An Introduction to the Composition and Analysis of Greek Prose

It seems that Eleanor Dickey (the author of the superb volume, Ancient Greek scholarship: A Guide to finding, reading, and understanding scholia, commentaries, lexica, and grammatical treatises, from their beginnings to the Byzantine Period) has written a book on Ancient Greek prose composition. She’s a classicist whose knowledge and experience would be most certainly make me interested in her perspective on the topic, not merely for writing prose, but for her understanding of Ancient Greek sentence structure.

Ancient Greek Prose Composition by Eleanor Dickey

  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (April 18, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521184258
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521184250

Publisher’s blurb:

Why learn to write in a dead language? Because a really good understanding of a language can only be attained by using it actively. Unlike earlier textbooks aimed at schoolboys, this work addresses modern adults who want to understand concepts fully as they learn. Drawing on recent scholarship where appropriate and assuming no prior background except some reading knowledge of Greek, the course combines a structured review of paradigms and vocabulary with clear and comprehensive explanations of the rules of Greek syntax. Large numbers of exercises are provided, both with and without key: a complete set of cumulative exercises and another set of non-cumulative exercises for those who prefer to dip into specific sections. The exercises include, as well as English sentences and paragraphs for translation, Greek sentences and passages for translation, analysis, and manipulation. A full English-Greek vocabulary and list of principal parts are included.

Of course, until the volume is published, I won’t be able to speak decisively about its value, but I have greatly benefited from the author’s previous work and look forward to perusing this new one.

Oxford Comma Memes: Evidence Against the Oxford Comma?

I’m taking a break for Greek linguistics to talk about English punctuation.

I’ve been wanting to writ this for a while and finally got around to it when I saw John E. McIntyre‘s piece about why “not a word” isn’t an argument.

You’ve probably seen this picture at some point:’s funny.

This one is funny, too:

Peevologists and grammar pedants particularly love little memes like this. They get to make their point and get a laugh at the same time. It’s just too bad that when it comes to making their point, well, the joke is on them.

Despite their entertainment value, sentences like these serve the opposite function if they’re taken as linguistic arguments. They demonstrate that world knowledge, encyclopedic semantics, and linguistic categorization invariably trump punctuation rules. The reality is that the more humorous the list of items, the lower the probability of misinterpretation. In fact, the very fact that these sentences can be used as jokes demonstrates just how unnecessary the Oxford comma is. For the joke to work, the audience needs to be able to properly interpret the list independent of comma usage. The humor only comes when an absurdist reanalysis of the category structure is put forward as a contrast.

The majority of humor is, itself, merely the unexpected juxtaposition of two or more entities.

So if we take the strippers, JFK and Stalin. The natural interpretation assumes that we are dealing with equipollent categories on the basis that each referent in the list belongs to the same higher order category: humans. The natural interpretation also relies on world knowledge of the referents involved: JFK and Stalin are male world leaders and strippers are prototypically assumed to be female unless the preceded by the adjective “male.” The joke interpretation relies on a reanalysis where the first item in the list functions as a higher order category for the following set. But that by itself isn’t enough for it to be funny. It also needs the natural interpretation is so strong that then the proposed reanalysis can be laughed at.

Sometimes world knowledge isn’t even necessary and the previous discourse context constrains the reading to just one:

Highlights of my trip home included hanging out with my brother, a clown and an amazing acrobat.

This sentence, even with the Oxford comma missing, still only has one reading. The interpretation is predicated on the fact that the higher level category is already established in the discourse: highlights and that category includes more than one item. The plural highlights prevents anything else. The comma isn’t necessary, thought it would still be useful here simply because redundancy. And the redundancy exists in normal speech, too. The prosodic structure of three item lists and the prosodic structure of CATEGORY X, Y and Z” are quite different. The comma simply formalizes that distinction in the written language.

All of this isn’t to say that good arguments for the Oxford comma cannot be made. They certainly can–the discussion in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for example, is superb.  It’s just that a good argument requires example sentences that are significantly less entertaining.

I traveled to France, Caen and Le Havre.
I traveled to France, Luxembourg, and Brussels.

Each of these sentences would benefit from the Oxford comma (or its lack) for an audience whose knowledge of the world was lacking when it came to European geography.

But boring examples are just that: boring.

Suffice to say, even though they are terrible as linguistic arguments for the punctuation, as jokes, Oxford comma memes are still pretty awesome.

So keep them coming.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be back to Greek and cognitive linguistics.

*The typos, by the way, are intentional and subversive.

Notes on prototypicality and grammar writing

Rosch’s (1978) emphasizes that the prototypical instantiations of a given category are maximally distinct from each other. She states,

To increase the distinctiveness and flexibility of categories, categories tend to become defined in terms of prototypes or prototypical instances that contain the attributes most representatives of items inside and least representative of terms outside the category (1978, 30).

