENDER of a Greek word is indicated by the gender of the definite article ("the") that you learn along with the word.
For example, when you learn the word for "general," you will learn it as ho stratêgos, and the ho will indicate that it is masculine. The word hodos, by contrast, meaning "road," is feminine, even though it has the same ending (-os) as stratêgos. You will learn it as hê hodos, and the will indicate that it is feminine. (The English term "odometer" derives from the combination of hodos [road] with metron [measure].)

2.5 Cases after Prepositions

Cases show how a word fits in with the overall meaning of a sentence. There is another way in which they are used, which should not cause much difficulty for English speakers. This is when prepositions (words such as "above", "below", "under", "by", "for", "in", "on") are used. They are always followed by nouns or pronouns in a case other than the nominative.

Thus, in English, we have

He was below her in the examinations.
She was above him in the examination.

My husband and I are going abroad. but:
The travel agent got tickets for my husband and me.

Every time you learn a preposition in Greek, you must be careful to learn what case follows it (or what case it takes, as we tend to say). There are some common factors which make this less difficult. For example, prepositions which express an idea of moving towards a place take the accusative case, prepositions which express moving away from a place take the genitive, and prepositions which express staying in a place tke the dative.




3.1 Tenses of the Verb

While it is certainly true that Greek words alter much more than English ones to show what job they are doing in a sentence, most English verbs do change their ending when we want to show that an action happened in the past (for example "talk", "talked"; "follow", "followed"' "pour", "poured"; "end", "ended"). But many others change quite dramatically in their past tenses, for exmple, "go", "went". What is the past tense of : "see", "sit", "spit", "seek", "buy", "do", "make"?

We have just asked you to consider the past tense of a number of English verbs. You may not have met the word "tense" before. It is used to describe the forms of a verb that indicate the time of the action of the verb as past, present or future.

In English we often put verbs into different tenses by using tenses of the verb "be" and "have" to help out:

Present tense: I stop, I am stopping
Future tense: I shall stop, I will stop
Imperfect tense: I was stopping
Aorist tense: I stopped
Perfect tense: I have stopped
[Pluperfect tense: I had stopped]

You will see from the table above that there are three [four] ways of describing past time.

The Imperfect: conveys the idea that the action was going on for some time.
Aorist: describes an action that is quickly over.
Perfect: emphasizes that the action is [now] complete.
Pluperfect: emphasizes that the action was complete in the past.]

In what tenses are the following?

You will walk.
She crossed the road quickly.
We were thinking the matter over.
She has shut the door.
[She had shut the door.]
You are taking this in.

In Greek we use single words to express each of these tenses. Thus, in English "I was stopping" is three words, while in Greek it is only one (epauon). You can see the importance of learning the Greek tenses as they are introduced.

3.2 Voice

Verbs have three "voices", each of which indicates the relation of the subject to the action of the verb:

The Active Voice: denotes that the subject is the agent of the action.
Middle Voice: denotes that the subject is both an agent of the action and also concerned with the action (often as the indirect recipient of it).
Passive Voice: denotes that the subject is acted upon.

In the sentence, "I stop the car," "I" am the agent of the action "stopping," which I perform upon the car. "I stop" in this sentence is in the active voice.
In the sentence, "I stop myself," "I" am both the agent of the action and also its indirect recipient. "I stop" in this sentence is in the middle voice.
In the sentence, "I am stopped by the police," "I" am the recipient of the action "stopping," and the agent of the action, "the police," is expressed using a prepositional phrase. "I am stopped" in this sentence is in the passive voice.

In Greek, there is one set of verb endings for the active voice, another for the middle, and another for the passive. In several tenses, however, the endings for the middle and passive are the same:

I stop (active voice)
I stop myself (middle voice) and
I am stopped (passive voice)

3.3 Mood

Greek Verbs also have five "moods" (or "modes"):

The Indicative Mood: expresses a simple statement or a fact.
Imperative Mood: expresses commands and prohibitions (negative commands).
Infinitive: is not really a verbal mood, but a verbal noun, formed from a verb stem but functioning in the sentence like a noun.
[The Subjunctive Mood: varies in meaning; we learn the subjunctive mood in the second semester.]
[The Optative Mood: varies in meaning; we learn the optative mood in the second semester.]

Indicative: "I look." "I see the harbor." "Do you see the harbor?"
Imperative: "Look at the harbor!" "Don't look at your navel!"
Infinitive: "To err is human; to forgive divine." (Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Criticism," 1711)
In this sentence, the infinitive "to err" functions as the subject of "is," and "human" is a predicate adjective; "to forgive" functions as the subject of the understood but unexpressed verb "is," and "divine" is the predicate adjective.

3.4 Person

In talking about verbs, another useful word is Person.

The first person singular is: I
The second person singular is: you
The third person singular is: he, she or it
The first person plural is: we
The second person plural is: you
The third person plural is: they

In English we always use an extra word to show the person:

"He speaks", "You are going", We see".

In Greek it is the verb-ending which shows the person, and the pronoun is added only for emphasis:

I speak
you go
I speak
you go.

3.5 Number

In English, the number of the verb (SINGULAR OR PLURAL) is indicated by the pronoun. Some verbs in English inflect differently for singular and plural; for example:

"sees," " does," as in "She sees," "He does" (singular and restricted to the third person)
"see," "do," as in "We see," "They do" (plural but also singular, as in "I see" or "I do").

But most English verbs do not inflect differently for singular and plural; for example:

"I did," "They did," "He went," "We went."

In Greek it is the verb-ending which shows the number, and there are different endings for the singular and plural for each of the three persons (first, second, and third).




Greek is rich in "particles," words that affect the tone and/or meaning of a sentence. Some of these are adverbs ("Surely you don't mean that!) and some are conjunctions ("although"), and many are difficult to translate into English except by using cumbersome phrases.

For example, the pair of particles contrast one part of a sentence with the other, and are (clumsily) defined as "on the one hand...on the other hand." The English sentence "Traveling is fun, but expensive" would be rendered in Greek as "Fun men to travel, expensive de. You'll meet the pair early in the first semester, and you'll have many opportunities to experiment with the best form of translation for it.

A number of Greek particles are "postpositive," meaning that they cannot stand as the first word in the Greek sentence; these are usually best translated into English as the first word of the sentence.

For example, the particle gar meaning "for," is postpositive: "For he's a jolly good fellow." In Greek, gar would be the second word in the sentence.

For further discussion of particles, see GVE p.10 #3, p.17 #17, and Reference Grammar G (pp. 292-97).


All the foregoing should have made it very clear that in learning to read Greek it is necessary to learn not only to interpret the new script, but also to look closely at the endings of words. This is something which we do not need to do in English. You will have to train yourself consciously to notice the endings, or you will find that you are making avoidable mistakes in understanding Greek.

You will find more information about the Greek language in GVE pp. 11-17, #4-17.

For a more detailed discussion of the cases of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and of the tenses, voices, and moods of verbs, link here to the online Greek Syntax by Jeffrey A. Rydberg-Cox, on the Perseus Project site.

Image credit:  
Tondo of Attic red-figure kylix attributed to Eucharides, 480 BCE, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art MS4842. Source: Perseus Vase Collection 

last revised: 20 August 2000