How are Greek Questions formed?

A critique of pedagogical Greek grammar.

Stanley Porter’s recent article in BAGL “Where Have All the Greek Grammarians Gone? And Why Should Anyone Care?” has some idiosyncrasies, certainly, but his general point that Greek grammars are stuck in the past isn’t wrong.

Introductory Greek grammars do a very poor job for topics that would otherwise be extremely prominent in the teaching grammars of modern languages. Consider, for example, how rare guidance or comment is made in NT grammars for how to determine whether a sentence is a question.

The best-case scenario is that you find some information sporadically scattered across multiple topics like mood, the function of οὐ & μη. But there is likely no actual centralized discussion of how to form questions in Greek.

Even worse, your grammar probably misses the simplest, most important, and most obvious way of determining the whether or not a sentence is question.

If the sentence in question begins with a question word, it’s a question.

Here are some good question words to look for:

  • τίς
  • ποῦ
  • πῶς
  • ποῖος
  • πόσος

There are a few more, of course, but these ones are pretty common. They’re also the one that I was able to think of without going to a dictionary. If your sentence begins with one of these, it’s a safe bet it’s a question.

Of the 24 grammars I checked, some old and some new, 16 of them said nothing about τίς being used at the beginning of questions (i.e. to introduce questions).

These 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 Beginners
  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
  17. Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament.

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. Wallace, for example, only provides discussion of the types of questions involved, but nothing about the syntactic structure of questions as a type of clause.

The situation is a step better in a more recent grammar like Decker’s, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook, which states:

An interrogative pronoun, which is usually at the beginning of the clause, always has an acute accent on the front of the word and will have a question mark at the end of the clause.

Decker (2018), 208.

Similarly, Porter’s Idioms of the Greek New Testament says:

The Greek of the NT uses several different interrogative pronouns. They usually occur first in a question.

Porter (1999), 136.

Still, these small successes are still failures: There is no actual general summary of question formation in Ancient Greek in either of these grammars (or in any of the others). Even if there is an actual mention of the syntactic position of question words, it is still ad hoc, separated from all the other places where question formation might be mentioned, such as under mood or negation. These accounts of pedagogical Greek syntax are inadequate. Their best attempts pale in comparison to how questions are discussed in pedagogical grammars of English. Tom Payne’s Understanding English Grammar has a substantial discussion of English questions in chapter 15: Pragmatic grounding and pragmatically marked constructions, particularly section 15.4 on non-declarative speech acts. Yes/No questions and Content questions are given full attention together in their larger context of non-declarative speech acts and illocutionary force. This is what a good introductory discussion ought to look like.

I would venture a guess that the reason for the problematic state of Greek grammar on this issue results from an overemphasis on:

  1. Morphology over syntax
  2. Words over phrases/clauses
  3. Syntax as categorization for translation rather than syntax as structure

Both of these are to the detriment of actual education about syntax. Discussions like that of Decker are a significant improvement, but future teaching grammars, whether beginning or intermediate, need to give clause structure full status within their pages. And I must give Porter credit where credit is due. In his more recent grammar with Reed and O’Donnell, Fundamentals of New Testament Greek, there is a unified section of questions, albeit extremely short. But it’s the best we have in a teaching grammar that I have yet seen.

Greek forms questions in two primary ways. The first is with an interrogative pronoun, discussed above, or one of several question words (“how?” “where?” “when?” etc.). The second way is simply by adding a question mark, which makes the question answerable by “yes” (ναί) or “no” (οὔ).

Many questions of the second type are simply left open, with no indication of whether the one asking the question expects a positive or a negative answer. In Greek, however, the one formulating the question can help the reader to know which answer is expected. This is done by including the negative word οὐ or μή (or one of their related forms) in the question. In questions expecting a positive answer (comparable to “You’re going to the library, right?” or “Aren’t you going to the library?”), the writer includes the negative word οὐ. In questions expecting a negative answer (“You’re not going to the library, are you?”), the writer includes the negative word μή.

Porter, Reed and O’Donnell (2010), 101-2.

Of course, I still cannot recommend any introductory grammar that thinks tense does not exist, even if it does well at at explaining how questions are formed. It is, nevertheless, a step in the right direction. Greek grammar is still stuck in the early 20th century, but maybe we are making small steps toward 21st.