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Jan 30 / Steve Runge

What does ‘syntactic force’ mean?

A discussion has ensued about the ingressive aorist in the comments of my last post. Although the specific point being discussed is somewhat minor, the core issue underlying it is of great significance, significant enough to be promoted to its own post.

I ranted a while back here and here about the problems stemming from scholars talking past each other. I think that we are approaching that in the comments. As benevolent dictator of this blog, I decided to attempt–perhaps naively–to reframe the question a bit for clarity sake. The core question seems to be this (forward-pointing reference to highlight a significant proposition): What exactly is the claim associated with “syntactic force” in traditional grammar?

As I understand it, the traditional approach to syntax tries to capture contextual factors in the syntactic description. In the case of the “ingressive aorist,” Wallace stated in his comment, “I make a very careful distinction between what a form means by itself and what it can be used to indicate when lexeme, context, genre, and other grammatical features are combined.” I understand the syntactic force to be describing not just the inflected meaning, but the particular nuance achieved by local contextual factors. It is the translational meaning of the whole.

Why use this system? The syntactic category provides a handle for the student or scholar to map the specific “in context” sense of the form over to an English counterpart, primarily for exegetical discussion. Without something like a syntactic force, one would be left needing to tranlate the form to English, which introduces another level of ambiguity. Syntactic force is more of a semantic or pragmatic label than a morphological or syntax-proper.

If the aorist form is ambiguous in regard to being ingressive or not (which I believe it is), we still need some way of describing how we understand the translation of the specific instance of the specific aorist form for exegetical purposes. The syntactic force, as I understand it, describes the translation value of the form, once the contextual factors are taken into account. This is my understanding of this system as used by Wallace, Robertson, or Carl Conrad on B-Greek.

Using this system of description can make it sound as though they are claiming “the aorist means X” or that there are many kinds of aorist forms, as though there is something other than morph to make this determination. I think that this is the “perennial problem among grammars and commentaries” that Dan alludes to in his comment. But his response to Decker expresses that he understands perfectly well what the aorist conveys. I think that there is agreement among all three of us about this. Nonetheless, the traditional descriptive system allows for misunderstanding assigning a syntactic sense for ascribing a sub-meaning to the aorist. Dan, Carl, clarify this if I have misrepresented you.

In the introduction of Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Wallace provides a clear definition of what he means when assigning a syntactic force, captured in his distinction between unaffected and affected meaning. He states,

Along the same lines, a careful distinction needs to be made between the unaffected or ontological meaning of the construction and the affected or phenomenological meaning. By “unaffected” is meant the meaning of the construction in a vacuum-apart from contextual, lexical, or other grammatical intrusions. By “affected” is meant the meaning of the construction in its environment-i.e., “real life” instances.1

I agree with both Wallace and Decker as they comment that syntactic force can cause confusion, creating the possibility of viewing the syntactic force as somehow part of the unaffected meaning. I have found Levinsohn’s distinction between “semantic meaning” vs. “pragmatic effect” very helpful in this regard.

Now, let the inevitable festivities in the comment box begin. Let’s keep it charitable, it’s Friday.

  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 1:2 (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999; 2002). []


  1. Carl Conrad / Jan 30 2009

    For my part, I don’t use the term “syntactic force” nor do I much like the notion.
    “The syntactic category provides a handle for the student or scholar to map the specific “in context” sense of the form over to an English counterpart, primarily for exegetical discussion. ” I’m skeptical about syntactic categories and subcategories and their multiplication insofar as the exercise is aimed at determining an English counterpart that supposedly conveys what the Greek writer/speaker intended.
    “The syntactic force, as I understand it, describes the translation value of the form, once the contextual factors are taken into account.” We’ve been talking about adnominal genitives recently, in the course of which discussion I have attempted to steer the talk away from the notion that there is any inherent semantic force or meaning in the adnominal genitive as such; I think, moreover, that the temptation or insistence upon pinpointing a precise semantic force to a given instance of adnominal genitive in a given text and context is perilous. I’m inclined to think similarly about aorists: we might English ἐβασιλευσεν ὁ Ξέρξης τῇ —ῃ ᾿Ολυμπιάδι “Xerxes became king = began to rule as king in the xxx Olympiad. But I don’t think I’d talk about an “ingressive aorist” here. On the other hand, I would agree with you, Steve, that Levinsohn’s distinction between “semantic meaning” and “pragmatic effect” is useful. I just question the utility of postulating a composite “syntactic force” — it sounds too much like a notion that there is some inherent meaning in the structure itself.

