The imperfect expresses an action, process or condition which is
incomplete, and it has a wide range of meaning:
1a) It is used to describe a single (as opposed to a repeated) action
in the past; it differs from the perfect in being more vivid and
pictorial. The perfect expresses the "fact", the imperfect adds
colour and movement by suggesting the "process" preliminary to its
he put forth his hand to the door
it came to a halt
I began to hear
1b) A phrase such as "What seekest thou?", refers not only to the
present, but assumes that the search has continued for some time.
Why do you weep?
Why refuse to eat?
Why are you distressed?
These relate not so much as to one occasion, as to a
2) The kind of progression or imperfection and unfinished condition
of the action may consist it its frequent repetition.
2a) In the present:
it is "said" today
a wise son "maketh glad" his father
2b) In the past:
"and so he did" - regularly, year by year
a mist "used to go up"
the fish which "we used to eat"
the manna "came down" - regularly
he "spoke" - repeatedly
3) The imperfect is used to express the "future", referring not only
to an action which is about to be accomplished but one which has
not yet begun:
3a) This may be a future from the point of view of the real
Now "shalt thou see what I will do"
"We will burn" thy house
3b) It may be a future from any other point of view assumed; as:
he took his son the "was to reign"
she stayed to see what "should be done"
4) The usage of 3b may be taken as the transitive to a common use of
the imperfect in which it serves for an expression of those shades
of relation among acts and thoughts for which English prefers the
conditional moods. Such actions are strictly "future" in reference
to the assumed point of relation, and the simple imperfect
sufficiently expresses them; e.g.
of every tree thou "mayest eat"
"could we know"
he "would" say
5a) The imperfect follows particles expressing "transition",
"purpose", "result" and so forth as, "in order that", "lest"; e.g.
say thou art my sister, "that it may be well with thee"
let us deal wisely with the nation, "lest it multiples"
5b) When however there is a strong feeling of "purpose", or when it
is meant to be strongly marked, then of course the moods are
raise me up "that I may requite them"
who will entice Ahab "that he may go up"
what shall we do "that the see may be calm"
The moods are also employed to express that class of
future actions which we express in the "optative"
"may I die"
"may" the LORD "establish" his word
"may" the child "live"