Linguistic adequacy and Greek grammars

It has only been in the past couple years that I have realized that for the most part, the vast majority of Greek reference grammars have a significant lack in terms of the claims they make. This is especially true of grammars written after the reign of the neo-grammarians. I would say most grammatical works that appeared before and during the time of the neo-grammarians are slight better on this front (depending, of course, on which grammar you’re looking, Kuhner is better in my opinion, particularly before it was revised by Blass & Gerth).

But what do I mean by this?

Well, in linguistics, going as far back as Chomsky’s 1965 monogragh, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, we find this concept of levels of linguistic adequacy (pages 18-27 are most relevant, though the entirety of chapter one is very much worth reading. Chomsky lays out three levels of adequacy that grammatical theory should strive form: observational adequacy, descriptive adequacy, and explanatory adequacy. I phrase these below in a manner slightly different than how Chomsky himself did. This is partially because while the concepts are still significantly relevant for the our goals in grammar, a number of frameworks (including the ones that I like most) have moved away from the conception of language as a rule-based system and view language as an emergent, bio-adaptive system (that’s a mix of Bybee 2010, Givón 1999, and Hopper 1988).

Observational adequacy is the lowest level and least sufficient for a grammar. Within the realm of observational adequacy, it is sufficient to collect all the relevant data points and give them label. And there is really no way to talk about a theory of grammar as being observationally adequate at all, at least not in a practical sense. Observational adequancy, ‘observes the data correctly’ (Chomsky 1964, 29); it doesn’t not, however, attempt to account for the linguistic intuitions of the native speaker or provide a principled account for why the data is the way it is.

Descriptive adequacy is the next level up. For a grammar to be descriptively adequate, not only collects the data and categorizes them, but also constructions a principled account of why the data is the way it is. What are the rules of grammar? What are the motivations for the structure of the language? Descriptive adequacy must address these questions. A theory of grammar that is descriptively adequate  should sufficiently account for all of the grammars that satisfy descriptive adequacy (at least in theory).

Explanatory adequacy is the highest level of adequacy and functions are the primary goal of linguistic theory in Chomsky’s conception. This marked a major shift in how linguists approached their craft before Chomsky. Explanatory adequacy seeks to provide a principled account of competing grammatical descriptions. As Chomsky himself explained it: “A linguistic theory that aims for explanatory adequacy is concerned with the internal structure of the device [i.e. grammar]; that is, it aims to provide a principled basis, independent of any particular language, for the selection of the descriptively adequate grammar of each language” (Chomsky 1965, 63).

This last level is essentially where all debate in the field of linguistics exists. Different linguistic frameworks assume this when they argue why their approach to the nature of human language should be preferred over some other approach–often with different fundamental assumptions behind those frameworks. For example, where mainstream generative theory takes as a basic assumption that meaning is derivative from structure (interpretive semantics), Systemic Functional Grammar begins from the extreme opposite perspective: language is first and foremost a social semiotic and as such meaning is logically prior to structure. This fact is one of the reasons why so much linguistic work feels so foreign to many people–the ivory tower of linguistics, as Carl Conrad has called it a few times. The issue is that if you’re primarily interested in the grammatical structure of a language, you’re looking thinking about observational and descriptive adequacy, while large portions of the linguistic literature do not concern themselves with those things. Many times when a piece of linguistic research deals with language data or a descriptive analysis, they’re seeking to arguing a point about explanatory adequacy. This, in turn, can make seeing the relevance of the research for the grammar of the individual language more difficult.

Why is this relevant to individual grammars of Ancient Greek? Well, one question that needs to be dealt with as we look toward the production of a new full reference grammar of the Hellenistic & Early Roman Koine, is this: what is the goal of such a volume? What degree of adequacy should we be aiming for? Most existing grammars do little more than observational adequacy. Is that sufficient for us and what we do with Greek? Perhaps it is or perhaps it isn’t.

In the next couple posts, we will be examining  grammatical discussions taken from a variety of grammars new and old: BDF, Robertson & Wallace. In each case, we will evaluate the level of adequacy achieved by each grammar (whether consistently or inconsistently).

Don’t worry, I wrote the other posts before I published this one so that I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to get the following posts up, too. I had originally planned on this being one post, but then it got too large so I split it up. Even still, I’m going to stagger these posts over the next couple weeks simply for spacing reasons. It’s been so long since I’ve written substantive content that I want to ease back into things.

In the meantime, I would be interested in any thoughts from whatever audience I still have left on this blog in terms of what sorts of research questions a fresh reference grammar of the Hellenistic and Early Roman Koine should be aiming to answer.

