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