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Glossary of Discourse Devices

(Published as “The Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament: Glossary”)

Introduction

If you have done any formal study of Greek, you may have notices that many of the grammatical explanations are based largely upon how something is translated into English. The grammatical description focuses on assigning a syntactic meaning, e.g. historical present or imperatival participle. While this approach has its uses, it does little to help people understand Greek on its own terms as Greek. In other words, why use a present tense verb for a past-tense action, why use a participle instead of an imperative? I have heard many students say, “I know what it is, but not why they used it? What difference does it make which form is used?” They want to know the function of something, not just its syntactic title or translation.

The answers to these kinds of questions can be found in by answering two basic questions:

  • what choices were available to accomplish this grammatical task,
  • what is the meaningful difference between choosing X as opposed to Y or Z.

For instance, what is the meaningful difference between choosing a participle versus an indicative verb to portray an action? Syntactic categories like the ‘indicative verbal participle’ do little to help the reader understand the meaningful difference between participles and indicative verbs.

In reality, classifications like these tell us more about how the languages differ from one another than it does to help us understand the function of participles in Greek as Greek. What difference does it make when a writer uses a participle instead of an indicative, if both can be translated into English using the indicative?

Choice and Meaning.

One of the key presuppositions of the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament analysis is that choice implies meaning. If a writer chose a participle, then there is some meaning associated with its use that using an indicative verb would not have communicated. This is a fundamentally different issue than assigning a syntactic force, or determining an appropriate translation. Let’s unpack this idea a bit more.

If I chose to do X when y and z are also available options, this means that I have at the same time chosen not to do Y or Z.  In similar ways, we are constantly faced with decisions about how to phrase things, how to best organize what we want to say.  Most of these decisions are made without much thought. As native speakers of the language, we just do what ‘fits best’ based on what we want to communicate in the context.  Though we may not think consciously about these decisions, we are nonetheless making them.

Linguists have found that although there is tremendous diversity among languages, every language has to accomplish the same basic tasks. For instance, if I want to tell you a story about the first time I went rock climbing, I need to accomplish several tasks, like

  • introducing the people that are involved in the story,
  • setting the time, place and situation in which the story takes place,
  • providing background information that I  think you might need to understand the story (that I have a fear of heights, perhaps).

Once the scene is set and I am telling the story, I also need to do other things, like:

  • helping you track who is doing what to whom,
  • clearly communicating changes in time, place or participants,
  • deciding what information I want to group together in a single sentence, and what I want to break into separate sentences,
  • choosing which part of the story is the climax, and using the appropriate signals to communicate that to you.

Regardless of whether I am speaking or writing, I still need some means of accomplishing all of these tasks, as well as many others.  Since there is a common set of tasks that all languages need to be accomplish, we can use these tasks as a descriptive framework to describe what each different grammatical device accomplishes. They can provide an organizational framework for description, helping us understand the meaningful difference between choosing x versus y.

This glossary is organized by task, not by morphology or syntax. One of these tasks is ‘forward-pointing’, where a device is used to create anticipation about something before the ‘something’ is actually mentioned. Though there are several different forward-pointing devices, each one accomplishes a slightly different task than the other. They also use different grammatical devices: some use particles, others use pronouns, but they all accomplish the same basic task.

Describing devices by the task they accomplish allows us to see both the similarities and the differences. Using this task-based framework also allows us to make apples-to-apples comparisons to English by talking about how the comparable forward-pointing task is accomplished in English that we are studying in Greek

There are a number of ways that Greek and English differ, making it difficult to understand Greek using an English-based framework. At times it can be like putting the proverbial square peg in a round hole. A function-based approach enables us to understand Greek on its own terms as Greek. At the same time, it also provides a framework for making analogy to English based on how the comparable task is accomplished, regardless of  whether the same grammatical device is used or not. This function-based grammatical approach will be referred to as discourse grammar.

Prominence

Have you ever wondered why it is that some things tend to blend into the scenery, while other things just jump out at you?  Some things are prominent, others are not.    Regardless of whether you are looking at a scenic view or a piece of visual art, or even listening to music, we are constantly making judgments about what is ‘normal’ and what stands out as ‘prominent’.

In visual art, there are all kinds of choices available regarding how to portray a subject. The artist can manipulate the proportions of the figures to make one appear ‘nearer’ than another in the foreground. Even though a picture is only two-dimensional, the effect of changing the proportions can be to create a sense of depth in the work.

Contrast

The writers of the New Testament used different devices to communicate prominence and to create contrast.  Longacre makes this point by saying, “Discourse without prominence would be like pointing to a piece of black cardboard and insisting that it was a picture of black camels crossing black sands at midnight” (1985:83).  A writer can make something stand out by ‘pulling’ it to the foreground, comparable to taking a close-up photo. The same task can also be accomplished by pushing everything else into the background in order to leave just a few prominent elements by themselves in the foreground. This would be like taking a photo of two people that are fairly close to the camera against the backdrop of distant mountains. The things that appear to be close will attract our attention more than the things in the background. While both of these methods accomplish the same task of directing our attention, each choice brings about a different effect.

