Exceptions to a rule

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
Thu Oct 25 11:24:10 EDT 2001

At 2:09 PM +0000 10/25/01, Mark Wilson wrote:
>Verbs agree with their Subjects. A plural Subject
>has a plural verb.
>EXCEPTION to rule:
>Neuter plural Subjects can take singular verbs.
>My question in the above, oversimplified rule is whether or not
>we really have an EXCEPTION to a rule and not simply a FEATURE of
>a language.
>To me, EXCEPTIONS to rules imply that their is something inherent
>and unchanging WITHIN THE RULES that is being "violated."

Mark, you're raising what is in fact a philosophical question here, even if
it might seem at the outset to be simply a methodological one. Insofar as
language (or human behavior of any other sort) is concerned, the
philosophical question is whether the patterns one generally observes as
prevalent are occasionally violated, and if so, whether such violations are
readily explicable. My own particular (Pauline? Calvinistic?) slant on this
is that human beings are much too ornery creatures to behave with total
consistency: they would break the rules deliberately if they knew there
were rules that could be broken. The larger philosophical question is: how
orderly is the world? is it ultimately unfathomable? or is it just far more
complex than we seem thus far capable of figuring out? Einstein said about
the intelligibility of the universe, "Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber
boshaft ist Er nicht"--which I'd English as "The Lord God is subtle, but He
is not malicious." Take all that as an aside; if you want to argue, respond
off-list; this is not the place for a discussion of the rationality of the
universe (it's hard enough to be rational about Greek!).

>Taking the above example, is there anything inherent within the
>rule of plural subjects taking plural verbs that is VIOLATED
>when neuter plural subjects use singular verbs?
>I think it is rather obvious that Neuter plural subjects are often
>conceived as a Unit and therefore the Greeks would have naturally
>used a unit-like verb. So, what appears to be an EXCEPTION is rather
>a FEATURE of neuter plural subjects. Once this FEATURE is discovered,
>then the singular verb makes perfect sense.

That's the usual view, but another factor in play is that use of a singular
verb with a neuter plural is more a rule of Attic than of Koine Greek. In
many respects Koine Greek is less observant of strict patterns than Attic.

>I wonder if something similar is behind the deponency discussions
>going on. Perhaps there is some inherent feature of m/p FORMS that
>certain verbs align with. To say that a verb has a middle or passive
>form BUT is active in meaning seems to imply to me some violation
>of either the form or the voice.

IMHO, there is indeed a deeper problem here; I think there's a profound
confusion of semantic voice with morphological form.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
Most months: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu OR cwconrad at ioa.com
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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