Re: What is a Greek Sentence?

From: Mark O'Brien (
Date: Wed Jun 04 1997 - 05:52:44 EDT

At 10:00 PM 6/3/97 -0700, you wrote:
>At 10:33 AM +0000 6/3/97, Clayton Bartholomew wrote:
>>Can anyone provide a rigorous definition of a Koine Greek sentence
>>exclusively in terms
>>of syntax? I am specifically looking for a definition that contrasts a
>>sentence to a clause
>>in terms of syntax.
>>Assume that you are reading a long span of text without punctuation, and
>>you are looking
>>for discourse markers at the sentence and clause level. What syntactical
>>indicators mark
>>a Greek sentence and how is it distinguished from a Greek clause?
>This is a question which is not easily answered. Even for linguists, a
>precise definition of the sentence (in any language) is elusive. For the
>purposes you state, however, something along the following lines might be
>Part One:
>A hellenistic Greek sentence is a set of interrelated clauses. This set may
>have only one member, or many. One or more of the member clauses may be
>eliptical if the discourse context provides the necessary constituents to
>complete them. A sentence which contains only one clause may also be
>eliptical if the same condition is met.
>Part Two:
>"Interrelated" in Part One must be understood in a tightly constrained way.
>The clauses must be interconnected either 1) by the use of complementizers
>(such as OTI) or conjunctions (such as KAI, DE, and hINA), or 2) by some of
>the member clauses taking a non-finite form (infinitives or participles) as
>modifiers of, or constituents of another clause. Of course, both of these
>strategies may be used in the same sentence. (Given the regular use of
>asyndeton in the NT, you might also want to allow for a null conjunction,
>allowing adjoining clauses with strong thematic overlap to constitute a
>single sentence even if no complementizer, conjunction, or non-finite verb
>form is present. This position is somewhat debateable, though. Why not just
>call these 'closely related sentences' rather than trying to make them
>asyndetic clauses of the same sentence?)

This was an interesting question to me, since I had been pondering it from
a slightly different angle a few days ago. I had someone ask me how (given
the unfixed word order) the Greek reader was able to work out where the
sentence began and ended, especially since all punctuation is lacking in
the earliest documents.

My first thought went to the importance of the verb in Greek (and
technically a Greek sentence could just consist of a verb all by itself,
can it not?), and I tried to put myself in the shoes of a Greek speaker
moving through some text (which is, obviously, for me quite difficult). I
kept thinking that the verb must have been the big key for the reader. As
they moved through the text, all the other clauses would have (conjecture
here!) been mentally processed and filed away, but then when they came
across the verb, they would have something to "hang" the other clauses
alongside, as well as following clauses. Certain structural markers (as
Michael as pointed out above) would also play a role in organizing the
text, but I kept floating back to the idea that the main verb would have
been key.

I would be very interested in any comments on my ponderings, since I guess
it could also have pedagogical implications for teaching Greek to students
whose native languages are looking for quite different things when they are
reading a sentence.



Rev. Mark B. O'Brien Grad. Student, Dallas Theological Seminary
3909 Swiss Ave #1092 Adj. Prof., Dallas Christian College
Dallas, TX 75204

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