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Gnomic aspect

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Title: Gnomic aspect  
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Gnomic aspect

The gnomic (abbreviated GNO), also called neutral, generic, or universal aspect, mood, or tense is a grammatical feature (which may refer to aspect, mood, and/or tense) that expresses general truths or aphorisms.


  • Uses and occurrence 1
  • English 2
  • Ancient Greek 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Uses and occurrence

Used to describe an aspect, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the flow of time to any particular conception (for example, the conceptions of time as continuous, habitual, perfective, etc.). Used to describe a mood, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the expression of words to the speaker's attitude toward them (e.g. as indicative, subjunctive, potential, etc.). Used to describe a tense, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting action, in particular, to the past, present, or future. Examples of the gnomic include such generic statements as: "birds fly"; "sugar is sweet"; and "a mother can always tell".[note 1][1][2] If, as an aspect, it does take temporality into consideration, it may be called the empiric perfect aspect. Generally, though, it is one example of imperfective aspect, which does not view an event as a single entity viewed only as a whole, but instead specifies something about its internal temporal structure.

A grammatical gnomic aspect occurs in literary Swahili, where the -a- form of the verb is gnomic (sometimes called "indefinite tense") and the -na- form of the verb is episodic (sometimes called 'definite tense' or just 'present'). Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan do not have a gnomic inflection in their verbs like Swahili, but they do have lexical aspect in their be verbs ser (in Catalan, ser or ésser) (gnomic) and estar (episodic). For instance, estar enfermo (Spanish and Portuguese) or estar malalt (Catalan) means to be sick (episodic), whereas ser enfermo (Spanish and Portuguese) or ésser malalt (Catalan) means to be sickly (gnomic).

However, most languages use other forms of the verb to express general truths. For instance, English and French use the standard present tense, as in the examples given above. In Classical Greek, Tongan, and Dakota, the future tense is used. Biblical Hebrew uses the perfective aspect. In Japanese, an imperfective clause with the wa (topic) particle is used for generic statements such as taiyou-wa higasi-kara nobo-ru [sun-TOP east-from rise-IPFV] "the sun rises in the east", whereas the ga (subject) particle would force an episodic reading.[3]


English has no means of morphologically distinguishing a gnomic aspect; however, a generic reference is generally understood to convey an equivalent meaning. Use of the definite article "the" or a demonstrative determiner usually implies specific individuals, as in "the car he owns is fast", "the cars he owns are fast", or "those rabbits are fast", whereas omitting the definite article or other determiner in the plural creates a generic reference: "rabbits are fast" describes rabbits in general. However, the definite article may also be used in the singular for classes of nouns, as in "The giraffe is the tallest land mammal living today", which does not refer to any specific giraffe, but to giraffes in general.

English generally uses the simple present tense as the equivalent of a gnomic aspect, as in "rabbits are fast" and "water boils at 212 °F", though the past tense ("Curiosity killed the cat") is sometimes used. The auxiliary "will" can also be used to indicate gnomic aspect ("boys will be boys"). The simple present is used with specific references for the equivalent of a habitual aspect, as in "I run every day"; likewise, the auxiliary "will" is used with specific references for the habitual aspect, as in "he will make that mistake all the time, won't he?". Thus, in English the gnomic aspect takes the same form as the habitual aspect.

Ancient Greek

In Ancient Greek, a general truth may be expressed in the future, present imperfective, or aorist, which are called in these cases the "gnomic present",[4] the gnomic future,[5] and the gnomic aorist.[6] There is also a gnomic perfect.[7] These are not distinct tenses, but simply uses of the tense.

A gnomic future, the rarest of the three usages, similarly states that certain events often occur, and does not imply that an event is going to occur. A gnomic aorist (the most common of the three usages) likewise expresses the tendency for certain events to occur under given circumstances and is used to express general maxims. The gnomic aorist is thought to derive (as the English example does) from the summation of a common story (such as the moral of a fable).

Perhaps in imitation of Greek conventions, Latin sometimes uses a gnomic perfect.


  1. ^ These three examples may all be said to be in the present tense, but it is equally reasonable to consider that tense and temporality are simply not relevant to the examples, as all three express generic truths that are not limited by a specific placement in time or construct regarding the flow of time.


  1. ^ Payne & Payne (2006), Exploring language structure
  2. ^ Trask (1993) A dictionary of grammatical terms in linguistics.
  3. ^ Nariyama, Shigeko (2003), Ellipsis and reference tracking in Japanese, pp 366–367
  4. ^ Smyth, Herbert Weir, Greek Grammar, paragraph 1877:
    Present of General Truth. – The present is used to express an action that is true for all time: ἄγει δὲ πρὸς φῶς τὴν ἀλήθειαν χρόνος time brings the truth to light Men. Sent. 1.
    a. The present is an absolute tense in such sentences. The future, aorist, and perfect may also express a general truth.
  5. ^ Smyth, paragraph 1914:
    Gnomic Future. – The future may express a general truth: ἀνὴρ ἐπιεικὴς υἱὸν ἀπολέσᾱς ῥᾷστα οἴσει τῶν ἄλλων a reasonable man, if he loses a son, will (is expected to) bear it more easily than other men P. R. 603 e.
  6. ^ Smyth, paragraph 1931:
    Gnomic Aorist (γνώμη maxim, proverb). – The aorist may express a general truth. The aorist simply states a past occurrence and leaves the reader to draw the inference from a concrete case that what has occurred once is typical of what often occurs: παθὼν δέ τε νήπιος ἔγνω a fool learns by experience Hesiod, Works and Days, 218, κάλλος μὲν γὰρ ἢ χρόνος ἀνήλωσεν ἢ νόσος ἐμάρᾱνε for beauty is either wasted by time or withered by disease I. 1. 6.
  7. ^ Smyth, paragraph 1948:
    Empiric Perfect. – The perfect may set forth a general truth expressly based on a fact of experience: ἡ ἀταξίᾱ πολλοὺς ἤδη ἀπολώλεκεν lack of discipline ere now has been the ruin of many X. A. 3. 1. 38.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir, Greek Grammar, 1920. (rev. ed. by Gordon Messing, 1956), section 1931. full text in the 1916 edition

Further reading

  • Arnold, Bill T. and John H. Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 2003, p. 56.
  • Carlson, Greg N. and Francis Jeffry Pelletier (1995). The generic book. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-09292-5
  • Goodwin, William Watson, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb, 1893, p. 53ff. Full text.
  • Ultan, Russell, "The Nature of Future Tenses", in Joseph Greenberg et al., Universals of Human Language, 1978, p. 87. Full text.
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