Greek Grammar: The Basics
Deciphering Greek Grammar
Finding the definition of a Greek word is a relatively simple process; you can find good material in any solid Bible commentary. Greek grammar, however, is another story. You've heard preachers use concepts like the aorist tense or the subjunctive mood to prove a point, and you've wondered, "How do they know that?"
Studying grammar is trickier than studying words, because it requires a solid grasp of the way words are connected to express an idea. You have to understand patterns and combinations, not just individual words. As a result, fewer people try to study Greek grammar, and many of those have only a partial grasp of the subject. There are just enough similarities between English grammar and Greek grammar to make you think you understand what's going on. But there are enough differences to guarantee that your first impression is unreliable!
This section of the Ezra Project site will help you understand how the Greek language is put together. You will learn the most important rules of grammar, as well as the limits of your knowledge. When someone talks about the accusative case, you will be able to find out what he's talking about . . . and you will begin to learn how to evaluate what you hear.
First things you need to know about Greek grammar
This group includes nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and the definite article ("the").
Greek has a system of endings for noun-type words that gives you the following pieces of information:
1. Number -- how many?
Possibilities: Singular or plural
2. Case -- how is it used in the sentence?
Nominative - subject of sentence ("George saw Timothy.")
Genitive - possession ("the word of God")
Dative - indirect object ("I gave him the ball.")
Accusative - direct object ("George saw Timothy.")
Vocative (on a few nouns) -- direct address (Sam! I'm glad to see you.")
3. Gender -- Each Greek noun has been labeled either masculine, feminine or neuter.
This information is helpful when you are trying to decide which words in a sentence are connected to each other.
Greek has a highly-developed system for verbs. All Greek verbs have at least two parts: a base and an ending. Sometimes the Greeks added extra letters to the beginning or end of the base. By looking at the combination of endings and extra letters, you can figure out the exact form used.
When you do that, you will have the following information:
1. Subject -- Who is doing the action that the verb describes?
There are six possible options:
He/she/it or (any other singular subject)
They (or any other plural subject)
2. Tense -- When and how does the action happen?
There are six tenses, with much variety in usage, but here are the typical meanings in a plain statement of fact:
Present -- action happening now: "I baptize"
Future -- action that will happen later: "I will baptize"
Imperfect -- action that happened continually or repeatedly in the past: "I was baptizing"
Aorist -- a simple action that happened in the past: I baptized"
Perfect -- action completed in the past, with results continuing up to the present: "I have baptized"
Pluperfect (rare) -- action completed in the past, with results that continue up to some more recent time in the past: "I had baptized"
NOTE: The tenses have somewhat different meanings when they are not in the indicative (statement of fact) mood.
3. Voice: Is the subject doing the action or being acted upon?
There are three possible voices in Greek:
Active -- the subject does the action: "I hit Joe."
Middle -- the subject does it to himself: "I hit myself,"or there is a double emphasis on the fact that the subject does the action: "I myself hit Joe."
Passive -- someone else did the action to the subject: "I was hit by Joe."
4. Mood: How certain am I that this action is reality?
There are four moods to choose from:
Indicative -- used for a statement of fact
Subjunctive -- used for a statement of probable fact
Optative (rare) -- used for a remotely possible fact
Imperative (command) -- used for something that is not a fact yet, but I want it to become a fact.
An Extra Wrinkle: The Greeks would also put together special combinations of endings and other clues that would make a verb into a participle or an infinitive. Both of these forms act a little like verbs and a little like nouns, and they deserve a separate discussion of their own.
Other kinds of words
Greek also contains several kinds of words that do not fit into the noun or verb categories. They generally do not have multiple spellings, so they are easy to recognize. These include:
1. Conjunctions -- connectors between other words, phrases, or sentences.
Examples: and, but, for, therefore
2. Prepositions -- words that give you more precise information about the way a noun relates to the rest of the sentence.
Examples: in the cupboard, behind the tree
3. Adverbs -- words that tell how an action takes place, usually describing a verb.
Example: The business grew rapidly.
4. Interjections -- words that express strong feeling, usually followed by an exclamation point.
What about all the other grammatical terms I read about?
You may hear many terms that sound more impressive than the list you have just read -- terms such as "ablative of means," "constative aorist," "locative" and "instrumental." All of these terms are legitimate, but they usually involve at least a little interpretation of the text. You can prove that a verb is aorist by analyzing its spelling. But you can only say that a word is a constative aorist by looking at the context where it is used and applying logic and common sense to determine how that aorist is being used.
Remember to be humble when you study at this level. There is a lot that you don't know yet!