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Nov 14 / Steve Runge

Structuring information

Probably one of the most difficult aspects of analyzing discourse has to do with the structuring of information, often referred to as “word order.” If you are interested in a quick overview, read my article about the Parable of the Sower. It is too complex to go into in posts, but I would like to consider one English example in this week’s Analyze This segment. Here is an excerpt from my forthcoming Discourse Grammar:

Greek grammarians seem to have had a love-hate relationship with the issue of word order.  Most seem to believe that there is some significance to the variation observed, yet it has proven difficult to delineate principles that accurately describe the variation.  Porter states, “Many of the standard reference grammars of the Greek of the NT are convinced that standard NT Greek ‘word order’ is verb-subject-object” (1992:293). The grammarians Porter refers to are Winer (1882), Robertson (1934), BDF (1961), Turner (1963), Moule (1959), and Schwyzer (1950).  However, though each recognized a tendency toward VSO, most were reluctant to say much more.

It seems that these grammarians had a rather strict conception of word order. Unless the language nearly always followed a certain pattern, little could legitimately be claimed about word order. This view seems to be based upon using English as the standard: since it exhibits a very rigid word order, it is therefore easily describable. Greek and Hebrew exhibit what has been called ‘free word order’. The great disparity in ordering principles between English and the biblical languages has lead some to despair that little can be conclusively claimed regarding ordering principles. It is critical to note that the preoccupation with describing the typology of the language has provided little understanding of how and why the language structures clauses as it does.

The accepted view is that the most emphatic or prominent part of the sentence is placed at the beginning, though most recognized that this was not a rule.[1] A.T. Robertson’s comments on the matter illustrate well this tension regarding word order.  He states “the predicate very commonly comes first…simply because the predicate is most frequently the main point in the clause” (2006:417).[2] He then goes on to criticize Blass for making too strong a claim on the matter of VSO ordering, concluding that there is no “unalterable rule in the Greek sentence save that of spontaneity” (2006:417). Even though Robertson ostensibly rejects the idea of a standard order in Koine Greek, only three sentences later he states that emphasis is indicated by “removing a word from its usual position to an unusual one” (2006:417, italics mine).  Such a claim presupposes an underlying ‘usual’ order exists, even though Robertson may not have been able to adequately describe it. When this ‘usual’ pattern is broken, it stands out as ‘unusual.’

I love Robertson’s quote about there being no rule. I completely understand his frustration, as the issue is a tangled morass of complexity. If you are interested in statistics, I would strongly urge you to read my review of Ivan Kwong’s The Word Order of the Gospel of Luke: It’s Forgrounded Messages (Library of New Testament Studies). Statistics have great appeal and great potential, but they must be used in a proper framework. Read the review to learn more.

Most linguistic theories now agree that there are fundamentally two different motivations for fronting things. One of them is to emphasize something, as the Greek grammarians have claimed. The other is to establish an explicit frame of reference for the clause that follows. This frame of reference idea correlates to what has traditionally be referred to as “contrastive topics” in NT studies. There is a simple difference between the two, and it has to do with the kind of contribution that each makes to the discourse.

When we speak, we are usually trying to communicate some information or point. RIght now I am trying to get you to understand the basic principles of information structure. This will involve providing you with new information, but not only new information. When we communicate, we use a mix of established information and new information. The established information provides a grounding and framework in which to process and store the new information. Giving only new information would be incomprehensible, giving only old information would be pointless.

Question and answer pairs provide a great venue for looking at the difference in information status between new and established information. Theoretically, most very clause will contain some of both (okay, event reporting and presentational clauses excepted, for you keener linguists out there). Here is our English example to analyze.

What did you do this week?
[Yesterday] I arrived, [today] I will go sightseeing

The nature of the question tells us what is most important in the answer. Some of the answer provides the requested information, the rest of it provides a framework for understanding it. The new information that answers the question is most important, regardless of its location in the clause. It is most important because of its contribution to this specific context, not because of its position in the clause. I cannot stress enough (meta-comment, for you groupies) that information status is based upon the contribution to the context, not its position in the clause.

