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Nov 8 / Steve Runge

The many faces of ‘this’, part 2

This is a continuation from my post yesterday on referential indefinites like “this guy”. I talked about how you can add the “referential indefinite” this to some indefinite, non-referential expression like “a guy” and make it referential.  You as the listener still may not be able to pick “this guy” out of a line-up, but the expression is specific enough to build a story on, to add information about him. Referential indefinites are a great way to streamline the introduction of a participant, and they are used all over the place.

What if I use a referential indefinite for something or someone that is already well-established, already well-known by all? Referential indefinites signal that the speaker does not expect the hearer to be able to pick the entity out of a line up. I may know who it is, but I do not expect you to.

If I were to use a referential indefinite in English for a known entity, it typically brings about the pragmatic effect of distancing myself from it. Let’s say I was telling my daughter how a new friend she was hanging out with was a bad influence. Think about the effect brought about by saying “This friend of yours is a bad influence.” I am not introducing the friend, she is well established and is the central focus of the conversation. But I am portraying her as though I do not expect my daughter to know who she is, sort of. This is the breaking of the rule. It can also be interpreted as disrespect. The same kind of usage is also found in the Bible, and results in the same kinds of effects. This similarity is not due to English being closely related to Greek or Hebrew. It has to do with how God has wired us to process languages.

In Greek grammar circles, there is what is referred to as “contemptuous usage” of this (cf. Robertson 2006:697, BDF §291.1). I will not go into full detail, see my forthcoming grammar for more. But many of the examples fit under the heading of a referential indefinite used for a well-known entity. A great example of this is found in the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The younger son is the focus of the story, but it is the rant of the between the older son and the father that I am interested in. As he talks about his brother, he could have referred to him using a proper name (e.g. Jacob’), or as “my brother”. Instead he uses “your son” in combination with a referential indefinite with a whole bunch of thematic overspecification (see glossary) to really make his point. Here is the ESV of Luke 15:29-30:

29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’

It seems to be dripping with seething rage. Why do we get that ‘sense’? First, the older brother distances himself from the younger by calling him “your son” instead of the closer “my brother”. Both are true, but one is less intimate. Second, there is the referential indefinite ‘this’ that in this context has the effect of sounding contemptuous. It is not the inherent semantic meaning of “this”, but simply an effect of using it with a known entity. Finally, you have the extra relative clause “who has devoured…” Relative clauses often serve to restrict or narrow down which entity is being referred to. Here, it is perfectly clear which “son” the older is talking about. The information in the relative clause serves to characterize the younger in a particular way in this particular context for a particular reason. Look up ‘thematic highlighting’ and ‘overspecification’ in the glossary.

I will go over the OT example Monday. Isn’t grammar wonderful?


  1. Wayne Leman / Nov 8 2008

    Isn’t grammar wonderful?

    Yes, indeed!

  2. Trierr / Nov 8 2008

    To our ears, this indeed sounds sound contemptuous. But what about to first century Greek readers? Did they hear it this the same way?

  3. Jamie Macleod / Nov 8 2008

    Will you only publish your grammar throught Logos or will a paper copy also be available?

  4. Steve / Nov 8 2008

    The best way to answer this would be for you to do an historical study of either how grammarians have handled the issue, or alternatively how the ancient exegetes viewed the usage in context. I have seen enough of the same usage in different languages that I am willing to accept it. Do some digging in something like the Ancient Christian Commentary and see what the ancients had to say.

    To clarify, I am not claiming the contemptuous usage of the classical grammarians, but merely the effect of distancing. The ues of the referential indefinite demonstrative here has the effect of porptraying the entity as distant to the hearer.

    It is too early to tell exactly what will happen. We will likely seek a print version of the second electronic version, so that bugs can get worked out.

  5. Seumas / Nov 9 2008

    Just wanted to say, I am greatly enjoying your posts. You have a good knack for explaining what could be complex matters, in a straightforward way, and illustrating what the value of all this grammar is for our understanding.

  6. murf / Nov 12 2008

    Definitely concur with Seumas. There is a certain kind of genius in being able to explain stuff like this for the masses that few people seem to have. It’s nice to find one who does.

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