More on Interrogatives in Ancient Greek

After the response I received from my blog post a little bit ago where I made the observation that Dr. Mounce’s guide for determining whether a sentences was a question lacked the most obvious key, the thought occurred to me that I should take a look at the beginning and intermediate grammars (no reference grammars) on the subject.

I was rather surprised (in a bad way) by the results. Of the 24 grammars I checked, 16 of them said nothing about τίς being used at the beginning of questions (i.e. to introduce questions).

This include:

  1. Anne H. Groton’s From Alpha to Omega: A Beginning Course in Classical Greek 3rd edition.
  2. C. D. F. Moule’s Idiom Book of New Testament Greek
  3. Maximillian Zerwick’s Biblical Greek
  4. J. Gresham Machen’s New Testament Greek for Beginningers
  5. Kendell H. Easley’s User-Friendly Greek : A Common Sense Approach to the Greek New Testament
  6. Benjamin Chapman’s New Testament Greek Notebook
  7. William Hersey Davis’ Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament
  8. Ray Summers and Thomas Sawyer’s Essentials of New Testament Greek
  9. Richard A. Young’s Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach
  10. James Swetnam’s An Introduction to the Study of New Testament Greek. 2nd, rev. ed.
  11. Fredrick J. Long’s Kairos: A Beginning Greek Grammar
  12. A. T. Robertson’s A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, for Students Familiar With the Elements of Greek
  13. J. H. Moulton’s Introduction to the Study of New Testament Greek 3rd Edition
  14. W. Bell’s A Compendious Grammar of the Greek Tongue
  15. Goodwin’s Greek Grammar
  16. William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek 3rd Edition

Some of this is relatively understandable. Moule’s Idiom Book was never intended to be a comprehensive volume nor was Zerwick’s Biblical Greek. And Bell’s Compendious Grammar does very little more than survey morphology the section on syntax is more interested in other issues (well, that and it was published in 1820). But this reality is disconcerting for the other volumes.

After the conversation a couple weeks ago, it was even more disturbing that Mounce’s grammar makes no mention of the fact that τίς is used to being questions—at least, it doesn’t appear in the section where he introduces this delightful little interrogative on page 81 of the third edition. If anyone can find a mention of the position of question words elsewhere, I’d be delighted.

I would venture a guess that the reason for the state of grammar on this issue results from an obsession with:

  1. Morphology over Syntax
  2. Syntax as categorization for translation rather than syntax as structure

16 thoughts on “More on Interrogatives in Ancient Greek

Add yours

  1. Greek – An Intensive Course by Hardy Hansen & Gerald Quinn covers τίς as an interrogative (in Unit 15 of 20). I guess this is not so much a grammar, though. Overall, I think this text handles interrogatives fairly well, throughout.

    1. What I was looking for in these grammar wasn’t so much whether they cover τίς as an interrogative (all these grammar say that τίς is interrogative), but whether or not they state that τίς and other question words appear at the beginning of questions.

  2. Oh – catching the drift of your last statement… While it does not explicitly state that τίς would lead the clause, all the examples used in the book show it in that position. The book is usually good about changing up position within examples to give the student a feel for variability. I would have taken the consistent positioning to mean to expect the interrogative there. And not to let me down, when they follow up discussing τις, the indefinite pronoun, they immediately begin switching up word order.

  3. In Unit 2, when they first introduce the interrogative ἆρα, they address positioning: “The particle ἆρα stands first in its clause and shows…that a question is being asked.” (p. 54) Early in the chapter it stated “In Greek, questions are sometimes indicated only by a question mark, and sometimes also by the introductory word ἆρα…” (p.50) When πῶς is mentioned, no mention of position is given, though. It does not ever give a generalized statement about positioning of interrogatives – though enough exemplars are given that it would seem natural to pick up the syntax.

    1. Thanks for adding to the list of grammars, I don’t have Hansen & Quinn.

      I think texts that provide significant amounts of text for reading can probably get away without an explicit statement since the difference is visibly seen in the texts. Unfortunately, such texts are not as common as they were in the past. I think Hansen & Quinn belong to a tradition of providing a helpful amount of text for reading (as does J. H. Moulton’s grammar and a few others).

  4. I realise that you’ve not said otherwise, but it might be worth noting that questions using at least some of the previously mentioned interrogatives do not require the interrogative to be the first constituent in its clause, although this is by far the most common pattern. See for instance Luke 12:56; 16:7; John 1:19; 6:9; Acts 3:12 (perhaps?); 8:33; 11:17; Rom 9:19; 2Co 2:16, where, I think, in most cases the interrogative is preceded by topic expression.

    1. This is true. But the point of an introductory grammar isn’t to deal with unique usage, but to deal with the default normal usage –which is clearly to *introduce* content questions with question words.

      If you were teaching English to a foreigner, you wouldn’t teach right off the bat that you can put question words in other positions:

      What did you give him?
      You gave *what* to him???
      You gave him *what*???

      Where can you put question words?
      You can put question words *where*???

      Those clearly marked, non-default structures. That fact is just as true for Greek as it is for English and thus irrelevant to the introductory grammar. For that reason. its equally frustrating to note that many of the grammars that actually do state that question words can appear elsewhere (e.g. Porter, Reed, & O’Donnell). Its definitely not introductory information and should be dealt with in a syntax class rather than an intro grammar class.

  5. You might take a look at Funk’s Beginning-Intermediate Grammar of Hellenistic Greek §§525-527 ( It’s rather brief, but it seems more helpful to me than what most Koine primers explain about interrogatives. Hansen & Quinn is, of course, a primer of Classical Attic. I don’t have it ready to hand, but my recollection is that JACT Reading Greek deals with interrogation fairly well — but its focus is not on translation so much as on clarifying how what the student has been reading works.

    1. Funk’s was one of the grammar that I had checked and found satisfactory. I regularly turn to it for his insights.

      And I’ve wanted to look at the JACT materials for some time, but haven’t had the opportunity yet. The concept of emphasizing *reading* rather than translation sounds so delightful to me.

  6. Oh, I fully agree with you, Mike. My comment was somewhat parenthetical and not really focussed on the introductory grammar issue.

  7. Porter’s new grammar also does a pretty good job of explaining interrogatives. I don’t know if you have had a chance to look at that or not.

  8. This could be a diversion best left to private email, but I’d greatly welcome your expertise or comments. A writer Katherine Bushnell of the early 20th C, in a long argument about the propriety of veiling insisted that I Cor 11:13-14 should be translated “It is proper for a woman [at least] to pray unto God unveiled. Nor is there anything in the nature of hair itself that teaches you that if a man wear it long it is a dishonour to him, while if a woman have long hair it is a glory to her, for her hair has been given her instead of a veil”
    – this is normally interrogative in translations. Is there anything in the Greek which mandates an interrogative translation here?

    Neil Whitehead

    1. Greek yes/no questions do not have interrogative markers. Question-hood is determined by a complex set of a contextual factors. The main appeal of the interrogative reading here is the ἐν ὑμῖν αὐτοῖς κρίνατε ‘judge among yourselves’ that precedes the clause in question. That is is, does it make more less sense for an instruction to them to make their own judgement to then follow with an outright assertion in favor of a single side?

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