Getting a Handle on Modern Greek : The Imperfect Tense

We all have a sticking point somewhere in our target languages. For me and Modern Greek, it was, for too long, the imperfect tense.

I noticed it in conversation classes with my teacher. I’d be narrating a story or incident, flowing easily enough when talking about single events in the past. I saw, I heard, I went… All simple past, or aorist, in Greek: είδα, άκουσα, πήγα (ída, ákusa, píga).

It all unravelled when I needed to express what was ongoing. I was talking, I was sleeping, I was thinking… The kind of thing we use the past continuous for in English. We use this device very frequently in storytelling, especially when one action undercuts or interrupts another. Think: I was watching the TV when…

All this means that if you only have a handle on the simple past, you can only really tell half the story.

When I spot a gap like this, I like to simplify it before tackling it. And with verbs, a nice simplification trick for learning is to only learn the parts you use regularly at first. For me, the sticking points came when talking to my teacher about what I was doing.

So I’d focus first on learning just the imperfect patterns for the first person, singular, the ‘I’ form.

The Imperfect Tense in Modern Greek – Egotistical Edition

Here – greatly simplified – is the ‘cheat sheet’ I used to get a handle on the imperfect tense in Modern Greek.

Type A (verbs stressed before the final syllable like γράφω – write)

The stress moves back a syllable – if there’s no syllable to move back to, you add a stressed ε- at the beginning. The first person singular ending is -α.

Example: γράφω (gráfo, I write) – έγραφα (égrafa, I was writing)

In many ways, this is the easiest one – it has the same pattern as the aorist, which many master early on, but without any root change. Compare έγραψα (égrapsa – I wrote).

Type B ( verbs with final stressed -ώ or -άω like μιλάω – speak)

These verbs have a whole set of endings to themselves – variations on -ούσα (-úsa). There’s no stress change – we just substitute the -ώ/-άω for -ούσα in the first person singular:

Example: μιλάω (miláo, I speak) – μιλούσα (milúsa, I was speaking)

Passive and Deponent Verbs (ending in -μαι like κοιμάμαι – sleep)

Now these are the strange ones. Although not so strange, if you’ve already learnt the word for I was, which is ήμουν (ímun) in Modern Greek. The verb ‘to be’ – irregular in so many languages – actually follows the endings of the passive verbs, so you already knew the pattern without realising. In the first person singular, the imperfect tense takes the ending -όμουν (-ómun):

Example: κοιμάμαι (kimáme, I sleep) – κοιμόμουν (kimómun – I was sleeping)


So there you have it. Rather than learning a whole paradigm of six persons for three types of verb – 18 forms – you can get your first grip on the imperfect tense in Modern Greek by learning three examples. To round them up:

Group Present (1ps) Imperfect (1ps)
I γράφω έγραφα
II μιλάω μιλούσα
Passive κοιμάμαι κοιμόμουν

Needless to say, when you’ve memorised these, changing the person – to you, she, we and so on – is just a case of adjusting the ending slightly. The -α (-a) changes to -ες (-es) for ‘you’, for example, while the -όμουν (-ómun) changes to -όσουν (-ósun). But that’s for the next stage of your functional, chunked-up tense learning. In the meantime, you can enjoy being able to express what you were doing in the past when chatting with your teacher!

The one-form-at-a-time focus can be a motivation-saving shortcut for heavily inflected languages. It’s helped me with other tricky verb forms in Greek, as well as other languages. It’s part of the wider truth that nothing is too big to learn if you break it down into chunks – advice worth remembering when you keep coming up against stubborn gaps in your language learning knowledge.

Have you had similar experiences when learning conjugations? Which were your trickiest tenses? And how did you master them? Let us know in the comments below!

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