Re: Object of the preposition

From: Micheal Palmer (
Date: Fri Mar 14 1997 - 01:25:32 EST

At 8:13 AM -0600 3/12/97, Carl W. Conrad wrote:

>In response to a query about EN PNEUMATI KAI ALHQEIAi yesterday you offered
>a response that rather surprised me and it's occurred to me it might be
>worth raising as a serious question, particularly to a real linguist.

As I wrote that response, I thought that those on the list with a
background in classical Greek might disagree with me, but this is one of
those instances in which there has been considerable change (both in the
frequency of usage and the nature of that usage), and I do feel that the
hellenistic data are explained more adequately by a different approach to
prepositions than the one which is clearly correct for the classical period.

>You said that PNEUMATI was "dative because it's the object the preposition
>EN." Maybe this is a matter of exactly how you put things, but although it
>is true that EN is used with no other case-ending than the dative, there
>are the two distinctive senses: the more common locative and the not
>infrequent but far less common instrumental dative with EN.

Yes, in part it is a matter of "how you put things," but I feel that for
both the classical and the hellenistic periods, one way of putting it is
better than the other, and that we can't do justice to either period by
putting it the same way for both. With respect to EN, either description
will work for the hellenistic period. That is, we could say that the dative
case has a certain range of meanings (implications), and that the
preposition EN helps us limit that range to two: locative, and instumental,
OR we could say that EN has a certain range of meanings (implications) and
requires that its object be dative case (perhaps because that range of
meanings is best served by a substantive in the dative case, or perhaps for
purely historical reasons: i.e. it is a carry over from the earlier period
when EN simply limited the range of meanings for the dative case). While it
might seem that this is a vacuous 'difference,' the latter explanation will
work quite easily for ALL prepositions in the hellenistic period while the
former will not.

>because there is more than one usage of EN + dative (and of other
>case-endings with other prepositions), but also because of my bias toward
>diachronic explanations of evolving usage, I've always thought and taught
>that it is grammatical function that determines case and that prepositions
>are adverbial adjuncts, originally helping to make clear WHICH function of
>a case-ending that has more than one function is in play in a particular
>instance, and then ultimately becoming fixed as a necessary element in a
>combination of preposition and noun in a given case.

This is an excellent description of what was clearly the case (no pun
intended :-) in earlier forms of Greek.

By the way, I also like diachronic explanations, as long as we recongnize
what they do best and what their limitations are. I discussed this in
_Levels of Constituent Structure in New Testament Greek_, chapter three.
Specifically, diachronic data can be CRUCIAL in getting us to look in the
right place for an explanation of the *synchronic* data. For example, if we
want to know WHY the object of EN is dative case, we could entertain
several possibilities:

1. because EN is still (as in the classical period) a delimiter of the
implications of the dative case

2. because the dative case best expresses the range of semantic
possibilites indicated by the preposition EN

3. because EN was used with the dative case in the classical period, and
when the basic function of prepositions changed, wherever possible each
preposition took as its object the case which it had delimited in the
classical period [This is a decidedly diachronic explanation, and *may* in
fact be the best one.]

Some linguists (I think not very good ones) would rule out option 3 without
serious consideration. I think it MUST be given serious consideration. If
we are going to explain the usage in the hellenistic period, we should
START by asking, "Does the explanation which clearly works for the
classical period work as well for this period?" If we examine the
synchronic data for the hellenistic period and find that the explanation
still works, then it is probably correct. If it does not work, however, we
have not wasted our time. We may look at where it fails and will have
excellent data for a new theory.

One issue which helps inform my understanding of the situation in the
hellenistic period is the use of prepositions which are not limited to a
single case. We *could* argue that they serve as delimiters of the meanings
of various cases (as in the classical period), but if this were true, we
would expect that they would delimit the meanings of each of those cases in
roughly equivalent ways. This does not, in fact, seem to be the case. Of
course, this does not PROVE that the earlier explanation no longer fits,
but it does at least suggest that a better (and simpler) explanation may be

In an earlier post on a different question I used the preposition DIA as an
example. I repeat some of that discussion here (though with some
significant differences) for the benefit of those of you who are not
reading the other thread.

The object of DIA may be assigned either genitive or accusative case, but
the meaning of the prepositional phrase (arguably the meaning of the
preposition itself) changes with this choice of case.

DIA CRISTOU (Romans 2:16; 2 Corinthians 5:18) may be translated as "through
Christ" or "by Christ" (as a secondary agent, as in Romans 2:16). We could
argue that both of these possibilites are among the range of
interpretations of the simple genitive case, and the preposition performs
exactly the same function as in classical Greek--it limits the number of
possible interpretations.

But what about DIA with the accusative? DIA CRISTON (1 Corinthians 4:10)
states a cause ("because of Christ," "for the sake of Christ"). The
traditional grammars do sometimes refer to the accusative case as the
"causal" case, but it is significant that the accusative, when it expresses
a causal relation *outside of a prepositional phrase* in the hellenistic
period, express that which is caused, not that which causes. *Inside a
prepositional phrase with DIA*, however, it expresses that which causes,
not that which is caused. Why is it that DIA + accusative REVERSES the
relevant (limited) sense of the accusative case while DIA + genitive merely
limits the sense without reversing it? [More on this toward the end of this
rather long post...]

