Re: The Purpose of Syntactical Categories

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Jan 04 2000 - 08:39:41 EST

At 7:16 AM -0600 1/4/00, Tony Stark wrote:
>Greetings to all.
>This may be a simple question for most on this list,but I need to ask this
>question anyway.
> What is the purpose for the numerous syntactical categories in
>advance grammar? For example:
> 1.Descriptive Genitive
> 2. Genitive of Content
> 3. Genitive Absolute
> 4.Dative of Sphere etc.
>I Know they describe part of the greek sentence, but why are they used? Why
>memorize them?
>Can someone explain their use for exegesis or why it is taught in advance
>courses? ETC. Thanks.
> P.S. I hope this question is'nt too simple,
> and not a waste of your time.

Actually I think this is a very good question and one that probably should
be discussed at length at the very beginning of any course in
"intermediate" or "advanced" grammar. I am one who complains about the
'boundless' ramification of syntactic categories into
ever-more-refined-and-nuanced subcategories, but that categorization of
syntax plays an essential role--at least for purposes of rational
justification and explanation of an interpretation of a text--I would not

So let me make a statement that is probably so general as to be useless:
(1) If all readers of the same text(s) were able to understand and
interpret it/them without question and without having to explain why they
do so thus, syntactical categories would be unnecessary and useless--but
such is not the case; (2) since readers of the same text(s) frequently
enough are at odds with each over regarding the proper interpretation of
it/them, they need to be able to justify/explain the tactical decisions
that have inclined them in one interpretive direction rather than another.
e.g. the genitive case of IHSOU CRISTOU in PISTIS IHSOU CRISTOU does
indicate that the genitive phrase depends upon the noun PISTIS--but that's
not enough to help one discern or argue the case that here the genitive
phrase means "held by Jesus Christ" ('subjective genitive') or "having
Jesus Christ as its object" ('objective genitive') or "about Jesus Christ"
('descriptive' genitive?) or "identical with Jesus Christ" ('genitive of
content'?) or perhaps one of other such categories or subcategories of
genitive. So how does one discern how the genitive functions in the
particular text under examination?

I have argued here before that Grammar, and Syntax in particular, is a
"lore" rather than a "science." By that I mean that it is a rather inchoate
conglomerate of shared judgments about the behavior of interrelated words
achieved and transmitted over the course of centuries; it is inchoate
because it involves disparate judgments of different scholars. Perhaps most
of it is valid, but at least some of it is questionable.

The modern grammarian will pick and choose from that lore as he/she
studies/teaches Greek, probably in accordance with his/her own distinct
theoretical preferences (biases?) regarding the nature of language. A
grammar that has been compiled and/or published by a grammarian OUGHT to be
based upon the broadest possible sampling of instances of a construction
within the framework of the chosen textual and chronological focus as
possible, so that the categories and subcategories adopted therein should
be based upon his/her carefully-considered judgment of reasonable options.
BUT, however successful such a compiled or published work may be or appear
to be, it is NOT the be-all and end-all of Greek grammars but rather
another contribution to that vast body of lore developing over the

In my own view the value of such grammars lies not in the emerging lists of
grammatical categories or subcategories you may find in its appendix or
table of contents but rather in the display and argumentation of numerous
instances of particular constructions. Ultimately a student really ought to
develop his/her own categories and subcategories rather than memorize a
list of someone else's--unless that list is a relatively short list
including the most agreed-upon categories and subcategories. The ultimate
worth of such a grammar, in my opinion, lies not in the re-drawing of lines
between categories and subcategories or in the number of new categories and
subcategories invented, but in the number of actual instances of passages
to which some insight (even if negative insight) is contributed--which is
to say, I guess, it lies in the solid contribution made by this grammar to
that corpus of lore accumulated over the centuries. I don't think we ought
to think of ourselves as superior to that lore but rather we ought to think
of ourselves as its keepers, beneficiaries, and hopefully its benefactors.
Personally, I wouldn't trust anyone claiming that grammar is a science
beyond my visual range.

In sum: ask a simple question and you'll get a simple answer.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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