To illustrate this, let’s put these answers in a different context and see what happens. Isn’t this exciting!

When did you arrive?
Yesterday I arrived” or “I arrived yesterday
[today] I will go sightseeing

Did you catch the change? In the first example, “yesterday” provided a temporal frame of reference for the clause that followed, establishing the context of “yesterday” compared to “today”. This is what the grammarians referred to as “contrastive topics”, only they are not always contrastive. Based on the nature of the question, the action that is described is the most important information, not the time.

In the second example, we changed the context. Since the question asks about time, “yesterday” is now the most important information, regardless of its location in the clause. The action that is stated is already known and established from the preceding context. It provides the grounding for the new information. Same sentence, different information values in different contexts.

Notice the second part of the answer “[today] I will go sightseeing“. Its components have the same information status in both examples because of the context. After the answer “yesterday” is provides, “today” switches to a different temporal frame of reference to talk about a new action. “Sightseeing” has not been established, nor could it be inferred from some related element in the context. “Today,” on the other hand, is an easy switch from “yesterday”. The second sentence plays the same role in the different contexts.

Isn’t grammar complex?

For further reading:
If you want to learn more about this, check out the forthcoming discourse grammar. If you are interested in the application of these ideas to the Greek NT, and would like to be able to differentiate “frames of reference” from new information that is emphasized, check out the LDGNT. All frames of reference and emphasized elements in the GNT are annotated using the same kinds of notations as in my examples. This resource also includes a 75 page introduction that provides more detail about each of the 20 or so concepts that are annotated. It also comes bundled with the HDNT, an ESV version of the Greek analysis, but frames of reference are not included in the English. The two resources are meant to work together, so even if your Greek is rusty, consider the Greek bundle with the HDNT.

If you want the technical version of this, I would point you first to the Parable of the Sower paper, or Stephen Levinsohn’s Discourse Features of New Testament Greek: A Coursebook on the Information Structure of New Testament Greek. If you want to read the theoretical underpinning of Levinsohn, the most difficult book that I have ever read (thematic overspecification, for you groupies), read Knud Lambrecht’s Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representations of Discourse Referents (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics).

[1] Cf. Robertson (2006:417).
[2] Porter arrives at the same conclusion: “The importance of the verb for Greek is confirmed by the central place occupied by the predicate in clause structure” (1999:296).


  1. Mike / Nov 14 2008

    “Most linguistic theories now agree that there are fundamentally two different motivations for fronting things. One of them is to emphasize something, as the Greek grammarians have claimed. The other is to establish an explicit frame of reference for the clause that follows.”

    I know that the first is called Focus in linguistics rather than “emphasis.” Is the second Topic? Or is Topic a subset/type of frame of reference?

  2. Steve / Nov 14 2008


    Yes, what I have called emphasis for the sake of NT folks would actually be “marked focus”. Focus simply refers to the newly asserted information. Placing it in a marked position results in emphasis, or marked focus.

    What I call a “frame of reference” has traditionally been called “topicalization”, which refers to the movement of the element (topicalizing it). However, constituents other than topics are topicalized. Randall Buth coined the term “contextualizing constituent” to describe information in this position, Simon Dik called it “P1”, and now in the current iteration of Functional Discourse Grammar they are “satellites”. Then there is Stephen Levinsohn, he calls them “points of departure”, following the Prague school’s original conception of topicalization.

    I am not a coiner of terms, but I did so in this instance to use a term more accessible to non-linguists. Unfortunately, it adds to the clutter.

  3. Mike / Nov 14 2008

    “Unfortunately, it adds to the clutter.”

    Such is the world of linguistics. And often times, more terms are created with the hope that they will provide greater clarity in the terminology, but it only makes it worse!

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