To begin with, think about this question for a moment: What is a paradigm?

If your answer is “a paradigm is what most of my grammar book is comprised of” you are probably correct in a trivial way. However, that is not a good grasp of their purpose and use. Fundamentally, a paradigm is an abstraction. It is an ordering of disparate information in a language into an abstract pattern to show certain relationships. As an abstraction, paradigms are really useful for organizing data, seeing patterns, discussing points of grammar and morphology in a language, and so forth. What they are not particularly good for is learning a language.

Don’t misunderstand, the information in paradigms is essential for language learning and there are many ways that paradigms can make learning a language faster and easier. The fundamental way paradigms are useful, I submit, is as reference tools for organizing knowledge you already have and building out from there. Anyone who thoroughly knows a language could theoretically produce every (or almost every) paradigm in that language in common use. You could start with listing all the different verb forms for “to paint” that you think of:

  • to paint
  • painted
  • will paint
  • am painting
  • would have been painting, etc.

There are over 100 of these, depending on the verb[1]. Listing them out is boring and time consuming and the only people who have ever bothered to do so are grammarians. Indeed, unless you want to take up reading in the works of the Ancient Greek grammarians (or philosophers discussing grammar—there is not often much difference), you will never have cause to read a Greek paradigm in your life while reading Greek.

But remember, the information in paradigms is useful. Learning the abstractions enables recognition of all sorts of forms in a text which you have never seen before or are too rare to have entered your long-term memory. There are a lot of different paradigms in Greek.

Sources for paradigms: you can type out the paradigms from your grammar, borrow paradigms from online (if you like visually overwhelming information, here is a great site (66 verbal paradigms and 44 nominal ones)), or use Kalos for generating paradigms. On this route, you can use some more interesting verbs than the stock λύω.

The fact that paradigms are both not particularly useful and very useful leads to a tension in our relationship to them. This tension is very evident in many grammar books, which tend to be heavy on paradigms and light on example sentences illustrating them. Then, at some point you are “turned out to the wild” of actual Greek texts to puzzle your way through via constant reference to paradigms. No one who has tried such an exercise will confuse it with reading.

I suggest that the primary difficulty with paradigms in teaching and learning is this:

we give people fantastically well-ordered presentations of information which they do not yet know in any meaningful way.

I could sit down—and have done so—with a book of Syriac paradigms and a lexicon and work through a Syriac text, but I would not claim to know Syriac in any meaningful way. With Greek, by contrast, the information in (most of) the paradigms already resides in disparate parts of my long-term memory, making it easier to read Greek than to fill out paradigms! Unless you are aiming at writing/speaking in the language, what you need is passive recognition of the information in paradigms. To do this, I recommend a blend of a variety of strategies in Anki centered around a two-pronged approach.

Prong one: meaningful examples

The heart of learning paradigms in a language is not memorizing paradigms, but learning forms in actual use. You learn these through learning sentences in the method spelled out here (as a supplement to using parsing information I talk about there, you can always try just inserting English equivalents in your cards at the beginning until you are familiar with the metalanguage). The aim is to learn some key examples well so your brain has material from which to generalize about how the language functions. Then, when you encounter some of the (frustratingly many) words which don’t follow the generalization, you learn those independently, and in doing so learn their patterns, and so on.

I suggest two different types of Anki cards for prong-one: parse the highlighted word and build-a-form cards.

Parse the highlighted word

Here you take your meaningful sentence, highlight a word and ask your future self to parse it. For example:

Front: ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα

Back: ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα. κτίζω: 3.singular.aorist.passive.indicative

Build-a-form

Build-a-form cards are the opposite of “parse the word.” Here you put your meaningful sentence on the front, blank out the word you are testing, tell yourself what form belongs there, and then recall it. For example:

Front: ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ______ τὰ πάντα clue: κτίζω: 3.singular.aorist.passive.indicative

Back: ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα

Prong two: paradigm abstractions

Paradigms themselves are useful, when used usefully. Just memorizing them as wrote lists is not that useful for most human beings.

Tip: if you are in a Greek class, do what you have to to make it worth the money you paid for it (which means you should pass the class). In addition, you can use the tips I am giving here to further your learning and put yourself in a better position to thoroughly learn the paradigms, which memorizing charts rarely results in. Once you are not in the Greek class anymore, it really doesn’t matter whether you keep doing things the way your teacher has you do them or not—continue if they are useful, try new things if not.

Image Occlusion cards

One add-on I suggest you get for Anki is the widely-used Image Occlusion Enhanced. It allows you to use pictures and block out parts of them to make as a cue for recall. Part of my approach to paradigms is to make a paradigm image, block them all out, and then recall the particular form cued by the card. See this brief video for an example:

Cards for general pattern-rules (and exceptional patterns)

Q. What is the basic formula for describing how perfect active indicatives are formed? A. Reduplication + stem + κα + primary active ending.

Make an Anki card for this. For good measure, make one that asks yourself to explain why λέλυκα looks like it does, in terms of morphology. Do this for all the paradigms you need to know. It helps.

Pro-Tip: tag all of your morphology cards with some sort of tag (I use “Greek::morphology”). This way, when you want to do a general morphology review, you can create a filtered deck to review them easily. If you don’t do this, you will never again be able to collect them all in one place (unless willing to scroll through thousands of cards and pick out the ones you want, which would be a bother; just tag the cards in advance).

General thoughts

Paradigms are useful, provided you have a decent grasp already of the information in them.

If your goal is not to learn to read Greek, but to “use” Greek via various tools, then don’t even bother with learning paradigms. It is so easy these days to find morphologically-tagged NT texts which tell you the parsing already without you lifting a finger. If you are going this route, then your focus needs to be on learning what the meta-language categories in the language mean and how language functions more broadly.

If you have the leisure to do so, aim to learn the content first, and see the paradigm as a helpful means to organize what you are learning. You will find through repeated exposure that the bewildering array of forms contain a lot of patterns that make sense once you have some data in your brain. Just memorizing pattern rules, by contrast, usually does not result in the patterns making sense until you have then gone out and done a bunch of reading. Just ask your average Greek student. So, save yourself the effort and learn the content before (or at least while) learning the abstraction which presents it in a nice orderly way.

If you are coming at paradigms from the direction of already knowing a goodly amount of Greek, I would aim to review parsing through a tool like the ones here, which are designed just for that purpose, rather than trying to make a bazillion different Anki cards to practice parsing.

Make Anki cards for learning the forms in example sentences (you may need to borrow examples from more than one grammar for this as the examples are often limited, but do your best with what you have; it is surprising what the brain can do with a small amount of well-learned information). Make Anki cards of forms you find particularly important to know or ones that prove to be pernicious. Make Anki cards to drill the patterns which stand behind the paradigms. And, in sum, make Anki cards.


[1] F.R. Palmer, The English Verb, 2nd ed., Longman Linguistics Library (London: Longman, 1987), 1–2. At most an English verb only has 5 morphologically distinct forms (most only have 4): verbs with a stem-vowel change take, takes, taking, took, taken and regular verbs paint, paints, painting, painted.