  2. Daniel B. Wallace / Feb 1 2009

    I don’t care much for the phrase either, Steve. I use the phrase ‘semantic force’ or ‘semantic situation’ (by which I mean the same thing as linguists who speak of pragmatics). I also would not define this syntactic force (or, as I say, the semantic situation) as form + context. There are more things than context that influence the meaning that the author intends with a particular form: genre, lexeme, other grammatical features. But I honestly don’t think that it helps matters much to refrain for giving morpho-syntactic-pragmatic categories a name–and a name that has as its one essential component, the form. ‘Ingressive aorist,’ therefore, in my mind and in the mind of most grammarians is simply shorthand for an aorist tense that, especially because of the lexeme but also because of the context and other grammatical factors, is used by an author to emphasize the beginning of an action without any implications of it continuing. There are, of course, times in which syntax overlaps imperceptibly with pragmatics, but traditional grammar has at least shown that given forms can be used in certain ways. To not link such to the forms or to make cumbersome language for the sake of linguistic purity is admirable on one level, but I think it’s far easier, more valuable pedagogically, and shows the impact of syntax to exegesis far better than the altenatives. The key, of course, is that grammarians insist that a given morpho-syntactic form does not, in itself, convey anything but the general sense of that category. I have gone to great lengths to maintain this distinction, one that can be described as ontological (the morpho-syntactic form’s basic characteristics) and phenomenological (what such forms can mean when combined with lexeme, genre, context, and other grammatical features).

  3. Steve Runge / Feb 1 2009

    Thanks again for the clarification, Dan. I have never heard you teach through your grammar, but have heard good reviews from those who have. Most of my experience comes from either reading it myself, or from interaction with those who have read it without interaction with you. No matter how much you stress things in the introduction and after, you have no control over how it will be used. I expect I will learn this truth more fully as my grammar comes out. I shudder to think…

    In these discussions, folks forget or overlook the distinction you make between affected and unaffected meaning; possibly they never got it in the first place. As you said, this kind of confusion is not uncommon using these labels. I think this interaction here has benefited me, clarifying the matter in my own mind. I will take more care in citations to retain “affected” as a modifier.

    Fundamentally, I think the main difference between our approaches to grammar concerns the primary level at which we conduct most of our exegesis. I tend to look at higher-level phenomenon, presupposing that a closer, more rigorous analysis is performed at some point to attend to the details. I have no doubt that you move your way up the levels as well. However, most of our ink seems to be spilled on different levels. Most of my preaching concerns a pericope, helping people understand how the text flows and hangs together. In that sense, I will tend to major there, and not provide much granular discussion unless there is a significance to it. I have done the same in my blog. Perhaps I need to strike a better balance.

    I have seen that most students and pastors are well served by the traditional approach to grammar, when it comes to detailed word or clause level analysis. Things get a bit more unsure as we move up the level of analysis. I doubt this is a problem at DTS (or Bible Baptist Seminary with Captain Decker at the wheel). However, for many this level is a troublesome area. Although this blog has an academic flavor to it, I am am more focused on these guys than on the scholar.

    In talking about high-level patterns, it is nearly impossible to attend to every nuance, permutation, implication or detail along the way and actually accomplish anything. Having said that, I also need to be specific enough to prevent confusion over what I am claiming.

    I will be describing principles in the discussion of the historical present. These principles will need to be brought to bear and weighed based on the contextual factors of lexeme, genre, etc., just like any other principle of grammar. Hopefully the discussion can be understood in that way, and not as universal rules.

  4. Daniel B. Wallace / Feb 1 2009

    Steve, I think we’re actually on the same page. Maybe I’m a bit more preoccupied with the footnotes than you are, but we’re on the same page! I should add that throughout my grammar I constantly speak about the semantic situation and that the various morpho-syntactic categories do not, in themselves, MEAN the phenomenological categories. These are different things and I stress this over and over. When I teach the grammar, I spend two days on the preface because it lays out my method. You may have a stronger ally within the ‘traditional’ grammarian sector than you realized.

