Re: What is a Greek Sentence?

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Jun 04 1997 - 08:50:40 EDT

At 5:52 AM -0400 6/4/97, Mark O'Brien wrote:
>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

I have read, and in the interests of bandwidth will not reproduce here,
what Micheal and Mark have written in response to CB's question. My own
first reaction to the question was: "that's a very good question, but I
wonder whether there's a very good answer." I think Micheal has done about
as well as one could do; I think that Mark is on to something, but it seems
not quite enough to me. I don't intend to offer an answer (I fear I might
evoke another exploration of my "mysteries" by a Jim Beale). But I have a
couple comments and a challenge to offer.

(1) I believe that the Greek term for "sentence" was PERIODOS; this may
have been translated into a Latin meaning by SENTENTIA (something like
"expression of a viewpoint") but it would have more literally been
translated by CIRCUITUS, a "circuitous route." It is ironic that the Greek
word has given birth to the English word for the punctuation mark by which
we mark the end of a PERIODOS, although we find (at least for a NTG
sentence) considerable difficulty in knowing where we may legitimately fix
that mark. Now my suspicion is that PERIODOS really does not mean the same
thing as does our word "sentence," and I'd explain that by saying that it's
always seemed to me that the unit of discourse in written Greek (even
granting that ancient Greek was written to be spoken and heard, not read
silently) is what we call the PARAGRAPH, a grouping of clauses that has an
organic unity wherein the interrelationship of the clauses, however
complex, is nevertheless perspicuous. Now I think there's an implication to
that understanding of a PERIODOS: it is that successful composition of a
PERIODOS is a measure of the success of the writer's craft; the correlary
of that is that if you have trouble punctuating a sentence, the writer's
craft has not been very successful.

And here's my challenge, in terms of that observation, before I get to my
second point: In terms of successful craft, I think I would rate the
gospels of Luke and Matthew pretty high. I would give the lowest mark (no
surprise to those who have read me on this harangue hitherto) to Ephesians
1:3-14. I would like to see an answer to the question, "What is a Greek
sentence" that would make it possible to punctuate this passage
intelligibly--or in a way that would make its structure any more
intelligible. I really don't want to renew the old dispute between those
who think this is a truly exciting and uplifting passage, which view I
respect, though I cannot agree with it, and those who think it (as I
confess I do) a rhetorical monstrosity.

(2) Mark's response to the question has much to commend it; I do think that
at least one independent verb, or more precisely, at least one independent
clause inclusive of at least implicitly-understood subject and predicate,
must play a central role in constituting the organic unity of a sentence.
Now in Latin periodic structure, such as is exemplified with simple
elegance by the writing of Julius Caesar and with very complex and indeed
magnificent elegance by the writing of Cicero, the main verb, while not
inevitably appearing there, has a sort of inner dynamism carrying it to the
end of the sentence, and it tends to throw everything in the entire
sentence into clear and unmistakable perspective. There is no question (and
this is really no rhetorical exaggeration) but that, if one doesn't
understand a Ciceronian sentence, the failure is in the reader, not the

But somehow this doesn't really apply so well to the Greek sentence, at
least wih regard to the final position of the main verb. Rather the main
verb may appear initially, in the center, OR at the end of the period--but
it is not really that likely to appear at the end in the Greek period.

I've often thought that (particularly since the ancient text was written
with a view to aural apprehension rather than visual) we should be able to
construct a useful computer exercise for learners of Greek and Latin, one
wherein a succession of screens would show progressively the first word of
a sentence, then the second together with the first, then the third
together with the preceding two, and so on until the last word has been
added and the equation (as it were) must be balanced, the structure of the
whole grasped in its unity. I don't know how well this would work, but I
think that at the very least it would be a good test of the extent to which
one has learned to think and respond to the Greek or Latin thought-sequence
in its original patterning. Although I've ruminated on this idea for years,
I've never thought of trying to program it into a set of exercises,
although this would be simple enough programming that even I could do it.
Anyone want to try it?

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(704) 675-4243

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