An Overview of Greek Grammar

Learn about verbs, nouns, numbers, other parts of speech, and the phrase structure in Modern and Ancient Greek.


First, a few notes about large-scale Modern Greek syntax: An affirmative sentence in Greek follows the SVO pattern (Subject, Verb, Object), just like in English. However, the SVO structure is considerably more relaxed in Greek than in English. Greek has richer morphology than English, so it is usually quite clear which noun denotes the subject and which one the object, because of their morphological endings (subjects have nominative case endings, objects have accusative case endings, possessors have genitive case endings), and of the articles that precede them (again, articles change according to case). That is not to say one can jumble subjects, verbs, and objects in Greek, and still come up with a valid sentence. Rather, one may assume that the normal structure is very similar to the one in English (often a word-for-word translation will not be far from an accurate one), but one should not be surprised if one encounters a sentence with slightly different order; if that happens, it will be for purposes of emphasis (e.g., in English we may say “roaches, I can’t tolerate”; a similar structure exists in Greek, expressing similar emphasis). Interrogative and negative sentences may appear under different patterns (VOS, VSO, etc.).

In Ancient Greek, particularly in Classic, the pattern SOV was more common than SVO.

Possessive Adjectives and Personal Pronouns in Noun Phrases

A feature of the Modern Greek noun phrase that often seems strange to learners of the language is the “inversion” (e.g., relative to English, or Spanish) of the possessive adjective with respect to the noun. For example, in English we say: “my book” (Spanish: “mi libro”). In Modern Greek it is: “το βιβλίο μου”. That is, μου (= my) goes after the noun. (Notice also the mandatory inclusion of the definite article, το: as long as the noun is a definite and not an abstract one, the article agreeing in gender, case, and number with the noun has to be there; see table, below, for more details.) In Ancient Greek this would be: “τò ’εμòν βιβλίον”, so, ’εμόν (= my) goes before the noun, just like in English and Spanish.

The situation remains “reversed” (relative to English) with the personal pronoun. In English we say: “she gave me the book”. In Modern Greek it is: “μου έδωσε το βιβλίο”. That is, μου (= to me) goes before the verb. (Notice also that the pronoun “she” is nowhere to be found in the Greek sentence; we know the agent is in the third person, because of the verb form έδωσε, but the gender of the agent is not given; there is no natural way to convey the agent’s gender in this case in Greek.) In Ancient Greek this would be: “ ’έδωκέ μοι τò βιβλίον”, so, μοι (= to me) goes after the verb, just like in English. Spanish agrees with Modern Greek: “me dio el libro”.

On the contrary, the situation is “normal” in the imperative mood. In English we say: “give me the book” (Spanish: “dame el libro”). In Modern Greek it is: “δώσε μου το βιβλίο” (or, more colloquial: “δώσ’ μου το βιβλίο”, pronounced: [ðo´zmu to vivli´o]). In Ancient Greek it would be: “δός μοι τò βιβλίον”. So, in all cases the personal pronoun follows the verb.

Phrase Structure Comparison with English and Spanish

Click here for a table listing the most common phrase structures, comparing Modern Greek with English and Spanish.

Table of Parts of Speech

The following table shows the most common parts of speech in Greek, and whether their morphology is influenced by certain aspects of grammar (shown on the columns of the table). Click on the part of speech, if there is a link on it, to learn more about it.
 

  Genders Cases Numbers Tenses Persons Moods Voices
Verbs     yes yes yes yes yes
Nouns yes yes yes        
Adjectives yes yes yes        
Numbers (*) (*) (*)        
Participles yes yes yes yes     yes
Adverbs              
Pronouns yes yes yes   yes    
Prepositions              
Articles yes yes yes        
Particles              

(*) Among cardinal numbers, only one, three, and four are declined according to gender and case. Ordinal numbers are just like adjectives.

Genders

There are three genders in Greek: masculine, feminine, and neuter. All nouns have a specific gender, but contrary to English, even things (including concrete objects and abstract ideas) can be masculine, feminine, or neuter, and there is no way to predict the gender from the semantics of the noun a point that causes a lot of frustration to learners of Greek. For example, the wall is masculine, the door feminine, and the floor neuter. Native speakers of English typically make a strong association between the concepts masculine ↔ man and between feminine ↔ woman. Native speakers of Greek learn to associate the gender as something inherent to each specific noun, adjective, article, etc., and do not make such a strong association. So, we say that English has “natural gender”, whereas Greek has “formal gender”. (Many other Indo-European languages, such as French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, etc., also have formal gender.) Gender names in Greek: αρσενικό (masculine), θηλυκό (feminine), ουδέτερο (neuter).

Cases

Modern Greek has four cases:

Ancient and old Greek (up to a few decades ago) had one more case:

In contemporary Greek the dative case has been replaced by the accusative, but it remains fossilized in a few stock phrases and expressions (“εν πάση περιπτώσει” = “in any case”, “εν τούτοις” = “however”, etc.)

Numbers

There are two numbers in Greek: singular, and plural. Very old Greek (of Homer’s time) had an additional number, the dual (denoting pairs of entities). By Plato’s time (i.e., Classic Greek), the dual was already obsolete. Today there is not even a fossil of the dual number remaining in the language, to the best of my knowledge. Number names in Greek: Singular: Ενικός; Plural: Πληθυντικός; Ancient Dual: Δυϊκός.

Tenses

The following tenses exist in both Modern and Ancient Greek (you will see them presented usually in the same order in Greek grammar books):

For more information on tenses, see the page on verbs in Modern Greek.

Persons

The usual three persons (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) exist in Greek as in English, with the simplification that when a verb appears in the 3rd person, there is no pronoun (“he”, “she”, “it”) prepended to specify its gender. Verbs appear in a simple 3rd-person form, in both the singular and plural. (However, some pronouns, e.g., the personal pronouns, do have genders in the third person singular, as in English.)

Moods

The situation with moods has been largely simplified in Modern Greek, to the extent that only the indicative and the imperative exist (morphologically; but read the note on the subjunctive, below). Since the imperative exists only in the 2nd person (singular and plural), one does not really have to learn much.

In Ancient Greek, however, the following moods existed:

Voices

Two voices exist in Modern Greek:

It should be noted that the passive voice has its own set of morphology, i.e., endings, for each tense, person, and number. That complicates things a bit, doesn’t it? Still, things could be worse: in Ancient Greek, there was a third voice:


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