Quick Grammar Facts: Definite Articles

To use a definite article is to say to your audience: “I know what I’m talking about and I think you know what I’m talking about, too.” Your audience can correct you and say, “Nope, no clue. I can’t identify what you’re talking about.” But if they don’t, you as a speaker feel comfortable proceeding with whatever you’re going to say.

So in John 1:18: where the author writes: ἡ χάρις καί ἡ ἀλήθεια διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐγένετο, he’s expressing confidences that his audience knows what he’s talking about with χάρις and ἀλήθεια. Now, yes, in Greek abstract nouns have a tendency to be articular. That is certainly true, but that ignores another pattern in the language: if you want to talk about something in particular, you introduce it first, without the article, to establish it in the minds of your audience and then after that, you can proceed to talk about it with the article.

And lo and behold in John 1:14, the author has already done precisely that:

Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.

In the first reference to χάριτος and ἀληθείας, John couldn’t count on his audience being able to identify them and their relation to Jesus, so no definite article. But once introduced, he can then proceed on the assumption of shared knowledge with his audience and thus χάριτος and ἀληθείας each get the article in verse 16.

Take a look for yourself. Find a noun with an article and see if you can trace back to where the idea, person, or thing it refers to was first introduced. It probably won’t have an article at that point.

6 thoughts on “Quick Grammar Facts: Definite Articles

  1. The τὴν δόξαν in v18 (actually v14 in my text) has no preceding reference without the article. Of course it would be superficial to take the δόξαν following in comparison as the first mention since it has no article. How does the principle hold up here? I’m suggesting that “glory” is already presumed in the ἐσκήνωσεν “tabernacled ” based on a frame. Then τὴν δόξαν has its anaphoric reference to “dwelt among us” and correctly has the article to meet the principle at hand. Any Jew would have this frame as a shared knowledge. More ambiguous is, Why does δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός not have the article before δόξαν?

    1. Well, you’re certainly right. The actual principle involved both in the post and here in your comment is that referents need to be mentally accessible to the audience in order to receive the article to begin with. Usually that means the reference was introduced earlier–that’s where the pattern described in the post comes from. It’s painfully clear with, say, proper names, since there’s very rarely an established frame available that lets you go straight to the definite article with a specific individual. But I never intended “if you want to talk about something in particular, you introduce it first, without the article” to be understood as the central principle. Rather, I wanted “[Make sure you] establish it [what you want to talk about] in the minds of your audience and then after that, you can proceed to talk about it with the article.”

      as you have noted, the principle allows for socio-cultural frames to allow certain things to be assumed as definite–American English, for example, (in contrast Canadian, British, and other Commonwealth dialects) takes words like “hospital” as established frames for the article. And there’s definitely something similar here with ‘the glory’ for Jewish culture (albeit less grammaticalized than American English’s ‘to the hospital’.

      As for δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, that’s even simpler. Since δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός is still within the NP τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, the initial article τὴν still has scope over the appositive phrase in its syntax-semantics.

      1. Wonderful. Pleased to interact with you. I’m glad you were able to make it to the Cambridge Greek Verb Conference, not lacking finance. I’m soon to place my order for the paperback at Amazon. Great stuff. I’ve learnt heaps off your site here. I find linguistics has a real bonus bite in it.

      2. I wonder if “SIMPLER” might let something slip. Something highlighting a point of significance.

        I would take δόξαν ὡς… as a separate constituent from τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ. The δόξαν beginning apposition is definite because it identifies something in the theme. [The scope comment at least recognises that much.] One would then expect the article. There wouldn’t be anything irregular with inserting the article to mark the identifiability [especially given any intervening words between the items in apposition]. But leaving it out is to mark the comparison as new information, as focal in a way that is prominent. Levinsohn would say, “The absence of the article is consistent with the constituent being given focal prominence”. Here, the topic δόξαν signaled prominent is to point forward to the comment about it (namely the comparison: ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός…) to highlight this part of the theme line. Dropping the article when strictly expected increases processing overhead, thereby slowing down the reader to find a reason for what is going on. Levinsohn documents omission of the article when duly expected is for marking prominence. It’s not that δόξαν is new information, but is treated as if focally prominent to be able to point forward to what is said about it being the real prominent grit.

        The apposition is Overspecification in Dr Runge’s suite of devices. The comparison is not needed to disambiguate the referent. The additional information and processing is for some communicative effect – thematic highlighting – further elaboration as to the identity of this glory, the ONLY BEGOTTEN ONE from the Father. Alternatively, and without contradiction, this could be taken as Right-Dislocation = intentionally delaying the disclosure of significant information to draw extra attention to it. A Right-Dislocation topic is an afterthought but is still an Overspecification.

        Omission of the article for prominence when otherwise rightly placed is another pragmatic loop to jump through. Recognising this as a prominence device based on focus status means it cannot be under articular scope. Here is the reason for the lack of the article from the original question.

        Sorry for taking you off topic. These linguistic loops are SIMPLY intriguing.

        1. Here δόξαν could be treated as if focally prominent to highlight the contrast with the emphatic σὰρξ beginning v14, raising Focal contrast. Whereas most appositions reiterate known info, infrequently new info is asserted. Hence, nevertheless, the comparison at hand has focal status and can stand integrally with the emphasis to enhance the contrastive importance.

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