Re: Fw: Sentence structure or construction!

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Mon Oct 20 1997 - 02:01:25 EDT

At 22:13 97/10/17 -0400, Rev Craig R Harmon wrote:
>In a message dated 10/16/97 11:51:12 PM, Paul Evans wrote:
>>Jonathan's questions and observations prompt me to ask a question about
>>sentence structure in Greek. Is there any?! What I mean is, what is the
>>basic recognizable sentence structure? How does a Greek writer go about
>>constructing his sentence? In English we more or less construct the
>>sentence in a particular way, but I have never heard anyone talk about this
>>in Greek (of course I may have been asleep in that class).
>Well, since English is not an inflected language (at least, not much any
>more), in order to communicate meaning, we pretty much have to construct
>sentences in certain ways.
>"A boy bit a dog" is different in meaning than "A dog bit a boy." Mostly we
>put subject + verb + object.
>Any modifiers to these basic pieces must be placed in such a way as not to
>cause confusion.
>"A small boy bit a big dog" is different from "A big boy bit a small dog." It
>is only by proximity that modifiers can be properly understood (generally
>adjective+noun, verb+adverb).
>In Greek and other highly inflected languages, word order is much less
>important because the word's usage in a sentence is communicated by case
>endings, personal endings, etc.
>That being said, it seems to me that, unless there is some important emphasis
>he wished to make or he liked playing with word order as a matter of style
>(liked to use chiasmus for example), the Greek would do pretty much as the
>English do = subject + modifiers + predicate (verb + modifiers + object +

Fellow b-greekers:

It came as a bit of a surprise to me to read this, as it ran counter to my
own experience in reading and teaching the GNT. To double-check my own
impressions, I have taken the opportunity over the past few days to skate
through sections of different books of the GNT specifically looking at this
question of word order/sentence structure. I have looked in particular to
see how many sentences I could find which fitted Craig's stated word order.

To qualify, a sentence would need to have a noun subject and a noun object,
because separate external pronoun subjects (EGW, hUMEIS, etc.) introduce
the complicating question of emphasis, and pronoun objects can occur just
about anywhere in a sentence (I cannot discern any pattern for these).

The first result to record is that straight-forward sentences with noun
subject plus noun object are not all that common. Anyway, I did find one
that does correspond with Craig's pattern. It is Luke 1:13-14, which
translates as (retaining the Greek word order except for personal pronoun
genitives "your" and "his", which I give in English position): "Your wife
Elizabeth will bear a son, and you shall call his name John, and he will be
joy for you and rejoicing, and many at his birth will rejoice."

I would not question that there are many more such sentences in the GNT
(and doubtless other b-greekers will be aware of some), but this is the
only one I came across in my search. My point though is, You do not just
open up the GNT and find them spread across every page. (There is of course
no shortage of sentences just with a subject preceding a verb, or an object
coming after a verb - it is finding sentences with ALL the elements listed
by Craig in the order in which he gave them which I found difficult.)

The problem is that sentences so often contain (some of) genitive
absolutes, prepositional and participial phrases, indirect objects and
other datives, and participle-plus-finite-verb constructions, etc., which
make them quite complex. Leaving these complicating factors on one side
initially, as we search for basic sentence structure and word order, I
myself do not find it to be "subject + modifiers + verb + modifiers +
object + modifiers". I find, rather, a different basic pattern of sentence
structure in the GNT.

First, a sentence may be just one large unit, containing a single finite
verb; or it may consist of two or more such large units, each operating
around its own finite verb. These large units are called "clauses", and are
joined together by conjunctions such as "and", "but", "while", "who",
"that", etc. Each clasue needs to be treated separately: it is unusual for
words from one clause to need to be moved to another clause to understand
the meaning.

A Greek clause or sentence will frequently start with a conjunction (if
that conjunction is GAR, OUN, DE or TE, it will be second word or
occasionally third word in its clause). The rest of the sentence pivots
around the verb. If the verb has a noun object, it will usually be in front
of the verb; and if the subject of the verb is a noun, it will usually
follow the verb.