Works cited:

Bybee, Joan. 2010. Language, Usage and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1964). Current issues in linguistic theory. The Hague: Mouton.

Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hopper, Paul (1988). “Emergent Grammar and the A Priori Grammar Postulate.” Pages 117-134. In Linguistics in Context, ed. Deborah Tannen.

26 thoughts on “Linguistic adequacy and Greek grammars

Add yours

  1. I’m looking forward to this series!

    I’ve just started at Bible college this year and I’m very disappointed with the Greek textbook we use (Black). I know a textbook has different goals than a reference grammar, but while it may be great at teaching people how to parse Greek it makes almost no attempt to teach you how to understand it. There are probably better textbooks, but I have to wonder why it was even published. And the back of the book says it’s one of the most linguistically informed ones!

    1. Hi Dannii. You wrote, “There are probably better textbooks, but I have to wonder why it was even published.” Believe me, no one was more surprised than I when B & H asked me to write a beginning grammar for them. Recently I published a book called It’s All Greek to Me: Confessions of an Unlikely Academic that documents how I slid into my career path as a Greek teacher and how I ended up writing so many books on Greek. If you will send me your mailing address (my email is I will be happy to send you a copy of the book gratis. Best wishes and all the best with your Greek studies. Sincerely, Dave Black

        1. No offense taken. On the contrary. In my new book I write:

          Recently I was asked why I’ve written so many books on Greek. The answer is, “I don’t know.” I certainly never set out to write books on this language. Writing about Greek doesn’t mean that one has mastered the subject. It doesn’t even mean that one is a successful classroom teacher. The Greek books I’ve written have all been written by a learner for learners….. Greek is a broad subject. No single textbook can claim to “get it right” in every respect. I know mine can’t.

          So you see, I am quite in agreement with you.

          The offer of a free book still stands 🙂

    2. Hi Dannii,

      I’m glad that you are beginning your studies at a Bible College. I hope this will be an exciting time of spiritual growth as you pursue Christlikeness. Two thoughts …

      (1) This should go without saying, but your decision to serve as a critic of the first Greek textbook you have read is regretfully common. Let me suggest that it is unwise to begin by saying “I’ve just started Bible college …” only to conclude with a criticism of a textbook. Why not wait until you can actually read Greek and have worked through several textbooks before offering a critique?

      (2) Teaching grammars are aids to you in learning a language. They won’t actually do the work for you. Yet, it turns out that if you master the content of nearly any of the popular first year NT Greek grammars you will be well on your way to learning the language. This includes the volume by Dave Black. “Learn to Read New Testament Greek” has several important virtues related to its clear and concise presentation. While I normally encourage beginning students to use Decker’s “Reading Koine Greek” I have also walked students through “Learn to Read New Testament Greek” who were having difficulty with Mounce – and the difference in presentation helped the lights go on for them. If you think of “Learn to Read New Testament Greek” as the only grammar you will ever read or use – then you will be poorly served by this textbook. But if you view it as a first step towards an exciting lifetime of discovering the riches of the Greek NT and LXX – then it will serve you quite well.

      Your brother,


      1. Hi David, just as a heads up, Dannii’s comment is from three years ago. He’s probably not going to see your response. Still, you should be aware that Dannii is a linguist who has done fieldwork on the Walmajarri language and is fully capable of evaluating grammatical material. Introductory textbooks serve particular audiences and particular background and the fact of the matter is that there is no text on Ancient Greek that would sufficiently serve then needs of someone like Dannii.

  2. Wow, Michael. Thank you for bringing this up. It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard these terms used, but your discussion of them is a very helpful refresher. Like you, I would define these levels of linguistic adequacy differently from the way Chomsky did, but they are still a helpful way to talk about grammars and their objectives.

    I’m glad to see you back at work on your wonderful blog!

    1. It’s been a while, yeah. And I still need to get the next post up! But it is good to be back. I hope that once July is over, I’ll be back to a more regular schedule.

  3. I followed the breadcrumb trail back here 🙂

    Concerning: “For example, where mainstream generative theory takes as a basic assumption that meaning is derivative from structure (interpretive semantics), Systemic Functional Grammar begins from the extreme opposite perspective: language is first and foremost a social semiotic and as such meaning is logically prior to structure.”