This is essentially a double characterization in that prototypicality is here defined both positively (most representative attributes) and negatively (least representative attributes). One implication of this definition is the fact that when we are dealing with two or more contrastive categories, non-prototypical usage of one of those categories will likely involve some of the prototypical attributes of that category, but also some prototypical attributes of another category–for example, distinguishing between what is a noun and what is a verb.*

The logical result of this fact is that it may be entirely possible for two contrasting categories to reflect near synonymy in some discourse contexts—contexts where the most representative attributes of their given category are dramatically downplayed. These sorts of non-contrasts between grammatical categories are prototype effects that arise from human cognition.

These facts are derived not merely from how categorization works for a limited set of items (e.g. lexemes), but how it functions for human cognition and reasoning in general. That is to say, all categorization is prototypical categorization. It is left to reason, then, that we ought to organize our grammar descriptions along similar lines, in a manner that most closely parallels basic principles of human cognition. A grammar that takes the nature of human categorization seriously will prioritize determining what the most representative and least representative attributes of a given grammatical category are and then also take those attributes as the standard for evaluating grammatical contrasts in the language description. The meaning of a given grammatical category must be grounded in most exemplar uses of that category. It is from here and here alone that non-prototypical usage may then be adequately evaluated and explained.**


*This, incidentally, is precisely the point of Hopper and Thompson (1984, 710), where they argue that the categorization of lexical items within a part-of-speech system should be grounded in discourse structure and usage.

**This refers, of course, to the formal grammatical description. In the analysis itself, evaluating what is and what is not prototypical usage is part of the process.


Works Cited:

Muraoka’s Morphosyntax and Syntax of the Septuagint

There’s a new grammar coming to town and it looks like it’s going to be a big one!

A Morphosyntax and Syntax of Septuaguint Greek by Takamitsu Muraoka (Amazon)

Here’s the blurb from the publisher (Peeters-Leuven):

This is the first ever comprehensive analysis of the morphosyntax and syntax of Septuagint Greek. The work is based on the most up-to-date editions of the Septuagint. The so-called Antiochene version of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as well as Judges has been studied. Though this is a synchronic grammar, and though not systematic, comparison with Classical Greek, the Greek of contemporary literature of the Hellenistic-Roman period, papyri and epigraphical data, and New Testament Greek has often been undertaken. Even when analysing translated documents of the Septuagint, the perspective is basically that of its readers. However, attempts were made to determine in what ways and to what extent the structure of the Semitic source languages may have influenced the selection of this or that particular construction by translators. At many places it is demonstrated and illustrated how an analysis of the morphosyntax and syntax can illuminate our general interpretation of the Septuagint text.

There were proofs at SBL this year. Sadly, I didn’t attend, otherwise I would have done some perusing and given some comment on it. I haven’t reviewed anything for a while, but this, well, this I would certainly consider.

Deixis, Reference, & Left Dislocation in 4 Baruch 8.3

I have been silent for a while.

That’s bad because I have a debt of several posts and reviews from the Cambridge Verb Conference, but getting my paper post-conference finished has taken up much of my time (and moving across the country has taken up the rest of my time).

Still, I thought I should contribute something from my current editing efforts on my paper on prohibitions. I encountered this bit of interesting Greek in 4 Baruch 8.2-3:

καὶ ἐρεῖς τῷ λαῷ· Ὁ θέλων τὸν κύριον καταλειψάτω τὰ ἔργα τῆς Βαβυλῶνος. 3 καὶ τοὺς ἄρρενας τοὺς λαβόντας ἐξ αὐτῶν γυναῖκας, καὶ τὰς γυναῖκας τὰς λαβούσας ἐξ αὐτῶν ἄνδρας, διαπεράσωσιν οἱ ἀκούοντές σου, καὶ ἆρον αὐτοὺς εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ· τοὺς δὲ μὴ ἀκούοντάς σου, μὴ εἰσαγάγῃς αὐτοὺς ἐκεῖ.
and you will say to the people, ‘Let him who desires the LORD leave the works of Babylon behind.’ 3 And (of) the men who took wives from them, and the women who took husbands from them, let those who hear you cross over, and take them up to Jerusalem; but (as for) those who do not hear you, you must not lead them there (translation from Charlesworth).

Note what we have here. It’s striking, first of all, that the translator here chose a translation more suitable to a third person imperative than a third person subjunctive for διαπεράσωσιν οἱ ἀκούοντές σου. Such a translation implies  more volitionality on the part of the audience (the returning exiles), but the Greek actually gives agency to the spouses–οἱ ἀκούοντές σου.

Also then notice the person and semantic role shift on the part of the speaker. The left dislocation introduces a change in topic from those who heard (I would prefer the translation ‘obey’ personally) to those who did not hear. The accusative case of the left dislocation cross-references it with an argument in the clause itself: αὐτοὺς. But the actor and subject of the second subjunctive is now explicitly the returning Jews. The spouses are relegated to undergoer status in the clause.

In terms of negation scope, this clause is rather interesting. Usually, there’s a fairly strong correlation between (1) negation scope and (2) focal information. But in this case, the scope of the negation is over the pronoun αὐτοὺς, which cannot be treated as focal because of its status as a resumptive pronoun for the left-dislocation. Thus this clause functions as linguistic evidence that negation scope and information structure and distinct grammatical phenomenon and cannot be conflated or assumed to be identical.

