Lesson 32: Sentence Structure




500. The sentence is the fundamental grammatical unit in Greek, as in English. There appears to be an infinite variety of sentences which have been or can be composed. Such variety is misleading, however, so far as grammatical structure is concerned. Actually, sentence structure conforms largely to a few basic patterns which are used in the language over and over again. These basic patterns are subject, of course, to elaboration: structural elements may be expanded almost indefinitely, and various qualifications may be added at will. The possibilities for expansion and qualification may obscure but they do not obliterate the underlying sentence structure. Every sentence makes sense because it conforms in one way or another to a grammatical structure already established in the language. There can be understanding (of sentences) only where understanding (of grammatical structure) precedes.

501. A sentence may be arbitrarily defined as a word group consisting of "subject" and "predicate." This definition is useful only as a point of departure. It is universally applicable only to sentences that are context-free. In language that is context-bound, single elements in either "subject" or "predicate" may constitute a sentence. For example, in response to the question, ὁ προφήτης εἶ σύ; ("Are you the prophet?"), Jesus responds: οὔ. ("No."). "No" is a sentence only in context. Again, Jesus inquires: τίνος ἡ εἰκὼν αὔτη καὶ ἡ ἐπιγραφή; ("Whose likeness and inscription is this?"), to which his listeners reply: Καίσαρος. ("Caesar's"). A genitive of possession can stand as a sentence in this context, but it would be meaningless out of context. The definition of the sentence given above thus takes the fully explicit or context-free sentence as its basis.

502. The common form of the sentence, even in context-bound language, comprises a word or word group in the structure of "subject," and a word or word group in the structure of "predicate." The "subject" commonly consists of, or clusters around, a noun or pronoun. By definition, the "predicate" always consists of or clusters around a finite form of the verb.

503. The predicate, as indicated in §502, consists of a finite verb plus the other words and word groups in the sentence that do not belong to the "subject" (sentence connectors, vocatives, nuance words and the like are excluded from both subject and predicate). The key to the grammatical structure of sentences lies predominantly, though not exclusively, in the predicate. The reason for this is that the form of the finite verb (tense-aspect, mood, voice), together with the constituent words and word groups going with verb, determine the fundamental grammatical structure of the sentence. In describing sentence structure, therefore, description will have to do primarily with the predicate.



504. The simplest form of the sentence consists of "subject" and verb only. In connected texts in Greek, the "subject" of the sentence is most often indicated by the ending attached to the verb (first, second, third persons; singular and plural). Since the "subject" is attached in these cases to the verb (as a bound morpheme), the simplest form of a type I sentence (=S-I) will consist of verb only:

(1)                εἶδεν Jn 8:56
                 he saw
(2)                ἐχάρη Jn 8:56
                 he rejoiced
(3)                ἦλθαν Jn 1:39
                 they came

505. Type I sentences also include sentences in which the "subject" is expressed as a discrete item:

(4)                ἐγὼ ὑπάγω Jn 8:21
                 I go away
(5)                οἱ προφῆται ἀπέθανον Jn 8:53
                 the prophets died

506. Verbs in S-I are usually called "intransitive," by which is meant, negatively, that they do not require an "object" and, positively, that they may form a complete predicate by themselves .



507. In S-I the verb may form a complete predicate by itself, but in type II sentences (=S-II) the verb connects the "subject" with a subjective complement, e.g. "I am the light of the world" (Jn 8:12). The verb does not therefore form a complete predicate by itself, but must be supplemented by a predicate noun or adjective. These verbs constitute a very small class, and are called copulative or equative verbs. The two common equative verbs are εἰμί and γίνομαι. The inflectional mark of S-II is that the subjective complement takes the same case as the "subject" (in independent sentences the nominative).

(6) ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κοσμοῦ Jn 8:12
  I am the light of the world
(7) ἡ μαρτυρία σου οὐκ ἔστιν ἀληθής Jn 8:13
  Your testimony is not true



508. The following are examples of type III sentences (S-III) :

(8) γνώσεσθε τὴν ἀλήθειαν Jn 8:32
  You shall know the truth
(9) ὑμεῖς ποιεῖτε τὰ ἔργα τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν Jn 8:41                          
  You do the works of your father
(10) τιμῶ τὸν πατέρα μου Jn 8:49
  I honor my father

Verbs in S-III likewise do not form complete predicates by themselves. However, instead of being supplemented by a subjective complement, these verbs require an objective complement, or, more precisely a direct object. Consequently, they are called transitive verbs. A direct object may be distinguished from a subjective complement by three criteria:

508.1 A direct object is normally indicated by the accusative case (in contrast to the nominative in independent sentences of S-II).

