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Translating the ancient Greek grammatical term ἐνεστώς as "pending"?

I recently read an excellent blog post by Mike Aubrey on some of the Greek grammatical terms used in Dionysius Thrax. One of the points that particularly caught my interest was his discussion of the term ἐνεστώς in ancient Greek grammatical treatises to refer to the "present" tense. He suggested that perhaps the term "present" is not the best translation:

It isn’t clear whether or not “present” is a sufficiently accurate translation gloss from ἐνεστώς, a perfect participle, but we have no single English word that fits the bill, I think. LSJ provides some interesting notes on this front. The lexeme is, of course, ἐνίστημι, which is causal in all its non-perfect forms (i.e. present, imperfect, aorist, and future): “to put or place in.” But the perfect is non-causal in its sense (for reasons to be discussed below) and LSJ gives the following (relevant) glosses: “to be upon,” “to be at hand,” “pending,” and “present.” The last two are, perhaps, most important since there LSJ states “especially in [the] perfect participle.” So the question I ask is this: unlike the English word, “present,” which we have continually used to refer to these inflectional forms, does the perfect participle ἐνεστώς express a sense of an ongoing state of affairs in the present that we miss out on in translating it?

Perhaps. It just unfortunate that we cannot ask the author. But he did choose this particular inflectional form of this particular verb to refer to what we today call the “present tense,” an inflectional form that is consistently acknowledged to denote both imperfective aspect and present tense. And if this suggestion for how we understand Thax’s terminology is correct, it makes the correlation between ἐνεστῶτος and παρατατικόν much clearer, the latter, unequivocally meaning incomplete, ongoing, imperfective.

His comments actually reminded me of a description of the Greek ἐνεστώς verbal form that I had come across that is attributed to the second-century CE grammarian Aeilus Herodianus (Αἴλιος Ἡρωδιανός). Note that I use the word "attributed" because this particular text might be from a later author who wanted to attribute it to Aelius Herodianus (Αἴλιος Ἡρωδιανός). In any case, however, it is still part of the grammatical tradition and of relevance for the "present" (no pun intended) discussion. It is also a very picturesque analogy :) I copy the text and my translation below (Παρεκβολαὶ τοῦ μεγάλου ῥήματος, 5):


ὁ δὲ ἐνεστὼς παρὰ τὸ ἑστάναι. πῶς φαμεν εἶναι ἐνεστῶτα χρόνον; ὥσπερ ἐὰν εἰς κρουνὸν ῥέοντα βρέξω τὸν δάκτυλόν μου, καὶ ἐὰν εἰς ποταμὸν βρέξω τὸν δάκτυλόν μου, δηλονότι ἐνεστῶτος ἔβρεζα [ÖNB ms 254 has ἔβρεξα]. οὕτως τοῦ χρόνου ἀεὶ κινουμένου οὐ δύναταί τι γενέσθαι οὔτε ἐν παρεληλυθότι χρόνῳ οὔτε ἐν μέλλοντι, ἀλλὰ δηλονότι ἐν ἐνεστῶτι γίνονται πράγματα.

'The ἐνεστώς is for the [idea of] standing. How do we describe the ἐνεστώς time? It is as if I wet my finger [by setting it] into a flowing stream, and I wet my finger [by setting it] into a river, clearly in the ἐνεστὼς time I wet [my finger]. In this way, with time always moving, something is not able to come about, neither in past time nor in future time, but clearly in the ἐνεστώς things are occurring.'


This description, particularly the statement οὕτως τοῦ χρόνου ἀεὶ κινουμένου οὐ δύναταί τι γενέσθαι 'in this way, with time always moving, something is not able to come about', may just justify a translation like "pending" for the ancient Greek grammatical term ἐνεστώς.

What do you think?


J. La Roche, Παρεκβολαὶ τοῦ μεγάλου ῥήματος ἐκ τῶν Ἡρωδιανοῦ [Programm Akad. Gymn. Vienna. 1863]: 4-37.

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I like the language chosen here of completion / non-completion expressed here by Dionysius Thrax. I am inclined to think that English speakers, at home with a tense/time dominant language are drawn too much towards the "time" category over the "completeness" category, and this attraction to the temporal categorisation causes some of our grammatical/translational difficulties. What if the time language used by Dionysius is properly secondary in terms of the perspective of the speaker? In that the temporal categorization it genuinely only a byproduct of the nature of something being complete or not complete?

I love the illustration of wetting a finger in a stream of water. I am actually surprised I have not stumbled across it before, especially in…


It is a real temptation to view the world of the Bible through the lens of today's norms and ways of thinking. I came across a book that helps address this. "Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament" by John H. Walton. Even though the current discussion is about NT language usage, having the background of how people thought back then helps. One of the key differences that Walton discusses is that prior to the Enlightenment the orientation of thinking was about the fact that a given deity was doing or had done something. They weren't concerned with how it was being done. The Enlightenment brought in seeking understanding in what we could measure, quantify or define. It seems…


Dec 16, 2020

I agree ddzfw1. I think many/most cases of ενεστως in the New Testament should probably be translated as “present” in English. However, the question gets more at what the underlying conception and/or framework of “present” was for ancient users of Greek. With many words, also, there is a restricted/distinct use of the word as a technical term in certain literature. Consider also a word like ρημα, which is used as a technical term for ‘verb’ in grammatical literature but has a different semantics in the sort of texts we find in the New Testament. So there are multiple things to consider. For example, the verb παρεστιν can also be rendered as “present” but it means something different for the ancient Greek user. So this question…


Doing a cursory survey (not thorough) of the NT it doesn't appear that the context of the uses of ἐνεστώς supports "pending" over "present". It might fit into Gal. 1:4 if you squint just right.

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