Another way of making something stand out is to use patterns and expectations. Humans are wired to recognize patterns. When patterns are broken or expectations are unmet, the standard response is to associate some kind of meaning with the change. Let’s take a look at how breaking an established pattern can make something stand out.

Imagine a co-worker or friend that regularly dresses in jeans and t-shirts, who one day arrives dressed in a suit.  The break in the pattern would get our attention, perhaps prompting questions about what it meant. Did they have an interview or a presentation? Was he going out somewhere special after work? What motivated them to wear the suit, what did it mean?

Similarly, musicians and songwriters employ patterns to do all kinds of things.  Devices such as refrains or repetition of a theme often have the function of segmenting the piece of music into movements or verses, i.e. smaller chunks.  The repetition of the same notes lets us know where these transitions are.  Increasing or decreasing the volume can also function as an indicator of prominence, such as building to a loud crescendo to indicate a climax.

Prominence is fundamentally about making something stand out in its context. The primary means of making something stand out is by contrasting it with other things in the context.  Contrast, in turn, presupposes that a person recognizes the underlying pattern.  Even if we cannot verbalize the pattern, we can still perceive contrast.  I do not need a music theory class to pick out a refrain; I do not need an art class to pick out the center of interest in most paintings.

We constantly make choices about how and what to communicate.  While languages have their differences, they all have a common set of tasks to be accomplished. The choices we make have meaning associated with them. The choice to break the expected pattern implies that there was some reason not to follow the pattern. These same devices also allow us to make some things more prominent, and others less prominent.

Semantic meaning versus Pragmatic effect

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). For instance, the phrase ‘your children’ is fairly straightforward in meaning, and is typically used to refer to kids that are not mine, but are yours. If used in the right context however, a very different ‘pragmatic effect’ can be achieved that is not part of it’s inherent meaning. Imagine that my wife asked me how our kids behaved while she was out running errands. If I began my answer with ‘Your children…’ it would a have a specific pragmatic effect, based on the context. This effect is not some hidden meaning underlying the phrase, just an effect of using it in the right way in the right context. Most punch lines of jokes rely upon taking the basic semantic meaning of something and creating a comical pragmatic effect through the careful creation of the right context (the joke itself).

Think about what is communicated by saying ‘Let him have it’, depending on the context. If an adult is speaking to a little boy holding a squirt gun, the semantic meaning of ‘hand over the squirt gun so someone else can have a turn’ might be the most appropriate meaning. If the adult also had a squirt gun and was participating in a water fight, then the pragmatic effect would be to instruct the boy to squirt the gun at some intended target, not to hand it over. The semantic meaning of the words is the same in both contexts, but the second one brings about a specific pragmatic effect that is not inherently part of the semantic meaning.

Let’s take a look at an example of semantic meaning versus pragmatic effect from Greek grammar. Present tense verbs are typically used to convey ongoing, continuous action that is occurring at the present time. We could call this its semantic meaning. However, present tense verbs are also used in the Gospels of Mark and John to encode past action in the narrative. This usage has traditionally been called the ‘historical present’. However, although this term tells us much about how this usage ought to be translated into English, it provides little insight into why a Greek writer would use it. So what is the pragmatic effect of using a historical present in the gospels?

The historical present ‘stands out’ in the context because the expected pattern of usage is broken. Rather than changing the basic semantic meaning of the tense or considering it to be ‘wrong’ usage, the historical present is a good example of taking an established pattern of usage and breaking it in order to achieve a specific pragmatic effect. In the case of the historical present, the pragmatic effect of its use is to attract extra attention to the speech or event that it introduces. In other words, it makes what immediately follows more prominent than it would have been if an aorist form had been used. Thus, the present tense does not have the inherent semantic meaning of highlighting. Rather, this ‘historical’ usage has the pragmatic effect of drawing extra attention to what follows, since it breaks the expected pattern of usage for the context.

Most languages do not have specialized devices that are exclusively devoted to tasks like prominence marking, and Greek is no exception. Instead, they tend to rely upon non-standard usage of various kinds to accomplish a pragmatic effect, like the use of the ‘historical present’. In other words, using a grammatical construction in an ostensibly wrong or strange way is a common means of making something ‘stand out’. The pragmatic effect achieved is dependant upon the discourse context in which it occurs.  The devices that are described below exploit some departure from an expected norm to achieve a specific pragmatic effect. Distinguishing semantic meaning from pragmatic effect is thus crucial providing a coherent and accurate description of the device and its function within the discourse.

Highlighting Devices

1.    Introduction to Forward-Pointing Devices

‘Forward-pointing’ is a general category for devices that essentially slow down the flow of the discourse by creating a break of some kind. Nearly all of the devices add some unnecessary element to the context that effectively creates the linguistic equivalent of a speed bump.  In other words, this additional element takes what might have been a minor break (e.g. between a noun phrase and a verb, between two clauses, etc.) and make it much bigger. This has the effect of making whatever follows the break stand out more than it would hva otherwise. These ‘speed bumps’ typically occur just before something surprising or important.

Some forward-pointing devices end up generically pointing forward. Other devices work as part of a paired set, with one part creating anticipation for the second part, which is usually the more important of the two.

Point-Counterpoint Sets

Point

One part of a paired set of statements that usually replaces the counterpoint, and is the more important of the two. 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.

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.

