Syntax/semantics and Greek Direct Objects

From: Micheal Palmer (
Date: Fri Apr 30 1999 - 01:06:02 EDT

Although this discussion began with the subject line "diagramming
vocatives", I am changing the heading because I am not going to address
that topic further.

At 2:54 PM -0400 4/29/99, clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:

>The question seems to come down to the distinction between a semantic
>category and a syntactic category. Rather than try an answer this
>question I will ask another question.
>Is "direct object" a category of syntax or semantics?
>Not so fast!! Stop and think about it.
>The direct object of a NT Greek clause can be encoded (morphologically)
>in several different ways. So how can we define the direct object?
>Well, we end up saying something like "it is the recipient of the action
>described in the main verb." At this point "direct object" is being
>defined in terms of semantic function so why do we call it a category of
>The whole point of this is to cast some doubt on the notion that there
>is a neat and clean line of demarcation between semantic and syntactical

You have pointed to an important issue here. I do sometimes use the terms
"direct object" and "indirect object" when discussing Greek because they
are in such wide use that it would be difficult to explain each time why I
don't like them. But since it is relevant to our topic, and to a clear
understanding of Greek, I will address the issue here.

You are quite right to question the value of "direct object" as a syntactic
category for Greek. I much prefer to speak of accusative objects, dative
objects, etc. These clearly have syntactic value. The definitions you cite
do, as you say, involve semantic rather than syntactic notions, and I
believe it is better to use clearly semantic terms when discussing
categories which require this kind of definition. That is why you will
often see me referring to the GOAL or RECIPIENT or PATIENT of a Greek verb
rather than the direct object. These are clearly semantic categories. They
are current in both functional grammar and generative grammar and work
quite well for discussing Greek.

A similar problem arises when talking about the subject. It is often
defined as "the one doing the action expressed by the verb." This is a
semantic, not a syntactic definition (and it doesn't really work very well
either since not all verbs express an action!). I prefer to use a clearly
semantic term to fit this definition. The one doing the action stated by
the verb (if the verb expresses an action) is the AGENT, not necessarily
the subject. The subject (syntactically) is the nominative case noun or
pronoun which controls the choice of person and number endings for the verb.

Well, this has really gotten more into linguistic theory than Greek, so
I'll leave it alone now unless we can find a good text to discuss while
using these categories. :-)

I am not going to respond to the part of your note which dealt with
vocatives because we have agreed that we are at an impasse on that one.

I always enjoy reading your posts. They show real insight and encourage
serious thought.

Micheal W. Palmer
North Carolina State University
Philosophy and Religion (New Testament)
Foreign Languages (Ancient Greek)

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