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Dec 13 / Steve Runge

Exceptional thinking

I have been working on the final edit of the discourse grammar for the past few weeks, as getting that to the copy editor has been a bigger priority than blogging. However, I thought I would do a day-late edition of “Analyze this,” where we take some aspect of everyday language use and think about what it is that gets the job done. Today’s focus is on exception clauses. The “play along at home” part will come on Wednesday.

My interest in this stems from the chapter in the grammar on establishing point-counterpoint sets. Here is the definition from the glossary:

Point:  One part of a paired set of statements that usually replaces the counterpoint, and is the more important of the two.
Counterpoint: One part of a paired set of statements that is usually replaced by a more-important point. Point-counterpoint sets accomplish two primary purposes:

  • Explicitly linking two things together that otherwise might not have been connected.
  • Drawing more attention to the ‘point’ that it would not otherwise have received.

Instead of simply making two unconnected statements, the point-counterpoint set uses an initial statement that functions as a backdrop or foil for a more-important statement that typically follows.

The basic point (no pun intended) here is that we can choose how to frame what we communicate, and using certain constructions can bring about pragmatic effects. Point-counterpoint sets are one of these devices. But alas, I digress.

As I was working through the chapter on point-counterpoint sets, I came across a comment by Robertson that seems to suggest that ἀλλά and εἰ μή could be used interchangeably at times. I reacted against this, but was not really able to put my finger on why. Here is the quote:

Both Winer and W. F. Moulton (W.-M., p. 566) felt certain that ἀλλά never equaled [sic] εἰ μή, not even in Mt. 20:23 and Mk. 4:22. But J. H. Moulton (Prol., p. 241) quotes Tb. P. 104 (i/b.c.), καὶ μὴ ἐξέστω Φιλίσκωι γυναῖκα ἄλλην ἐπαγαγέσθαι ἀλλὰ Ἀπολλωνίαν, where ἀλλά means practically ‘except.’1

 Rico, my neighbor at work, has been pouring over the meaning of ἀλλά for quite some time now, culminating in a paper presented at the ETS annual meeting last month. In a nutshell (which he took 40 pages to unpack), ἀλλά introduces material that corrects or replaces some aspect of what precedes. Consider the following example of Matt 4:4, taken from the LDGNT.

The negated clause stating that man shall not live on bread alone presupposes that he must live on something else besides just bread. The placement of the prepositional phrase ἐπʼ ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ‘on bread alone’ following the negative particle οὐκ ‘not’ has the effect of placing emphasis on it, hence the bolding. It also sets the stage for this element to be corrected by the element introduced by ἀλλά. Specifying that one does not live on bread alone increases the expectation that something more is coming that will supply the missing element. The clause element introduced by ἀλλά fills in this blank.

It would have been much easier to simply state, “You shall live on bread and on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Doing so would have placed ‘bread’ and ‘every word…’ on the same plane, without assigning more significance to one or the other. Stated as it is, bread is portrayed as a required, but less important element of the two. Introducing ‘every word…’ using ἀλλά highlights this concept that in ways it would otherwise not have received using a less complex construction.

Notice that also the syntactic correspondence between what is replaced and the replacement introduced by ἀλλά. One prepositional phrase is replaced by an analogous prepositional phrase. There is a close grammatical correspondence between the two elements. I will break this post into parts. Tune in Monday for the next installment.

  1. Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 1188. []


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