Finding clauses like this is the means by which we are able to provide an empirical basis for our grammatical claims for ancient languages without (consistent) access to native speakers.

Greek Verb Conference at Tyndale House – Buist Fanning

I polled various readers here and on twitter and facebook and I get some requests for which presentations to write about. This is the beginning of following up on that. I’ll also be doing: Rugter Allan’s, Peter Gentry’s, and Rachel Aubrey’s (my wife).

All of the presentations I’m blogging about will be available in full in their larger form in:

The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, edited by Steve Runge & Chris Fresch

Buist, if you’re reading this and I missed something or said something wrong, let me know.

The purpose of Fanning’s paper was to provide some context in terms of the discussion of research on aspect and the verb in New Testament studies in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Fanning’s perspective, logically focus more on his own work, research influences, and ideas simply because that was what he knew firsthand. The trajectory of his original dissertation research had began in the realm of New Testament studies and biblical theology. Still, there were a number of leads that contributed to Fanning’s interest in Greek aspect. These motivated him to do his dissertation on aspect in Greek.

  • These included:
  • James Barr’s work on lexicography and semantics
  • Stagg’s article “The Abused Aorist”
  • Kenneth McKay’s work on the Greek verb in Classical and Post-Classical Greek
  • His own experiences in the classroom teaching Greek
  • Reading Bernard Comrie’s 1976 monograph on aspect
  • Reading John Lyon’s two volume work Semantics

These are all parallel to the same influences that impacted Porter and his own research. Fanning expressed the expectation of the parallel in his presentation and I know from friends at McMaster Divinity School that essentially the same set of existing research motivated Porter as he also worked toward the completion of his own book on aspect.

One of the key differences between them, however, was in how they approach the question. Contrasts between Porter & Fanning:

  • Fanning assumed that the understanding of aspect has grown over the centuries. That the philological insights of past scholars were not mistakes, but simplistic and in need of refinement. Not an intellectual revolution, but a process of extending and correcting the work of others.
  • Porter viewed past work as flawed and saw a need for a scientific revolution. Everything before 1989 needed to be cleared away. There was a need for a rigorous & structualist framework.

At this point, Fanning himself emphasized that this expression of the difference between the two of them constitutes a gross over-simplification of the history of their research.

Finally, Fanning described the areas of agreement between their two respective works as follows:

  • Verbal aspect is central to the understanding of the Greek verb
  • Aspect is a matter of viewpoint.
  • The Greek aorist is perfective
  • The present/imperfective is imperfective
  • Greek aspect is important and relevant for discourse structure.

Fanning eagerly encourages other to come and participate in the work of improvement of our understanding.

It’s probably worth linking to the two books at the center of discussion:

Buist Fanning’s Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990).

Stanley E. Porter’s Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

Two whirlwind days of papers in Cambridge

The Linguistics and Greek Verb Conference finished 9:30PM last night, with my wife giving the last paper on the semantics of θη middles in Koine Greek and their motivation from other clause types.

The entire two days were extremely satisfying. I have a nice collection of notes to write up for the four sessions that I was requested to blog about. Thank you, everyone, who helped Rachel and I get to Cambridge. We had an incredibly productive time–Rachel connected with Rutger Allan and they had a really positive conversation about voice that’s going to continue via e-mail.

For my part, meeting Robert Crellin and have some conversation about the perfect. His dissertation and my thesis come from very different places in terms of descriptive terminology and theoretical background, but it was immensely satisfying to find that we have effectively arrived at the same conclusions (worded slightly differently). That is to say, given his work with Klein 1994 (link), I would have come to the very same conclusions about the event structure of perfect semantics. Now, whether the same could be said about my own efforts in the other direction, I don’t know, but I do look forward to enjoying fruitful dialogue in the future.

Now, however, we have to pack to begin our journey home. We have a day for wandering around Cambridge and then a flight back to Chicago tomorrow.

More to come…

Onward to Cambridge!

I want to again thank everyone who contributed to the GoFundMe Campaign: Cambridge Greek Verb Conference. The response was both astounding and generous. Thank you all so much.

Here’s what has been happening so far:

  • Rachel and I have been diligently preparing our papers for the conference. We’re almost ready!
  • All of you raised enough that I’ll be blogging about sessions.
  • I have two books to review (those will be coming in July and August, hopefully)

What we need to do now:

Help choosing which sessions to blog about. I’ll be doing three.You can see the full list here: Linguistics & the Greek Verb. It covers everything from aspect, to voice, participles, to discourse, tense, modality, linguistics, classical perspectives, and much more. It’s going to be an awesome time.

We’re still pretty stretched with covering the costs that left, you can still contribute if you’d like. We’re $50 short of a third book review and $100 short of blogging a four conference session, if either of those are of interest to you.

I need to get writing a couple book reviews. I’m currently working on:

Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice by Stanley Porter

So again: thanks everyone for helping us get here. We’re really excited!


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