    My understanding of Chomsky, at least as of Reflections on Language, is that he doesn’t deny the social dimension of meaning. Rather, he states that it is outside of the realm of the scientific study. He refers to that as something like “natural history” (perhaps only reaching that first or second level of adequacy). Of course, I guess that’s part of what the debate is all about too, not necessarily whose explanation is more adequate, but where those explanations fit on the spectrum of art and science. At least as of 1998 (in his introduction to western linguistics), Seuren said no framework had achieved the level of science just yet, though linguists since the time of Chomsky have gotten closer. I never followed up to see what he would say now.

    1. Certainly He would say that the social aspect of meaning simply ‘uninteresting.’ However, at the same time, he would also say that meaning, social or otherwise, has nothing to do with what’s going on in the brain at all because semantics is interpretive rather than generative. Where SFL and other frameworks would take semantics as a starting point for grammatical structure, Chomsky takes grammatical strucure as a starting point for semantics. It isn’t so much that they’re coming from opposite perspectives (though they are), but that those opposite perspectives make dramatically different and contrary assumptions about the nature of linguistic structure and its relationship to the brain.

      SFL was probably a bad choice for comparison because it’s actually a far more structuralist and behavioralist model, rather than cognitive. I had initially chose it simply because SLF is so irritatingly popular with a sub-set of NT students and scholars, so I thought it might be a useful point of reference.

      1. While I agree with the first part and that he sees semantics as interpretive rather than generative (in general), I’m not certain he would say meaning has “nothing to with what’s going on in the brain at all,” unless by that you mean that he claims that semantics has mostly to do with things in the world and is “extensional” as opposed to “intensional.” Otherwise, maybe nothing to do with what is going on with the language faculty at all. I think he would say the interpretive nature of semantics means it involves “other cognitive systems” (which does suggest something is going on in the brain to some extent). And, it would be impossible to tease out what part of the meaning of a linguistic expression could be called “semantic representation” as opposed to “beliefs and knowledge about the world” (Language and Responsibility — this is the book actually meant to reference above — in Chomsky on Language, 144). Also, he says that “to little is understood about cognitive systems and their interaction” (145).

        A little further on, though, he does allow some, admittedly small, amount of semantics into “grammar”:

        Thus I agree with Katz that certain analytic connections exist among linguistic expressions, certain truths hold solely by virtue of linguistic facts: for instance, the relation between I persuaded him to leave and He intends to leave, which I mentioned a little while ago. In such cases we are dealing with properties of semantic representation that are “intensional” and strictly part of the “grammar,” in a natural sense of the term.

  4. In reading one of Rijkhoff’s papers on, I noticed a concept of “typological adequacy.” Should that be a fourth kind of adequacy or a replacement of “explanatory adequacy”?

    1. Chomsky when he initially wrote his proposal for levels of adequacy in the 1960’s, there were only three. Other linguists have suggested other levels in addition. Chapter 1 of Van Valin and La Polla’s book Syntax: Structure, meaning, and function has an excellent overview of a number of other types of linguistic adequacy that have been suggested (typological, cognitive, etc.). I would be inclined to say that most of them could still reasonably fall within the umbrella of explanatory adequacy since most of these other types of adequacy essentially function as criteria for choosing between competing grammatical descriptions & theories. A theory of language that is typologically adequate, I would view as being more explanatorily adequate than a theory of language that is not.

    2. At least in Chomsky’s case, I think typological adequacy could be subsumed under explanatory adequacy as Mike has said as typological adequacy seems to be at least part of the motivation for an approach like Principles and Parameters.

    3. Thanks, Mike and Jeremy, for your comments. Yes, there was a third option, viz. that explanatory adequacy may be a part of explanatory adequacy.

      I was recently some work of Cedric Boeckx against lexicocentrism, and I came across this sentence: “Marantz (1995) is wrong, minimalism (seen as the attempt to go beyond explanatory adequacy) is not the end of syntax, it’s the end of the all-powerful lexicon.”

      Is Minimalism really an attempt to go beyond explanatory adequacy?

      1. I honestly don’t know. I wasn’t even away ‘lexicocentrism’ was a term–I’m guessing it’s analogous to some form of the lexicalist hypothesis. My knowledge of Minimalism is…well…minimal. I know the basics, but I’ve never bothered to follow their debates. In my mind, Minimalism has too many problems at the most basic level for me to have interest in it.

        1. My problem with Minimalism is that I just can’t see how to apply it in my work of understanding the Greek of the New Testament. And if I were a linguist studying the faculty of language, I’d probably be something more cognitive or computational.

        2. Personally, I’m convinced that most of what’s done in mainstream generativism like the MP is only being done because the framework is the only thing taught in certain schools and that there’s no real awareness of other frameworks.

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