[B-Greek] Definiteness

Brian Abasciano bvabasciano at gmail.com
Mon Oct 16 15:01:46 EDT 2006


Thank you for your message. Let me say first, that I believe that at this
point, we are talking more about English translation and the sense of the
indefinite article in English more than Greek grammar etc. So I am not sure
how much longer we should continue this conversation on list. But since you
post specific, pointed questions to me, I should do my best to answer within
my time constraints.

I actually think that I can cut through a lot of the discussion with some
general points or observations. I think I have stated what I see in the
Greek that is not present in the English translations -- emphasis on quality
rather than on membership in a class. Coupled with this, I don't think the
English indef article gives this sense as clearly as an anarthrous preverbal
PN. I think you show that it can be used in this sense. And I had already 
that it could. It's just a matter of a different sense of the likely impact 
of the indef article in Eng. But I agree with you that qualitativeness is 
within the semantic range of the Eng indefinite article (IA). However, I 
don't believe it is "well within" it as you put it. That is, I don't think 
it is a typical use of it (or else you would find such a use in standard 
dictionaries; for your convenience I took the liberty of copying in 
Webster's online entry for "a" before the copy of your message below), and 
so could be misleading to an Eng reader of a translation in certain 
circumstances. Again, I have said and maintain that it is usually not a bad 
translation to use IA, but I don't think it as an exact match for the sense 
of the Greek as you seem to think. One interesting difference is that in the 
case of anarthrous preverbal
PN's, word order actually seems suggest that quality is being stressed in 
addition to any contextual factors. There is no such clue in an Eng 

Let me give you an example that I think illustrates my view: 1 John 1:5. I 
think it would be inaccurate and misleading to translate, "God is a light." 
I believe the best translation is, "God is light", suggesting in no way that 
God is a member of the class of lights, but simply asserting that he is 
thoroughly characterized by light (whatever one will interpret that to 
mean). One could translate, "God is a light", and then hope that the reader 
will recognize that the IA can be used to highlight qualitativeness, and 
gain that perspective on the statement. But that would not be the immediate 
impact of reading the statement and I think it would be a misleading 
translation. See further responses inserted into your message below.

Webster's online, s.v. "a":
1 -- used as a function word before singular nouns when the referent is
unspecified <a man overboard> and before number collectives and some numbers
<a dozen>
2 : the same <birds of a feather> <swords all of a length>
3 a -- used as a function word before a singular noun followed by a
restrictive modifier <a man who was here yesterday> b : ANY <a man who is
sick can't work> c -- used as a function word before a mass noun to denote a
particular type or instance <a bronze made in ancient times> d -- used as a
function word before a proper noun representing an example or type <the
attractions of a Boston or a Cleveland> e -- used as a function word before
a proper noun to indicate limited knowledge about the referent <a Mr. Smith
called to inquire about the job> f -- used as a function word before a
proper noun to distinguish the condition of the referent from a usual,
former, or hypothetical condition <a triumphant Ms. Jones greeted her
4 -- used as a function word with nouns to form adverbial phrases of
quantity, amount, or degree <felt a bit tired>

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Sean Kasabuske" <alethinon61 at milwpc.com>
To: "Brian Abasciano" <bvabasciano at gmail.com>; <b-greek at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Saturday, October 14, 2006 3:31 PM
Subject: Re: [B-Greek] Definiteness