This thus gives the basic structure of a Greek clause as Conjunction,
Object, Verb, Subject. Each of these should be thought of, not as words,
but as "empty building boxes" in a particular position in the sentence
structure, boxes which in any given clause or sentence may or may not have
anything in them. Thus the subject in a particular clause may not be an
external subject (i.e., a separate word from the verb) but an internal
subject (that is, the pronoun subject at the end of the verb).

Furthermore, into each "box" go all the words that collocate together (that
is, that function together as one grammatical unit in that clause or
sentence). Thus a negative with a verb will go into the "verb box"; and an
article and an attributive adjective or participle will go into the box
with their noun as subject or object, as will also a genitive referring to
that noun.

With verbs of equivalence (such as EIMI and GINOMAI) which take a
complement (predicative nominative), this will usually come in front of the

These four (Conjunction, Object/complement, Verb, Subject) thus comprise
the fundamental building blocks of the Greek clause or sentence. After
these are identified, the various other elements which can be part of a
Greek sentence (indirect object, adverb, prepositional phrase, etc.) will
be found in one or other of the "cracks" between these main building
blocks, according to the choice and style of the author, and the subject
matter of a given sentence - I cannot discern any consistent pattern in
which these other elements occur.

A few examples (which for simplicity's sake I will give in English
translation, retaining the Greek word order):

Mt 12:38: Then answered to him some of the scribes and Pharisees (Subject),
saying, "Teacher, we wish from you a sign (Object) to see."

Mt 16:21: From then began Jesus (Subject) to show to his disciples that it
be necessary for him into Jerusalem to go and many things (Object) to
suffer ...

Mark 6:14: And heard King Herod (Subject), well-known (Complement) for was
his name (Subject).

Luke 7:49: And began the table-companions (Subject) to say amongst
themselves, "Who this is who also sins (Object) forgives?"

John 10:20: Were saying and many of them (Subject), "A demon (Object) he
has, and is mad; why him (Object) listen to?"

Acts 17:30: The therefore times of ignorance (Object) overlooked God
(Subject) ...

Romans 15:26: Were pleased for Macedonia and Achaia (Subject)
some-contribution (Object) to make for the poor ...

2 Thessalonians 3:3: Faithful (Complement) and is the Lord (Subject) ...

1 Timothy 5:18: Says for the Scripture (Subject), "An ox threshing (Object)
you shall not muzzle."

Straightforward examples of the subject coming after the verb are so common
that I cannot recall any page of the GNT that I looked at that did not have
several instances of this. Noun objects (accusative case) are less
frequent, but far from uncommon. Check out for example Romans 13:4-8 and
note all the accusatives which precede their verbs: "the wrong thing" (you
do); "the sword" (he bears); "God's servant" (he is); "the wrong thing"
(those who do); "taxes" (you pay); "servants of God" (they are); "to
no-one nothing you must owe, except one another to love".

The two main circumstances in which this pattern is not followed are (a)
emphasis, and (b) connectivity. Move a word out of its usual position and
you lend it a measure of emphasis. To give examples in English: "Never man
spoke like this man"; "Barabbas he released, but Jesus he delivered up to
their will." Connectivity is seen where a word mentioned in one clause is
the subject of the following clause, and is likely to be put at the
beginning of that second clause, to connect up at once with its previous
occurrence. This is especially common in sections of John: Note for example
the repeated occurrence of this connectivity in John 1:1-5, with "word",
"God", "life", "light", "darkness".

>The point to remember, then, is that the construction of Greek sentences is
>often a product of an author's sense of style (balance and elegance in the
>flow of thought was very important to the Greeks) and what he wishes to
>emphasize, what he feels will be the most effective order of thoughts to
>achieve his desired end.
>For these reasons, it is very difficult to answer your question: "What is the
>basic recognizable sentence structure? The answer is: "It depends on what
>goal or end or response the author is trying to achieve in his

Yes, I concur. But the effect of this is to have very complex structures in
Greek sentences, not at all (for the most part) like the simple model you
suggested above, Craig.