There are two primary devices used to create point-counterpoint sets:

  • the use of key words like ‘on the one hand…’ and ‘although…’ in English, or the particle μὲν (‘men‘) in Greek used in conjunction with δὲ  to create a set,
  • the use of paired negative/positive statements that are followed by restrictive statements introduced by ἀλλὰ or ἐὰν μὴ/εἰ μή.

Forward-pointing Reference and Target

Forward-pointing Reference

The use of pronouns like ‘this’, ‘those’ or ‘it’ to point ahead to some ‘target’ that has not yet been introduced. The forward-pointing pronoun is the reference. The forward-pointing reference has the effect of attracting extra attention to the thing to which it refers.

Forward-pointing Target

The use of pronouns like ‘this’, ‘those’ or ‘it’ to point ahead to some ‘target’ that has not yet been mentioned or introduced. The thing to which it points is the target. The effect of using the forward-pointing reference is to attract extra attention to the thing to which it refers.

We frequently use this device in English. Common examples include:

  • Get this!
  • Listen to this!
  • Guess what!
  • You know what?
  • Here’s the deal!
  • This is my final offer…

None of these statements are necessary to understand the proposition that follows, they simply pique your curiosity. The proposition that they introduce could be understood just as easily without the use of a forward-pointing introduction. The choice to include the forward-pointing reference represents the choice to attract extra attention to the target, usually because it is surprising or important.

Meta-comments

When a speaker stops saying what they are saying in order to comment on what is going to be said, speaking abstractly about it, e.g. “I want you to know that…”, “Don’t you know that…”

When people speak, they spend the majority of their time communicating what they want you to know. However, at times they step back from the actual topic and make a comment about the topic like:

  • It is very important that you understand that …”
  • I want you to know that …”
  • Don’t you know that…”
  • Of all the things that you have learned so far, the most important thing is that…”
  • “If you remember nothing else that I say, remember that…”

Meta-comments are used over 300 times in the NT. In each case it could have been omitted without substantially changing the content of the clause. The effect of the meta-comment is to slow down the flow of the text, and to attract the reader’s attention to some important proposition that follows.

Attention-getters

Something comparable to the use of ‘Listen up!’ or ‘Look!’ in colloquial English, as a means of letting the reader know that what follows is important or surprising, creating a break in the flow of the discourse.

Some examples from the New Testament include:

  • ἰδοὺ ‘behold’ or ‘look’
  • ἀμὴν ‘amen/truly’
  • ἀληθῶς/ἀληθείας ‘truly/certainly’
  • οὐαί ὑμῖν ‘woe to you’
  • ὃς ἔχει ὦτα ἀκούειν ἀκουέτω ‘the one who has ears, let him hear’

Attention-getters are an optional element that could have been omitted without significantly altering the propositional content. They can be placed either at the beginning of a clause, or in the middle to create a break in the flow of the discourse. In the latter case, the attention-getter typically separates the topic from what is said about it. In either case, the delay has the effect of adding some measure of suspense.

Redundant Quotative Frames

The use of extra verbs of speaking to ‘frame’ or introduce a speech, which are meant to draw attention to a surprising or important speech that follows.

They are several contexts in which they are found in the Greek New Testament.

  • Mid-dialogue-Use of more than one verb of speaking in a quotative frame to signal a switch of speaker and hearer in the midst of a dialogue. The most commonly used redundant quotative frame is ἀπεκρίθη καὶ εἶπεν, where ἀπεκρίθη is unneeded. Such usage often signals a shift in the direction of the speech, or that the speech that follows is important.
  • Mid-speech-Use of an unneeded quotative frame by the narrator in the middle of a speech where there has been no change of speakers. This redundant frame serves to segment the speech into smaller units, often separating the less-important part from a more important part that follows.

These extra frames are regularly omitted in English translations.

Tail-Head Linkage

The process of restating an action from the previous clause (the tail) at the beginning of the following clause (the head) in order to link more closely link it to the preceding clause. It has the effect of slowing down the flow of the discourse before something surprising or important.

The restated action at the beginning of the clause (the head) is usually placed in a subordinate or circumstantial clause. The restated action provides a frame of reference for the action that follows, linking it to the preceding clause. At the same time, it also effectively slows down the flow of the discourse.

Tail-head linkage is typically used in English as a means of building suspense just before something surprising or important happens (e.g. ‘We sat around the fire after dinner. While we were sitting there… ‘). The ‘tail-head’ repetition is not required. It serves a larger discourse purpose of intentionally slowing the pace of the story in order to build up suspense. From an exegetical standpoint, tail-head linkage serves as a marker that something significant is about to happen.

2.    Introduction to Thematic Highlighting

Thematic highlighting devices are used to add extra information to an expression in order to make the reader think about the some thing in a specific way. Writers typically use the simplest form available to refer to active participants, e.g. a pronoun (‘he’, ‘she’) when someone is active, or a simple noun phrase (‘the centurion’, ‘Zechariah’) if they have been inactive. When more information is used than what is necessary to clearly identify a participant in a context, some task in addition to disambiguation is being accomplished. The prototypical effect of adding extra information is to recharacterize the participant or concept in some significant way, based on the theme of the context. In other words, the information serves a thematic function reshaping the way that you think about the participant or concept. It makes sure that you are thinking about the right thing in the right way, the way that the writer wants you to think about it.