> Hi Brian,
> Sorry for the belated reply, but I was going to offer a much more thorough
> response than this.  However, the more complete response will have to wait
> a
> little longer due to time constraints.  This may be a good thing, as I
> would
> like to clarify my position a little more and ask you to clarify yours.
> Brian
> "By taking your point, I meant conceding, in case that wasn't clear...I
> don't have time to look over all these examples. But let me say thatif
> they
> are all anarthrous preverbal PN's (I checked a few and saw that they
> were),
> I would take most of them to not be fully represented by the English
> translation, though I would say that these may still be the best
> translations possible."
> Sean
> They are all pre-verbal PN's, which I took from page 56 of Paul Dixon's
> thesis, where he provides the list of verses that he believes contain
> "Qualitative-Pre-copulative Anarthrous Predicate Nominatives".
> Please, Brian, define precisely what you believe you see in the Greek that
> you don't believe is present in the English translations I submitted.  I
> find that those translations capture the contextual sense of the Geek
> perfectly, and so I can't imagine what you think is missing.
> Brian
> "We can't always convey the full sense of the underlying Greek by a normal
> type of English translation. I agree with Wallace and take such PN's to
> empasize the characteristics of the class they belong to rather than their
> membership in the class."
> Sean
> What specifically is it that causes you to believe that it is the
> characteristics of the class that is stressed in the translations I
> presented, and why don't you believe that the English indefinite can be
> used
> to convey those characteristics?  I ask this because I'm pretty sure that
> I
> can logically demonstrate that the English translations represent the
> sense
> of the Greek very well, but I want to make sure that I take your view into
> account when I present my analysis.
> Brian
> "I don't think the indefinite article communicates that in English as
> clearly as the Greek. Wallace cites your first example (Jn 4:19) as the
> most
> likely candidate of an indefinite preverbal PN in the NT, but eventually
> concludes that it is best seen as indefinite-qualitative, stressing Jesus'
> prophetic powers rather than his membership in the class of prophets. I
> concur, though it certainly could be strictly indefinite, which would then
> be well represented by the Englsih translation using "a". As for the
> basis?
> I would say it is ultimately context."
> Sean
> Brian, set Wallace aside for a moment and just focus on how the English
> indefinite is used.  Allow me to illustrate via 3 examples the semantic
> range of the English indefinite:
> ILLUSTRATION #1: Because of recent layoffs, the local employment office is
> filled with people who are waiting to see if they will be sent to work
> that
> day (this was not uncommon years ago at some employment offices).  The
> manager walks into the room filled with people eager to work, and
> announces
> that several positions have opened up in a variety of occupations.  He
> says,
> "Please call out your name and state your occupation".  In order, the
> first
> person said, "I'm a painter", the next said, "I'm a plumber", the next
> said,
> "I'm an electrician", etc.
> In the above examples, the indefinite "a painter", "a plumber", "an
> electrician", is used for simple classification.  Given Dixon's list of
> qualitative nouns, I wouldn't be surprised if he labeled these
> "qualitative"
> as well, but they are simple indefinites of classification.  Since folks
> like Wallace like to put things into distinct categories, for the sake of
> this discussion, let's call these "categorical indefinites".
> ILLUSTRATION #2: A man committed adultery and immediately regretted it.
> He
> approached his minister and confessed his sin.  In the throes of his shame
> and despair over his horrible sin against both God and his loving,
> faithful
> wife, he cried out, "I don't know how I could have done such a thing!"
> His
> minister, realizing the man's sincerity and inner turmoil, replied, "You
> failed because you are a sinner, my son, just as I am".
> Yes, you've seen this one before.  Again, in context, his minister was not
> simply placing him in a generic category of sinners as an unnuanced
> factual
> statement.  No, he was telling him that he failed because he, like the
> rest
> of us, is sinful by nature as a result of being born from Adam.  The
> minister could have used an adjective and said, "You failed because you
> are
> sinful", but he chose instead to employ another tool: an indefinite noun.
> There is an important nuance in this example that should not be
> overlooked,
> and this has to do with the reason the minister choose to use "sinner"
> instead of "sinful".  He did this because he is a very sensitive person,
> and
> he has a great deal of empathy for the man he is attempting to both
> counsel
> biblically and console emotionally.  As he was choosing his words, he
> thought that saying the man was "sinful" had less potential to remind the
> man that he's not alone, that he failed because he shares the sinful state
> with all of mankind.  So he choose "sinner" instead, because it served the
> two-fold purpose of conveying that the man was sinful by nature, and that
> he's not alone in this, but shares this fallen nature with the rest of the
> human race.  If you'd like, you can call this a "qualitative-indefinite".
> ILLUSTRATION #3:  The quarterback of the local football team is really
> quite
> a fellow.  He's a great leader, he endures pain and adversity well (once
> he
> played an entire game with a broken collarbone), he is confident,
> extremely
> intelligent, and has the physical appearance of Frank Zane (former Mr.
> Olympia).  He is the reason his team is headed for the playoffs this year,
> and so his coach and physical trainer both approach him and expresses how
> grateful they are to have such an excellent quarterback.  The quarterback
> offers a humble "thank you, sirs, I'm proud to be on your team", and heads
> for the shower.  As he is leaving the coach turns to the trainer and says,
> "He is such a man, I wish I had more like him."
> In this example, the qualities of the man are more important than whether
> "a
> man" is indefinite.  This might be called the "descriptive indefinite",
> for
> those who like to separate things into categories.
> So, Brian, as you can see, the English indefinite is used to categorize,
> to
> highlight category and nature together, and to stress what is referred to
> as
> qualitativeness.  In light of this, you really can't say that the English
> indefinite does not reflect the underlying Greek just because you perceive
> that qualitativeness is more important than a noun's indefiniteness.
> Brian
> "But when so many are judged to be qualitative, then that becomes the
> standard expectation of such constructions, and one finds this stated in a
> grammar like Wallace, though one always needs to be open to other
> possibilities on a case by case basis."
> Sean
> You may have noticed that members of this group have no problem rejecting
> something offered by Wallace that is not supported by compelling evidence.
> We can only deduce that qualitativeness is the "standard expectation" if
> those who judge them so have offer a compelling case for doing so.  What
> specific arguments of Wallace do you find compelling?

I was merely saying that there seem to be so many qualitative anarthrous 
preverbal PN's that the idea that they are generally qualitative has made it 
into a grammar. I was not simply quoting Wallace as an authority that 
settles the matter, and I wanted to give him proper credit.