    I personally do not like the labels ‘traditional’ grammarian as opposed to whatever today, however. Instead, I make a distinction between grammarians and _linguists_ as follows: grammarians start from the ground up and ask, How can this form be used? Linguists start from a meta-framework and ask, How can this language express certain ideas? Grammarians–at least those who are true to their calling–do exhaustive work within at least a particular corpus of literature and classify what they have discovered into phenomenological categories. (That’s why, by the way, I list so many genitive uses in my grammar: these uses arise out of the text of the NT and apostolic fathers and other Koine literature. They may not be particularly meaningful for a pure grammarian–indeed, if I were such, I would complain about their multiplying like rabbits in my grammar too!–but they are meaningful to those doing exegesis in the NT.)

    The two weaknesses of grammarians are that (1) they often do not do exhaustive research (thus, they are not true to their calling) and then assume unaffected meanings on the basis of truncated data (e.g., the infamous prohibitive aorist/present and the barking dog story found in J. H. Moulton’s Prolegomena, or Colwell’s construction of the implications of his own rule), and (2) their approach doesn’t do much for offering predictability or presenting a holistic picture of how language functions.

    The weaknesses of linguists, in my view, are: (1) they, also, often neglect all the data (see David Crystal’s famous complaint about linguists’ sloppy work in this regard in the multi-author work he edited) but nevertheless make pronouncements about how the language functions (for another example, see many of Chomsky’s universals that were later debunked); (2) they all too often misunderstand the work of grammarians. I think that most grammarians respect the work of linguists, but they regard their work as of a different nature than their own work. On the other hand, linguists don’t, as a lot, have nearly as much respect for grammarians.

    I believe that we can work together if we get past these hurdles. Together we can create a sort of hermeneutical spiral, with grammarians at one pole and linguists at the other, as we work through various issues in the language of a particular corpus or era.

  5. Steve Runge / Feb 1 2009

    Your comments capture much of the spirit I am striving for. Writing the discourse grammar was honestly one of the first times that I completely immersed myself in Greek grammar proper, as you would call it. I read more Robertson, BDF, Blass, Thackeray, Smythe (and Wallace) than ever before. The overwhelming conclusion I came to is that they knew their grammar. I tended to call them the “dead grammarians”, but that left you in an awkward place. What I want to contribute is an understanding of how the affected meaning is achieved, looking at what is going on under the hood. The contemptuous use of demonstratives is a great case in point. Sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not. In chapter 18 I brought in the broader principles from linguistics that would help someone make an informed exegetical judgment rather than just going with their gut. Having said that, Robertson’s gut proved pretty faithful.

    I have already come to the realization that we are very close, that the work of the grammarians is to be respected, and rejected at your own peril. My concern has been whether my work would be accepted by grammarians or not. I have something to contribute, but still have much to learn. Annotating the entire GNT has helped offset the “sloppy linguist” syndrome. Building on Levinsohn’s 30+ years of work with minority languages has saved me from innumerable pitfalls. Thanks for your contributions to this discussion. I look forward to the feedback on the HP project (gulp).

  6. Daniel B. Wallace / Feb 1 2009

    Steve, I was hoping you would say that! I look forward very much to a linguist who reaches across the aisle, so to speak. And I deeply respect Levinsohn’s work because he is no ivory tower linguist; he works with the text and helps exegetes to see how the language functions. Buist Fanning and Levinsohn team-taught a course at Dallas Seminary for years on discourse analysis; now, it’s Buist’s baby. But it shows that we can cooperate in these projects and learn from each other. I believe that both sides have much to offer.

  7. Carl Conrad / Feb 2 2009

    I think that Steve has already suggested an attitude akin to my own, that it is really important to be clear about the distinction between discernment of what is communicated by the syntactic structure itself and what that syntactic structure may imply when one takes all the contextual factors into account. Perhaps something like a “plenary genitive” or even an “aporetic” genitive might be labeled as an “exegetical subcategory” of the genitive. Even when the rules of the game have been carefully spelled out in advance, the players caught up in the hurly-burly of game-play might not distinguish between grammatical analysis and commentary. I think that students need to be cognizant of what is indicated by syntax and what is indicated by context.

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