Overspecification

The description of individuals or ideas that is more specific than required to identify the intended referent. This extra information is often ‘thematically-loaded’, connected to the theme of the context in some way.  The overspecification prompts the reader conceptualize the referent in a specific way.

Examples of overspecification are found in the Sermon on the Mount. God the Father is first referred to as τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖ  ‘your father who is in heaven’ in Matt 5:16, 45, and 6:9. Then as Jesus’ teaching shifts to the topic of doing things in public versus in private, the overspecified description of ‘the Father’ shifts to ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυφαίῳ ‘your Father who sees in secret’ in Matt. 6:4, 6, 18. The information added to ‘your Father’ is not needed to distinguish this ‘Father’ from some other one that ‘sees in secret’. Instead it recharacterizes him, changing from ‘your heavenly one’ to ‘the one who sees in secret’. After the section on alms, prayer and fasting is completed, the theme of ‘private versus public’ shifts to storing things on earth versus in heaven. Accordingly, the expression used to refer to the Father also shifts, from ‘the one seeing in secret’ to ‘the one in heaven’ (cf. Matt. 6:32). These shifts in overspecification are closely associated with the shifts in the thematic content.

Thematic Address

The use of vocatives or nominatives of address containing extra descriptive information that is either not required to identify the addressee(s). The information has the effect of characterizing the addressee(s), based upon how the speaker conceives of them.

John calls the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism “You brood of vipers” in Matt 3:7;  Jesus addresses those doing miraculous things in his name asyou workers of lawlessness” in Matt. 7:23. They serve to (re)characterize the addressee from the speaker’s point of view.

Right-dislocations

Appositional information that is added at the end of a clause that further describes some previously-mentioned entity in the clause, and agrees morphologically with the previous mention.

There are two primary reasons for using these constructions. First, they allow complex concepts to be introduced in a single clause in two parts: a generic reference, which is elaborated upon by the dislocated information Second, it allows the writer to intentionally delay the disclosure of significant information, using the right-dislocation to draw extra attention to it.

Near and Far Demonstrative Pronouns

Near Demonstrative Pronoun

The use of the ‘near’ demonstrative pronoun (οὗτός, this/these) to establish a near/far distinction either where one literally exists, or to figuratively create one. The near demonstrative is prototypically used for things that are thematically central to the discourse.

Far Demonstrative Pronoun

The use of the ‘far’ demonstrative pronoun (ἐκεῖνός, that/those) to establish a near/far distinction where one literally exists, or to figuratively create one. The far demonstrative is used for things that are not thematically central to the discourse, i.e. they are ‘athematic’.

Demonstrative pronouns are often used in the place of personal pronouns. They can also be added as adjectival modifiers to noun phrases. Here are some examples of where both the near and far demonstrative occur in the same verse, creating a thematic/athematic distinction.

Luke 18:14 λέγω ὑμῖν κατέβη οὗτος δεδικαιωμένος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ παρ ̓ ἐκεῖνον   I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other

In 18:14, Jesus compares the prayers of the proud Pharisee with those of the humble tax collector. The character that is thematically-central to the writer (i.e. the tax collector) is referred to using the near demonstrative, while the character that is less central (i.e. the Pharisee) is referred to using the far demonstrative to signal it is athematic.

Demonstratives not need be used in opposition in order to create a thematic/athematic distinction. One finds the athematic demonstrative occurring in opposition to second person personal pronouns (e.g. Matt. 13:11; Heb. 8:7), or the near demonstrative added to something to make it more thematically prominent (e.g. Matt. 1:20; Rom. 7:16, 20).

Changed Reference

The use of a different referring expression to refer to an established participant to:

  • ‘recharacterize’ the participant, or highlight some thematically-salient information.
  • explicitly indicate the current ‘center of attention’ by switching from a proper name to a more generic reference that connects one participant to another in a context (e.g. ‘his mother’ instead of ‘Mary’ in Luke 2:48).

Writers at times change a participant’s referring expression for thematic reasons. Most often one finds a change from a proper name to what is called an epithet, like ‘the servant’ or ‘his disciple’. There are several effects that can be achieved by changes of reference.

  • To explicitly identify the current ‘center of attention’ by anchoring or connecting one participant to another instead of using the expected referring expression. In most stories minor participants are ‘anchored’ to the major ones, for instance Jesus had participants connected to him like ‘his mother’ and ‘his disciples’, while the centurion had ‘his servant’. The current center of attention can be made explicit by anchoring participants to one another in contexts where it is not semantically required, e.g. ‘his mother’ instead of ‘Mary’ in Luke 2:48, or ‘Mary his mother’ in Luke 2:33 to indicate that Jesus is the center of attention, not Mary.
  • To recharacterize or highlight some thematically-important information or anchoring relation that is relevant in the context. For instance in the temptation of Jesus in Matt 4, vv. 1-2 state that he was tempted by the Devil. At the point that the devil tempts Jesus in v. 3, the writer refers to the devil as ‘the tempter’, switching back in v. 5 to ‘the devil’. The changed reference from ‘the devil’ to ‘the tempter’ helps to elucidate a key theme in the passage.

