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Optative in the main clause with ἄν: possibility


τοῦτο αἰσχυνοίμην ἂν εἰπεῖν

‘I would be ashamed to say that.’ (Xen. Cyrop. 5.1.21)

The optative with ἄν signals a possible modality in the main clause, i.e. that the speaker presents the conditions under which the state of affairs may occur as possible.

Translation tips

In most cases it is best to avoid the word can when translating. When Greek emphasises the possibility of the action itself it tends to use the auxiliary verb δύναμαι. In the same way as the counterfactual modality, the possible modality may be translated with the auxiliary verb would.

Syntactic usage

The negation is οὐ, which expresses a strong negation: ‘It would not even be possible that...’
The condition may be expressed through a conditional adverbial (in various forms: conditional clause, adverb, substantive or participle).

Example Sentences: 

τὰς μὲν τῶν φαύλων συνηθείας ὀλίγος χρόνος διέλυσε, τὰς δὲ τῶν σπουδαίων φιλίας οὐδ' ἂν ὁ πᾶς αἰὼν ἐξαλείψειεν

A short space of time dissolves the customs of base people, but not even eternity could erase the friendships of the virtuous. ֍

σμικροῖσι μὲν γὰρ μεγάλα πῶς ἕλοι τις ἄν

πόνοισιν; ἀμαθὲς καὶ τὸ βούλεσθαι τάδε

How could anyone achieve great success through small effort? It is foolish even to desire that.

οὐ γάρ ποτ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἂν ἐν πόλει νόμοι καλῶς φέροιντ᾽ ἄν ἔνθα μὴ καθεστήκῃ δέος.

Laws would never be tolerated well in a city where fear does not exist.

καλὸς δέ τις κἂν ἐκ πενήτων σωμάτων γένοιτο παῖς

A noble child can be born from the body of a poor woman. ֍