508.2 The direct object and the "subject" in S-III refer to different persons or things, whereas the subjective complement and the "subject" in S-II refer to the same person or thing.

508.3 The direct object of the active form of S-III may become the "subject" in the passive form of the same sentence:

(10) Active: τιμῶ τὸν πατέρα μου Jn 8:49                 
    I honor my father
(11) Passive: ὑπὸ θεοῦ τετίμηται IgnSm 9:1
    He has been honored by God

This transformation is not possible for S-II : sentences with equative verbs do not have passive forms.


509. Some transitive verbs take an indirect object in addition to a direct object. The indirect object is customarily defined as "that to which or for which the action is performed," i.e. the more remotely concerned person. The dative case is one means of signaling the indirect object in Greek.

(12) ταῦτα γράφω ὑμῖν . . . 1 Jn 2:1                   
  I write these things to you . . .
(13) οἱ δὲ προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δηνάριον Mt 22:19
  They brought him a denarius

510. Type IV sentences, like S-III, permit the active form to be transformed into a passive form. However, two different passive transformations are possible with some verbs in S-IV:

510.1 The active form of a type IV sentence with πιστεύω, trust, entrust, is illustrated by:

(14) τὸ ἀληθινὸν τίς ὑμῖν πιστεύσει; Lk 16:11                
  Who will entrust true riches to you?

In the passive form the indirect object (dat.) becomes the subject of the passive verb, and the direct object (acc.) is retained, e.g.

(15) πεπίστευμαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς ἀκροβυστίας Gal 2:7                                  
  I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised

510.2 The active form of S-IV with δίδωμι is structurally identical with (14):

(16) ταυτά σοι πάντα δώσω Mt 4:9                
  I shall give all these things to you

But the passive form of this S-IV differs from (15) in that, in this case, the direct object becomes the subject of the passive verb, and the indirect object is retained:

(17) σημεῖον οὐ δοθήσεται αὐτῇ Mt 12:39                      
  A sign shall not t>e given to it {this generation}

Type IV sentences are thus subject to two passive transformations, one in which the indirect object becomes subject and the direct object is retained (with verbs like πιστεύω), and one in which the direct object becomes subject and the indirect object is retained (with verbs like δίδωμι). While both forms are passive transformations of S-IV, it appears that only one type is used with a given verb (unlike English).


511. Sentence types I-IV constitute the bread-and-butter sentence structures of Greek. In Jn 8:12-59, for example, among approximately 163 sentences, there is barely a half-dozen sentences the grammatical structures of which do not conform to one of these four types. In 1 Jn 1:5-2:17, there is only one exception among 79 sentences. There are about 18 sentences in Jn 1:19-51 that do not fall into one of the four categories among 114 sentences. The ability to "read" these grammatical structures therefore means the ability to seize the vast majority of sentences in Greek as grammatical wholes, and it is this ability which makes any language grammatically intelligible, quite apart from the lexical meaning of specific words.

512.1 The description of the grammatical structure or syntax of a sentence is called parsing. The traditional shorthand method of parsing is diagramming (for a summary and discussion, see Gleason: 142-151). The sentence, You shall know the truth, for example, was diagrammed as:

shall know
   the truth                                                            

The vertical line crossing the base line separates subject from predicate, and the vertical line resting on the base line divides direct object from verb. The structure of this sentence could also be represented as: S - V - DO (subject-verb-direct object). Schematic analysis of this type would also appear to be desirable for Greek, since the student needs some practice at reading the grammatical structure of Greek sentences.

512.2 There appear to be at least two requirements for any analytical shorthand used in connection with Greek: (a) the scheme ought to be practically serviceable in that it requires a minimum of rewriting; it would obviously be advantageous if a scheme of notations could be employed on sentences as they stand in the text. (b) The scheme ought to combine morphological description and syntactic analysis insofar as possible, since inflection and syntax belong to the same grammatical system (Gleason: 118). It would also be highly desirable, of course, if such a scheme were kept as simple as possible, yet it must be subject to elaboration in accordance with the complexity of the linguistic phenomena.