Word-Order Analysis[2]

Introduction

Not everything in a discourse can be of equal importance. Writers must make decisions about what to highlight as important and what not to highlight. Though there are a number of ways of phrasing the same propositional information, each option achieves different effects depending on the context. Consider the following sentences:

a)                  I went to the store yesterday.

b)                  Yesterday I went to the store.

At face value, both of these sentences communicate the same basic information. Sentence a) is the most basic form of the sentence; sentence b) has placed the adverb ‘yesterday’ at the beginning of the sentence. This kind of movement will be referred to as ‘fronting’. In many languages, fronting an element to the beginning of  the sentence has the effect of drawing extra attention to it, whether it is a word, a phrase, or a subordinate clause. It is important to bear in mind however, that this added attention is not the same thing as emphasis. Look at how context can affect what is achieved by the fronting.

Emphasis

If I were to ask the question, “When did you go to the store,” the time at which you went would be the most important information in the sentence. ‘Yesterday’ would be considered most important in both sentences. The position in the sentence does not affect the relative status of the information, the context does.

What then, is the difference between fronting the most important information of the sentence versus leaving it in it its standard position in the sentence? Fronting the answer in b) has the effect of drawing more attention to the information than in sentence a). In other words, while ‘yesterday’ is the most important part of both sentences, b) uses fronting to mark the word as especially important, i.e. emphasizing it, as opposed to leaving it in its normal position at the end of the sentence as in a). As I stated in the introduction, if there is more than one way to accomplish a task in a language, it is important to determine which one of them is the more basic or ‘default’ option. This is not to say that it is the most frequent. The goal is to determine which order that would be used when there is nothing special to communicate.

The default option becomes the backdrop against which the other options are described. It is assumed that these other options signal the presence of some special feature. Using the default option would not have sent the same signal as the non-default one. In this way, the default option provides the framework against which to identify and describe what the other options signal.

In English, we typically signal the most important part of a clause using intonation, by placing primary stress on it. This stress can be placed on it regardless of whether the emphasized element is in its default position, or whether it has been placed in a special position for emphasis’ sake (typically ‘It is X’, like ‘It was yesterday that I went to the store’, as opposed to some other day). Placing the information in a special position signals that the writer has chosen to assign more prominence to it than it would have received in its normal location. In other words, I am not just providing an answer to the question in a) above, but I am also providing the answer with some extra ‘zing’. In this case, the ‘zing’ is signaled grammatically by fronting it for emphasis’ sake.

Frames of Reference

There are two reasons for fronting a clause element. Context is the primary means of differentiating between the two. Consider how context can change the effects achieved by fronting. Imagine I were to ask, “What have you been doing?” This ‘what’ question indicates that the action or activity that you did is the most important part of the sentence now, as opposed to the time that it was done. Is ‘yesterday’ still the most important element of the sentence in answer to the question ‘what’? No, it is not. However, ‘yesterday’ still attracts added attention.

In answer to the question ‘what did you do’, fronting ‘yesterday’ indicates that the primary basis of relating what precedes with what follows is by a change of time. If I had said, “I went to the beach today; yesterday I went to the store,” fronting ‘yesterday’ makes this change in time stand out more than in sentence a), but it does not make it the most important part of the sentence. The action of ‘going to the store’ is most important in this context.

Changing the context in which the answer is given from ‘when’ to ‘what’ illustrates how context affects the interpretation of the fronted element. Where the fronted element is the most important information in the clause, fronting it has the effect of adding emphasis. When an element other than the most important is fronted, it signals a new frame of reference for what follows. In the ‘what’ context, fronting ‘yesterday’ provides a new time frame for the clause that follows.

Traditional Understanding of Word Order by Greek Grammarians

Greek grammarians have traditionally equated fronting with emphasis. At the same time, they have been well aware that emphasis does not always result, calling such instances ‘contrast’ rather than ’emphasis’. Another way of looking at this is to say that the grammarians recognized that fronting something in Greek has the effect of attracting extra attention to it, making it prominent. The element that was lacking in the traditional explanation was making a distinction between fronting the most important element of the clause versus some less-important element. Fronting the most important element adds emphasis, just as they claim. Fronting less-important elements has a different effect; it signals a new frame of reference for what follows.

Summary

Fronting can have various effects, depending on the context. Fronting the most important part of the clause nearly always has the effect of assigning emphasis. My working definition of emphasis will be ‘placing what is relatively the most important part of a clause in a special position in order to attract extra attention to it’. Fronting less-important elements has the effect of creating a new frame of reference for the clause that follows. The same information could just as easily have been communicated using standard word order, as in sentence a) above. However, the choice to front something represents the choice to attract extra attention to it in the sentence, making it ‘stand out’ more. Choice implies meaning. Understanding the implications of choices gives us insight into what writers were seeking to signal through the word-order variation attested in the Greek NT.

What I have outlined here is a set of principles that help us to understand the impact of the writers’ decisions, based on the choices available and the context. They are not rules. The claim that ‘everything fronted is emphatic’ is a good illustration of the problem with rules.  We saw how changes in context impacted the interpretation of ‘yesterday’ in the sentences above, illustrating the limits of rule-based explanations.