Take, for example, UMEIS DE AUTON POIEITE SPHLAION LHiSTWN ("you make it a
den of robbers"). Here, there is no prepositional phrase, but there are two
accusative case substantives (AUTON and SPHLAION). The accusative case
pronoun AUTON expresses what is caused to be something else, and the
accusative case noun SPHLAION (den) expresses what it is caused to be.
Neither of them express what does the causing or provides the motive for an
action (indirect causation). In a prepositional phrase with DIA, however,
that is exactly what the accusative case noun expresses. Rather than simply
limiting the number of semantic possibilities for the accusative case
substantive, the preposition DIA seems to redefine those possibilities.

[DISCLAIMER: There is a small class of verbs in most languages (no good
examples come to mind right now for Greek, but I'm sure they are out there)
which regularly assign to their object the semantic role that other verbs
assign to their subject. An accusative case noun used with one of those
verbs may very well express the causer or motivator of a change, but that
would be the result of the semanitic features of the verb involved, not a
general characteristic of the accusative case, so all examples with those
verbs would be irrelevant to the discussion at hand.]

Now for the simpler explanation--one which may be problematic for the
classical period, but not for the hellenistic period.

Prepositions, by the hellenistic period had developed their own semantic
content (collection of possible meanings). The case of the noun (or other
substantive) which serves as the object of a given preposition is
determined by the particular meaning of the preposition which is relevant
to what the author intended to communicate. Where more than one case may be
used with a given preposition, the case of the object limits the range of
meanings available for that preposition (rather than the other way around),
not necessarily because that case controls or governs the preposition, but
because prepositions with a marked variety of possible meanings assign the
case to their object which most closely correlates with the particular
meaning of the preposition which is relevant to the context. That is, when
DIA means "through", it assigns genitive case to its object. When it means
"because of", it assigns accusative case.

Prepositions like EN, which assign only one case, do so because their range
of possible meanings is smaller, and there is a single case which covers
all of the necessary possibilities.

Sometimes, however, there is NO case which is particularly well suited to
the 'meaning' which a preposition has developed (as in the case of DIA =
because of), so the preposition assigns the closest possible choice (in the
case of DIA, one which is related to cause, although in the wrong sense).

Now... all that I have said about prepositions ASSIGNING case(s) can be
reworded in terms of the CHOICES available to speakers and writers of the
language. We can say that a speaker (in the hellenistic period especially)
knew the range of 'meanings' of each preposition, and CHOSE the case for
its object which best fit the 'meaning' which (s)he wanted to communicate.
The problem with this is what we mean by 'meaning' when talking about
prepositions. Anyone who has learned a second language which uses a lot of
prepositions probably understands this quite well. It is virtually
impossible to state a comprehensive "definition" for most prepositions in
any language. (Just look up "in" in a good English dictionary.) We have to
recognize that prepositions are often *function words*, communicating a
grammatical or semantic function rather than a 'meaning' in the traditional

For example, UPO + genitive is often used to express the agent of a passive
construction: PANTA MOI PAREDOQH UPO TOU PATROS MOU ("All things have been
given to me by my father," Matthew 11:27). UPO does not really 'mean' "by".
It serves the function of marking a particular noun as the agent (in terms
of several recent approaches to semantic theory, it marks its object as the
recipient of the semantic role AGENT). It just so happens that "by" does
the same thing in English, so it usually makes a good translation.

In fact, the recognition that prepositions are often function words may
provide the best explanation of DIA + accusative. DIA + genitive my be used
as a function word to express secondary agency:

        God judges the secrets of people... through/by Christ Jesus

The primary agent is God. The secondary (or instrumental) agent is Jesus.
DIA + accusative expresses a causal relationship with a striking
similarity: the cause is a secondary cause.

        HMEIS MWROI DIA CRISTON (1 Corinthians 4:10)
        We [are] fools for the sake of Christ

Christ provides the motive (secondary cause) for Paul's foolishness. A part
of the function of DIA is to mark a particular noun as the expressor of
instrumentality, secondary agency, secondary cause, etc. It is the
implications of this function communicated by DIA which override the usual
implication of the accusative case when that case is used as its object.

>Perhaps this was a
>quibble, but I wanted to be clear about what you meant when you said that
>PNEUMATI was dative *because it's the object of the preposition EN.* You
>certainly don't mean, do you, that it is the preposition EN that conveys
>the functional information while the case-ending is determined by the
>preposition, or do you? Am I being obtuse here?

No, you are definitely not being obtuse. This is a really significant
question, and my views on the subject certainly do not constitute the final

Well, I hope it's clear now that I mean (a) that EN does have a
semantic/functional content which it communicates AND (2) that it assigns
dative case to its object because that case is the one which best fits the
communicative content of the preposition. OR, another way of saying this
might be: EN has a particular 'meaning' and any speaker/writer of the
language who knew that meaning would also know that the object had to be
dative case because that is the best case for communicating what EN 'means'.

Wow, Carl, you really got me started on this one, didn't you! I would be
glad to address the question of HOW this change in the role of prepositions
might have come about if anyone cares to read it. If so, let me know. For
now I'll bring this epistle to a close. :-)

Micheal W. Palmer
Religion & Philosophy
Meredith College

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