>>If this is a dumb question, please forgive me, and put it down to only
>>having had one cup of tea this morning so far!
>There are no dumb QUESTIONS. ANSWERS are another thing entirely, however.

Actually, I would say that it is an important question. Which beginning
student of Greek has not found it a real hassle to come to terms with the
word order of the GNT? But it is a question which is not at all easy to

>As I read over all that I've written, it seems to me that anyone who knows
>enough Greek to actively participate in this list already knows all this.
>I'm not trying to insult anyone's intelligence, but that's the way I see it.

Ah, Craig, no. I must gently dissent from what you have written, because I
do not see the order you have given as being at all frequently found in the
GNT. Rather, I draw attention to how complex the average Greek sentence
actually is, and how often the accusative object comes in front of its
verb, and how often the noun subject comes after its verb.

To end by giving a practical edge to all this for any list members new to
Greek (and perhaps it may also be of interest to those engaged in helping
their students to handle Greek word order):

1. The aim is to translate a Greek sentence into an English sentence that
conveys the meaning accurately. The task is to translate not only the Greek
words into English words but also the Greek word order (whatever it is in
the sentence at hand) into English word order. The standard English
clause/sentence order is: Conjunction, Subject, Verb, Direct Object,
Indirect Object. English allows some departures from this in particular
circumstances, but it is best for students to aim to put the Greek text
into THIS order in their English translation, at least as a first step.

2. The first job is to discern whether the sentence in question has more
than one clause, joined by conjunctions: if so, treat each clause separately.

3. Check whether the clause/sentence starts with a conjunction. If so,
write this down first. (When you are used to translating Greek, if your
conjunction is OUN you may wish at times to translate it as second word or
even later in English, as in Romans 12:1, "I beseech you, therefore,
brothers ...")

4. Next, identify the verb, and look for the subject after the verb. (It
can be identified by being in the nominative case, often with an article,
also nominative.) If there is no subject after the verb in the clause,
check in front of the verb. If not there, then you have no external
subject, and you are going to need to use the verb's internal subject, the
pronoun at its end. Write down your subject (including an article,
adjective, and/or attached genitive, as applicable).

5. Translate and write down the verb.

6. Check in front of the verb for a direct object (usually accusative case;
after certain verbs it could be genitive or dative). If not in front of the
verb, it is possible it may be found after it. Or there may not be an
object. If the verb is EIMI or GINOMAI or another verb of equivalence, look
for the complement in the nominative case (usually in front of the verb,
and usually without the article). Write down the object or complement (if
any) after the verb in your English translation.

7. Translate whatever other words are part of the Greek clause and from the
sense see where they fit best between the main "building blocks" of the
English sentence that you have put together so far. First up, test the
additional "bits" of Greek in the same position in your English sentence
that they have in the Greek sentence: but do not be surprised if English
requires you to place them in a different position.

Voila! There it is, your Greek clause/sentence translated into English
words and structure.

Any who are interested and who have access to my grammar "Learn To Read The
Greek New Testament" will find a more detailed discussion of this question
of structure and word order, with examples, on pages 178 to 181.

After a while you get used to handling Greek word order and you take it in
your stride. But sometimes those of us engaged in teaching Greek can forget
what an absolute hassle it is for those still learning to come to terms
with it. This is quite an important topic: I would love to see other
experienced teachers out there tell us how they go about teaching it.

My best wishes to all those still struggling to make sense of Greek word
order and sentence structure. May the Lord grant you loads of grace and
patience and perseverance in large dollops.


Rev Dr B. Ward Powers Phone (International): 61-2-9799-7501
10 Grosvenor Crescent Phone (Australia): (02) 9799-7501
SUMMER HILL NSW 2130 email:

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