3.    Emphasis

Emphasis is ‘placing what is relatively the most important part of a clause in a special position in order to attract extra attention to it’. The importance of the information is determined by its value in the context, not by its position in the clause. Emphasis is therefore viewed as the writer’s choice to place what is already the most important information in the clause in a special position in order to attract more attention to it than it would have otherwise received.

It is important to understand that not every important element in every clause is emphasized. The most important information in a clause is important because of the context, not because of its position in the clause. Sometimes you will find very important elements placed in a position of emphasis, but not always. Placing every important element in a position of emphasis would end up ‘watering down’ the effects that are achieved. Keep in mind Longacre’s comment, “Discourse without prominence would be like pointing to a piece of black cardboard and insisting that it was a picture of black camels crossing black sands at midnight” (1985:83). Emphasizing everything would end up emphasizing little or nothing. Some elements are important enough that they naturally stand out; there is no need for adding emphasis. Keep in mind that just because something does not receive emphasis does not mean that it is unimportant. Importance is based on the new information adds to the context, not its position in a clause.

Since emphasis is based upon the context, the scope over which the emphasis extends is determined by the discourse level at which the information is most important. If the information is the most important in a main clause, the scope of the emphasis extends over that entire clause. If it is most important in a participial or subordinate clause, then the scope is limited to that clause, and does not extend over the main clause to which it is subordinated. For this reason, the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament distinguishes three different scopes of emphasis, defined by the level at which the emphasis operates and the means by which the emphasis is signaled. These levels are:

  • Main clause emphasis
  • Main clause emphasis-Other
  • Subordinate clause emphasis

In cases where a subordinate clause has been fronted and is on the same outline level as the main clause to which it is subordinated, I have applied different annotations to differentiate the scope over which the emphasis applies.

Main clause emphasis

Describes the movement of the most important element(s) of the main clause on a given propositional level to a position of prominence in order to attract extra attention to it using a change in word order. The scope of the emphasis extends over the main clause on the same level of the discourse outline.

Emphasis is ‘placing what is relatively the most important part of a clause in a special position in order to attract extra attention to it’. The importance of the information is determined by its contribution to the context, not by its postion in the clause. Emphasis is therefore viewed as the writer’s choice to place what is already the most important information in the clause in a special position to attract more attention to it than it would have otherwise received.

Main clause emphasis-Other

Describes the placement of the most important element(s) of the main clause in a position of prominence to attract extra attention to it based on something besides word order. This kind of prominence can be achieved through the use of a point-counterpoint set. Alternatively, if only one portion of a clause element is fronted for emphasis’ sake, the remainder of this element also receives emphasis by virtue of its grammatical relation to the fronted portion. The scope of the emphasis extends over the main clause on the same level of the discourse outline.

The term ‘main clause emphasis-other’ is not meant to indicate that there is some other kind of emphasis. Instead it is used to distinguish emphasis that is established based on word order (‘main clause emphasis’) from that which is established on other grounds (‘main clause emphasis-other’).

Emphasis is ‘placing what is relatively the most important part of a clause in a special position in order to attract extra attention to it’. The importance of the information is determined by its contribution to the context, not by its position in the clause. Emphasis is therefore viewed as the writer’s choice to place what is already the most important information in the clause in a special position to attract more attention to it than it would have otherwise received.

Subordinate clause emphasis

Describes the placement of what is most important within a subordinate clause in a position of prominence when the subordinate clause occurs on the same propositional level as the main clause that governs it. The scope of the emphasis is limited to the subordinate clause in which it occurs.

This label is primarily used to differentiate the scope of emphasis when a subordinate clause and main clause both occur on the same line of the propositional outline. Since the subordinate clause is a component of the main clause, the scope of the subordinate clause emphasis is limited to that clause, and does not extend to the main clause.

Emphasis is ‘placing what is relatively the most important part of a clause in a special position in order to attract extra attention to it’. The importance of the information is determined by its value in the context, not by its position in the clause. Emphasis is therefore viewed as the writer’s choice to place what is already the most important information in the clause in a special position to attract more attention to it than it would have otherwise received.

4.    Frames of reference

As the name suggests, they provide a mental frame of reference for the clause that follows. They set the scene, providing a ‘starting point’. It also provides the primary basis for relating what follows the frame to what precedes the frame. By definition, the framed element is not be the most important information in the clause; fronting the most important information has the effect of creating emphasis, not a new frame of reference.

There are two reasons for fronting something: for emphasis and to establish a new frame of reference for what follows. Emphasis typically involves placing the most important information in the clause in a special position. The information found in frames is not the most important, but has been placed in a special position. This has the effect of drawing extra attention to some kind of change, such as a change of topic, time, or location.

A frame of reference accomplishes two primary tasks, according to Levinsohn (2000:8): [3]

  • “it provides a starting point for the communication; and
  • it ‘cohesively anchors the subsequent clause(s) to something which is already in the context'”.

