Secondary indicative in the main clause without ἄν: counterfactual obligation/possibility


The perfect, aorist and pluperfect indicative in the main clause without ἄν signal an unfulfilled obligation (‘should have’), propriety (‘it would have been fitting’) or possibility (‘it would have been possible’) in a number of impersonal expressions.

Lexical usage

1. Impersonal predicates in the imperfect indicative
1.a. Obligation

This concerns impersonal expressions such as ἔδει, (ἐ)χρῆν ‘should have’ or ἀναγκαῖον ἦν ‘it was necessary’. Impersonal constructions with a verbal adjective in -τέον can also indicate an unfulfilled obligation.

1.b. Propriety

This concerns impersonal constructions such as προσῆκε(ν), εἰκὸς ἦν ‘it would have been fitting’, ἄξιον ἦν ‘it would have been worthy’, δίκαιον εἶχε(ν) ‘it would have been just’, καλῶς εἶχε(ν) ‘it would have been good’ or καλλίον/κρεῖττον ἦν ‘it would have been better/worse’.

1.b. Possibility

This includes impersonal constructions such as ἐξῆν, ἐνῆν ‘it would have been possible’.

2. Expressions with ὀλίγου, μικροῦ or ἐλαχίστου

This concerns expressions indicating the notion ‘almost, but not quite’:

  • ὀλίγου, μικροῦ, ἐλαχίστου + aor. ind.;
  • ὀλίγου, μικροῦ, ἐλαχίστου ἐδέησε + aor. inf.
3. Personal predicates

Any personal predicate in a secondary indicative can be interpreted as counterfactual when it is apparent from the context that the conditions for the fulfilment of the obligation, propriety or possibility are counterfactual. ἐβουλόμην or ἤθελον ‘I would have wished’ and ᾦμην ‘I would have thought’ often occur with this meaning.

Syntactic behaviour

In some situations the secondary indicative without ἄν is equivalent to the secondary indicative with ἄν. 'I would have wished' can be translated either with ἐβουλόμην or with ἐβουλόμην ἄν.
The obligation or possibility may be either in the present or in the past.
According to some grammarians (including Smyth) the infinitive with ἔδει or ἔχρην always expresses time (present = in the present; aorist = in the past).

Historical background

The Greek construction (without ἄν) is not in fact a counterfactual, but a realis: the obligation, desire, etc. is presented as a reality in the past. According to some researchers (including Duhoux) this really is a counterfactual modality and the absence of ἄν is a remnant of Homeric usage.

Example Sentences: 

κρεῖττον δὲ ἦν αὐτῷ τότε ἀποθανεῖν ἢ οἴκαδ’ ἐλθόντι τοιαύτῃ τύχῃ χρῆσθαι;

Would it have been better for him to die then than to return home to meet with such a fate?

τουτὶ γὰρ αὖ μικροῦ παρῆλθέ μ’ εἰπεῖν

For I nearly forgot to mention it.

τῷ δὲ Ἐρατοσθένει ἐξῆν εἰπεῖν ὅτι οὐκ ἀπήντησεν, ἔπειτα ὅτι οὐκ εἶδεν·

But Eratosthenes was free to say that he had not met this man, or else that he had not seen him.