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Nov 7 / Steve Runge

The many faces of ‘this’, part 1

This is the first of a series of posts tagged as “Analyze this” that will take some expression we use in English, analyze it. The analysis will help us understand why it achieves what it does, how it achieves the effects that it does. Then I will apply the principle to the comparable usage found in Scripture.

It is very important to distinguish between the inherent meaning of something (i.e. its semantic meaning), and the effect achieved by using it in a particular context (i.e. its pragmatic effect). I used the example in my last post about how the semantic meaning of the progressive form of the verb can be used to bring about certain (wonderful) pragmatic effects. Isn’t grammar wonderful?

In this post, I want to look at referring expressions. How many jokes have you heard that begin by introducing the key participant using “this”, e.g. “This guy walks into a bar”? It is very common in languages to use what are called referential indefinites. Sounds like an oxy-moron, right? It kind of is. In other words, it is a way of taking something that is both indefinite and that does not refer to something specific (i.e. non-referential), and making it referential enough to talk about.

For example, if I  said “a guy”, chances are that neither you nor I would be able to pick him out of a police line up. It could refer to any “guy”. This is a non-referential, indefinite expression. It needs more detail to make it specific enough to refer to something.

Now lets add the “referential indefinite” this to the expression: this guy. 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.

In Koine Greek, the most common referential indefinite used for introductions is τις. Notice there is no accent; we are talking about the indefinite pronoun, not the interrogative one “who/what”. If you look at how τις is translated when used as a modifier, it is typically something like “a certain X”. Even though the X is indefinite, it is referential enough to understand and to build a story around. For example, Zechariah is introduced in Luke 1:5 as ἱερεύς τις, “a certain priest”. More colloquially, “this priest”.

Can you think of the Hebrew counterpart that is most often translated “certain”. It is the numeral אֶחָד  “one” that is often used in the phrase אִישׁ אֶחָד “a certain man”, as in 1 Samuel 1:1 where the very first participant is introduced. In English, we would idiomatically say “There was this guy living in Ramathaim-zophim…”

So to summarize, referential indefinites are found in most languages, and they serve the common purpose of converting something from being just indefinite like “a man” to something that is referential enough to build upon: “this man” or “a certain man”. We have looked at the basic semantic meaning of the referential indefinite, as well as its typical function.

What happens when you break the rules, use it in an improper way? Let me tell you, beautiful pragmatic effects come about. When the rules of usage are broken or abused, there is typically a specific pragmatic effect that comes about. It does NOT change the meaning, it just creates an effect. Check back for part two tomorrow, describing an example from the NT of the pragmatic use of referential indefinites to bring about great pragmatic effects. Isn’t grammar wonderful?


  1. John Murphy / Nov 11 2008

    Got it! Great post. You make it very understandable. Looking forward to reading the rest, and applying it.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. The many faces of ‘this’, part 2 « NT Discourse
  2. Distinguishing between this and that « NT Discourse
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