The issue of ‘Contrast’

Traditional Greek grammarians have referred to what I am calling ‘frames’ as ‘contrastive topics’. It is more accurate to view the fronted topical frames as marking an explicit change that may or may not be contrastive. Contrast has been demonstrated to be based more on the context than on the syntax. In other words, the contrast would have existed with or without the fronting of the topic. Fronting the information simply attracts more attention to the change. In a context where contrast exists, creating a frame of reference has the effect of sharpening the contrast. In a context of relative continuity, a topical frame still draws attention to the switch. Contrast is based on the semantics of the context, the use of syntactic constructions like frames of reference only magnifies whatever contrast is already present.[4]

Topical frames

The fronting of some thematic element of the clause (often the grammatical subject) in order to establish a specific frame of reference regarding the theme of the clause that follows. Topical frames are used to:

  • introduce brand new participants or concepts
  • draw extra attention to changes in topic, sharpening comparisons or contrasts

A frame of reference accomplishes two primary tasks, according to Levinsohn (2000:8):

  • “it provides a starting point for the communication; and
  • it ‘cohesively anchors the subsequent clause(s) to something which is already in the context'”.

Temporal frames

The fronting of temporal information to an initial position in the clause in order to establish a specific time frame for the clause that follows. Temporal frames accomplish two functions:

  • to establish a brand new point in time for the clause or discourse that follows
  • to draw extra attention to changes in time within the discourse, effectively sharpening comparisons or contrasts

A frame of reference accomplishes two primary tasks, according to Levinsohn (2000:8):

  • “it provides a starting point for the communication; and
  • it ‘cohesively anchors the subsequent clause(s) to something which is already in the context'”.

Temporal frames draw attention to a switch or updating of the time in the clause that follows. These fronted elements establish a specific time frame for reading and processing the clause that follows. Fronting the temporal expression does not make it contrastive. The contrast in the time would have been present if the temporal information were placed in its normal position at the end of the clause. Temporal frames accomplish two primary functions:

  • to establish a specific time reference in which  the clause or discourse that follows should be processed
  • to draw extra attention to switches in time within the discourse, effectively sharpening comparisons or contrasts

Spatial frames

The fronting of information describing the scene, setting or location to provide a specific frame of reference for processing the clause that follows. Placing the information in a spatial frame makes the change of scene or location stand out more sharply.

Spatial frames accomplish two primary functions:

  • to establish an explicit location or setting for what follows
  • to draw extra attention to switches of location, effectively sharpening comparisons or contrasts

A frame of reference accomplishes two primary tasks, according to Levinsohn (2000:8):

  • “it provides a starting point for the communication; and
  • it ‘cohesively anchors the subsequent clause(s) to something which is already in the context'”.

These fronted elements provide a specific spatial frame of reference within which to read and process the clause that follows. Placing the information in a spatial frame makes the change of scene or location stand out more sharply.

Circumstantial frames

Not every action in the New Testament is equally important.  Using a participle to encode a circumstantial action has the effect of backgrounding the action with respect to the main action of the clause. It is something like having the action take one step back. Participles are often used to describe action that needs to be mentioned, but is less important than the main action. Using a main verb form, like an indicative or imperative verb, would have placed the action on the same plane of importance as the main action. Use of a participle effectively pushes the action into the background, making sure the main action remains the center of attention.

Circumstantial frames represent the writer’s choice to take two (or more) actions that could potentially have been of equal importance, and to make a distinction between them by backgrounding one (or more) by encoding the action using a circumstantial participle. Instead of making each of them a main verb in their own main clause, one (or more) is rendered as a fronted participial clause in order to clearly indicate which action is the more important.

In many cases, backgrounded participial clauses are translated into English and treated as though they are main verbs. While this may be necessary for translation, disregarding that they are participles is to disregard the distinction the writer has made between the main action and the circumstantial action.

Nominative circumstantial frames

Nominative participial clauses that are positioned before the main verb to establish a state of affairs for the clause that flows. The use of the participle backgrounds the action with respect to the main verb of the clause in order to ensure that the main action receives primary attention. Nominative circumstantial frames are used when the subject of the participle is the same as the subject of the main clause.

Genitive circumstantial frames

Genitive participial clauses that are positioned before the main verb to establish a state of affairs for the clause that flows. The use of the participle backgrounds the action with respect to the main verb of the clause in order to ensure that the main action receives primary attention. Genitive circumstantial frames are used when the subject of the participle is not otherwise involved in the clause that follows.

Dative circumstantial frames

Dative (or accusative in a very few cases) participial clauses that are positioned before the main verb to establish a state of affairs for the clause that flows. The use of the participle backgrounds the action with respect to the main verb of the clause in order to ensure that the main action receives primary attention. Dative (or accusative) circumstantial frames are used when the subject of the participle is involved in the action of the main clause in a non-subject role.

Conditional frames

The fronting of subordinate conditional clauses to create a specific frame of reference for the proposition that follows, making clear that the proposition is contingent upon the condition of the frame being met. The condition is not the most important information in the clause, the main predication is. Fronting the condition does not result in emphasis, but establishes an explicit frame of reference for what follows. Conditional frames are often used to establish hypothetical situations in one easy step. The conditional frame enables the writer to introduce the situation and to comment about it in a single complex clause, instead of using several clauses.