> Brian
> "I think we both agree with Harner (as you cited him) that anarthrous
> preverbal PN's are generally primarily qualitative. When they are, I don't
> think the English indefinite article usually gives the same impression in
> English, though it can, and though including "a" is often still the best
> we
> can do translation-wise because of the awkwardness that often results in
> English when there is no sort of article attached to a PN."
> Sean
> First, it is questionable whether all of the examples Harner provides are
> in
> fact "qualitative".  Second, even if they are, the illustrations above
> demonstrate that "qualitativeness" is well within the semantic range of
> the
> English indefinite.  They are, therefore, the right tool for the job.

But do you not agree that Harner has shown that anarthrous preverbal
PN's are generally qualitative?

> As you admit, not using the indefinite article is awkward in these cases.
> The
> reason it's awkward is because it is part of the English idiom to use the
> indefinite article in constructions like this to convey the very sense
> that
> the underlying Greek contains.  If you deny this, then please define very
> precisely what nuance you believe is present in the Greek that is not
> present in the English translation.

I do deny it for reasons discussed at the beginning of this message, where I 
also reiterate what I believe is missing in the Eng. Again, as I have 
stated, I do believe that IA can carry a qualitative sense, but not 
naturally. One almost has to be forced by context to perceive this.

> Brian
> "It isn't always the case though. Using a few of your examples, it would
> be
> awkward in English to say, "Sir, I see that you are prophet" (4:19) to
> emphasize the prophetic character of the person addressed."
> Sean
> Jesus was called a prophet because he had prophetic ability.  He knew
> something about the woman at the well that only one who was a prophet
> would
> know.  If my power went out while entertaining a guest whose occupation I
> didn't know, and he demonstrated great skill in fixing the electrical
> problem, I might say, "I perceive that you must be an electrician".

But this would likely be taken to mean an electrician by trade, though it 
could carry the force of "one skilled at the skill of electrical work". But 
if it were a Greek anarthrous preverbal PN, then the word order would 
already suggest the intended meaning in my opinion. To use the present 
example, one could easily imagine the following statement in the same 
circumstances. "I know that you don't work as an electrician, but I perceive 
you are an electrician." Here the context pushes one towards taking noun as 

<  If I
> visited a neighbor who just built a new garage on his lot, and, after
> examining the building, noted the highly professional nature of the job, I
> might say, "I perceive that you are a builder by trade".  If I visited
> someone and noticed that they had books on display on which they were
> named
> as the author, I might say, "I perceive that you are a writer".  This is
> standard English usage of the indefinite, Brian.  The English indefinite
> is
> the perfect tool to bring out the sense of the Greek in this example.
> Brian
> "But it would not be overly awkward, and so I think these would be better
> translations to represent the underlying Greek to say, "everyone who
> commits
> sin is slave to sin" (8:34), and even better in English idiom, "you are
> Samaritan" (8:48) [though admittedly, this last one plays on the English
> coincidence of the same form for adjective and noun]."
> Sean
> To the English speaking mind, to say "everyone who commits sin is slave to
> sin" means the same thing as "everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin".
> Those who are fluent in English so that they actually think in English
> will
> simply add the missing article in their minds.  Not that they necessarily
> have to consciously think of the article, but our minds conceptualize
> "slave
> to sin" to be the same as "a slave to sin".

As one with an English speaking mind and who think in English, I disagree. I 
do think there is some differnce between the two statements. I would say 
that there is a greater qualitativeness to the latter. This is why I think 
we may be disagreeing more about English than Greek at this point.

> As for 8:48, you probably hit on the issue when you noted that "Samaritan"
> functions as both a noun and an adjective.  Such words can sometimes
> confuse
> people.  I've seen people confuse the adjectival vs. the substantival use
> of
> "human" many times as well.  But it seems very clear to me that Samaritan
> is
> an indefinite noun at John 8:48, and so the English indefinite is the
> right
> tool to convey the sense of the Greek.  Perhaps you perceive that Christ's
> opposers said it with a bit of a sneer, and believe that this makes the
> noun
> qualitative?  If so, then please be aware that this is a common usage in
> English.  Years ago I dated a woman from Puerto Rico, and, one night over
> dinner with friends, we got into a discussion about the differences
> between
> Puerto Rican's and Mexican's (language, culture, appearance, etc).  At one
> point in the conversation someone must have compared her to a Mexican, and
> she became offended and said something like, "I don't have the face of a
> Mexican".  She said this with such a sneer that I was shocked by her
> prejudice.
> Well, I've got to head to the Post Office, so I'll sign off for now.  I
> think that I've demonstrated that the English indefinite has a semantic
> range sufficient to accommodate all of the PN-V's I presented.  In light
> of
> this, I think that Dixon's theory that there is one solitary indefinite
> noun
> in all of John's Gospel is absurd.  In reality, about 50% of the count
> PN-V's are satisfactorily represented by the English indefinite, and the
> others are demonstrably definite.
> Sincerely,
> Sean Kasabuske

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