513. Analytic scheme of notation. In developing a notational scheme that can be used on actual texts without having to rewrite them, and that appears to meet the requirements stated abaove (§512.2), the following symbols may be proposed.

513.1 The slash (/) may be used to set off the subject from the predicate and to mark the limits of words and word groups in the predicate.

513.2 Arabic 1 may be allowed to stand for any word or word group in the structure of subject, and arable 2 for the finite verb in the predicate. Thus,

                         1           2
(4)                      ἐγὼ / ὑπάγω Jn 8:21                                        

513.3 If the subject is contained in the verb and not expressed as a discrete item, the symbols for subject and verb will have to be written in hyphenated form, e.g.

(1) εἶδεν     Jn 8:56 

The order is 2-1 because the morpheme indicating the subject is in the tail of the verb.

513.4 Arabic 3 may stand for any word or word group in the predicate, the head term (definition: §541) of which is in the nominative case, e.g.

    1         2                   3
(6) ἐγὼ / εἰμι / τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου    Jn 8·12

513.5 Similarly, 4 may stand for any word or word group in the predicate, the head term of which is in the accusative case, e.g.

    2-1               4
(10) τιμῶ / τὸν πατέρα μου   Jn 8:49                       

513.6 Again, 5 may stand for any word or word group in the predicate, the head term of which is in the dative case, e.g.

      4           2-1          5
(13) ταῦτα / γράφω / ὑμῖν   1 Jn 2:1                           

513.7 These notations may be written directly in the text (the arable symbols being placed above the head term [§541]), or they may be written separately as schematic descriptions, e.g.

(6) 1/2/3                               
(10) 2-1/4

513.8 In anticipation of subsequent needs, it may be indicated that one additional arable number, 6, will be used to mark the genitive case in the predicate.

514. Analytic notation and sentence structure. In sentences in which only the basic grammatical elements appear, the analytic notation amounts to a description of the grammatical structure of the sentence, in most cases. Thus, a description 1/2 or 2-1 will normally be S-I. S-II would be represented by 1/2/3 or 2-1/3 (nominative in predicate), S-III by 1/2/4 or 2-1/4, and S-IV by 1/2/4/5 or 2-1/4/5. Description, however, will not always match structure, e.g.

       4           2-1
(18) ὀλίγον / ἀγαπᾷ   Lk 7:47                    
  he loves little

is not S-III but S-I, since ὀλίγον here is an adverbial accusative. It will therefore sometimes be necessary to indicate sentence structure separately. For example, (18) could be described structurally as 1.4, i.e. S-I with an adverb signaled by the accusative case. Sentence (10) can be noted as III.4 (S-III, with direct object in the accusative case), (13) as IV.4/5, and (6) as II. 3. The roman numerals refer to sentence types, and the arable numerals to elements other than verb that appear in the predicate.

515. Three types of notation are thus possible using the same set of symbols: (a) description written in the text; (b) detached description; (c) sentence type, together with elements other than verb appearing in the predicate. These three types may be further illustrated:

                3                  2-1
(a) (19) σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ / ἐσμεν   Jn 8:33
    We are seed of Abraham
(b)   3/2-1
(c)   II.3
          1             2             4
(a) (20) οὐδεὶς / ἐπίασεν / αὐτόν   Jn 8:20
    No one seized him
(b) 1/2/4
(c) III.4
       2-1        5                    4
(a) (21) ἄφες / ἡμῖν / τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν     Mt 6:12     
    Forgive us our debts
(b)   2-1/5/4
(c)   IV.4/5

516. The analytic scheme will be subsequently elaborated and refined. Meanwhile it may be employed as a means of aiding the student in seizing words and word groups in the sentence on a morphological basis, and in grasping the structure of sentences. In no case should the notational scheme be emphasized in and of itself. Rather, it should be viewed as a symbolic language that is useful in talking about the structure of Greek sentences. There is no virtue in talking about sentence structure, of course, when sentence structure is "read" readily off the actual sentences — unless one aspires to be a grammarian in addition to becoming a reader of Greek.