Comparative frames

The fronting of a subordinate comparative clause to create a specific frame of reference for the proposition that follows. Most comparisons are established by taking a primary element and comparing it against some related, secondary element that becomes the basis of comparison. When the secondary element occurs at the beginning of the main clause, it has the effect of creating an explicit comparative frame of reference for what follows. Placing the secondary element first also has the effect of delaying the introduction of the primary thing that is under consideration. The basis of comparison provides a lens through which the following clause is read. This achieves quite a different effect than if the comparison had followed the clause, only making the comparison after the fact.

Reason/Result frames

The fronting of a subordinate reason or result clauses (e.g. ἵνα- , ὅτι- or ἐπεὶ-clauses) or phrases (e.g. prepositional phrases using διὰ, ) in order to create a specific frame of reference for the main clause that follows. They state the goal or rationale for the main proposition before the reader actually learns what the proposition is. The reason/result frame makes explicit why the proposition that follows is being made.

Left dislocation

The introduction of information that is syntactically outside the main clause (i.e. it is ‘dislocated’), which is then reiterated somewhere in the main clause using a pronoun or other generic reference. Left-dislocations typically introduce something that is too complex to include in the main clause, one that might otherwise cause confusion. The resumptive element of the left dislocation essentially summarizes the new content, allowing a comment about the new entity to be easily made.

Many of the left dislocations found in the NT are used to introduce some new, complex entity. There are also many instances where the dislocated content could just as easily have been given using a simple frame. The use of the pronoun to reiterate the content of the dislocation, attracts more attention to it. The comment about the framed information is most important, not the framed elements. There many instances where the reiterated element is fronted to receive emphasis.

5.    Propositional Annotations

Proposition

The most basic form of a clause or sentence, not expressing any particular relation to the clause that precedes it. Clauses which begin a speech reported within the discourse are labeled as propositions, but are indented in the block outline to reflect that they are technically dependent upon the verb of speaking that introduces them. Propositions are normally signaled in Greek by καὶ, δὲ, or asyndeton (the absence of a conjunction).

Principle

A proposition that is is marked as drawing an inference or assertion based upon the preceding discourse. Principles are normally signaled in Greek by οὖν, διὸ, διὰ τοῦτο or πλὴν. Cf. Levinsohn (2000:128-133).

Support

A proposition that is marked as strengthening or supporting the preceding discourse. Support propositions do not extend or develop an argument, but serve instead to reinforce the current point. Cf. Heckert (1996:32-36); Levinsohn (2000:91-94).

Complex

This label is indicates that the proposition that follows contains dependent elements preceding the main proposition. The main proposition of the main clause is indented one level below the ‘complex’ label, even though it is not grammatically dependent.  Dependent elements are indented two or more levels below the ‘complex’ label.

Sub-point

A proposition that is grammatically dependent upon another one.  In most cases, the proposition upon which it depends precedes the sub-point. In ‘Complex’ constructions, the sub-point may precede the clause that it is dependent upon. Sub-points are normally signaled in Greek by ὅτι, ἵνα, εἰ, ἐὰν, καθὼς, or by a relative pronoun.

Elaboration

A proposition, normally with a participle as the verb, which expands upon the action of the main proposition to which it is dependent. Elaboration typically follows the main proposition, though they may precede it in ‘Complex’ constructions.

Circumstance

A proposition, normally with a participle as the verb, which introduces the state of affairs surrounding the main proposition. Circumstantial constructions have the effect of backgrounding the action they introduce with respect to the action of the main proposition. Cf. Levinsohn (2000:183-190).

Bullet

A part of a proposition that has been placed on its own lineto attract attention to parallelism, a list, or a point-counterpoint set. The bullet is a component of another proposition.

Continuative relative clause

The continuative relative clause advances the discourse similarly to an independent proposition, even though it is technically dependent upon another proposition. This ‘dependent’ connection creates a close bond with the preceding discourse, often forming a tightly connected chain of clauses. Cf. Winer (1882:680); Levinsohn (2000:191-196).

Topic of verbless clause

The topic or subject of a clause where both subject and the predicate share the same grammatical case.


[1]Steven Runge and Inc. Logos Research Systems, The Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament ( (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008; 2008)).

[2] What follows is a drastically oversimplified introduction to the principles governing the analysis of information structure. The goal is not to teach you how to do the analysis, nor to discuss finer nuances of these principles, which can be quite involved. My goal is to provide enough of an introduction for the reader to productively interact with the LEDA analysis. One need not be skilled enough to cook a gourmet meal in order to be able to enjoy and appreciate it. For an overview of information structure applied to Biblical Greek, cf. Levinsohn Discourse Features of New Testament Greek, pp. 18-78.

[3] What I am calling ‘frames of reference’ were first described by Jan Firbas (1964) as a ‘basis’ for relating what precedes with what follows. Linguists have generally referred to frames under the heading of ‘topicalization’, but this caused confusion since non-topical elements can be topicalized. Buth (1999) refers to this phenomenon as ‘contextualizing constituents’, while Levinsohn (2000) refers to them as ‘points of departure’. I include other elements under the heading of ‘frame of reference’ that are not properly ‘points of departure’, such as left dislocations and pre-verbal circumstantial participles. I do this for simplicity sake, since they accomplish largely the same function, even though they are not formally classified as points of departure.

[4] For a good discussion of this issue relating to biblical languages, cf. Floor’s (2004:44-46) discussion of Vallduví and Vilkuna (1998).

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