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How To Study The Bible (#7)
Understanding Words And Sentences (Grammar)
As noted last week, definitions can include a wide
range of possibilities (e.g., 179 different senses of run).
How, then, do we determine the specific meaning
of a word? Though you might consult a dictionary
and consider one or two (or more) possibilities, the
task is more demanding than that.
Words do not just have possible meanings across
a broad range, they have specific meaning in context.
Context includes many things (our next lesson), but
it must take in to consideration how the word we
want to define functions alongside other words in
phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Words don’t just
have abstract meaning, they have specific meaning
in associative context with other words.
We repeat: words have meaning in their coordinate roles with other words, and in those roles
other words both aid and restrict meaning. The brief
illustration we cited last week—house, white house,
White House at 1600 PA Ave—shows that. Adding
words to the one we want to define—in this case
“house”—we must remember: (1) each additional
word has a range of meaning all its own, (2) each
additional contextual word connection narrows the
possibilities of meaning for the first word under
consideration, and (3) it also narrows the meaning of
those other words in context.
Words, Sentences and The Rules of Grammar
To this point we have addressed word meanings,
namely how to discover the meaning, not just in
lexicons, but in distinct contexts.
Those distinct contexts demand that we understand
words in relationship to each other in multiple settings:
clauses, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books
and even the Bible as a whole.
That means our overall job is understanding
grammar. What is grammar? It is “the whole system
and structure of a language or of languages in
general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and
morphology (including inflections) and sometimes
also phonology and semantics.” [NOAD]
Though the task is more demanding than simply
looking up words in a dictionary, it is not impossible.
To help understand, let’s focus on two things: (1)
the parts of speech and (2) the parts of a sentence.
Parts of Speech
Consider these parts of speech:
• nouns - identifies a person, place or thing
• verbs - describes actions or states
• pronouns - refers/substitutes to/for a noun
• adjectives - modifies or attributes some quality
• adverbs - qualifies adjectives, verbs, other
adverbs with reference to time, manner, etc.
• preposition - precedes a noun/pronoun to
describe some relationship to another word
• conjunction - connects words, clauses, sentences
• particles - helps identify/specify nouns, pronouns
• interjection - abrupt remark, exclamation
All nine of these parts of speech are seen in this
sentence: Well (interjection), she (pronoun) and
(conjunction) young (adjective) John (noun) walk
(verb) to (preposition) the (particle) school (noun)
slowly (adverb).
Note that each of these words not only has range,
but that each takes on restricted meaning in at least
two ways: (1) in connection with other words that
modify, adjust and restrict meaning; and (2) in relation
to the function each word plays in a sentence.
We repeat again: when we put words together
according to grammatical rules their meaning
changes and grows in relationship to the words they
are associated with. Meaning is also modified
according to the function of each word in context.
Types Of Sentences
Our previous section addressed the functional
meaning of words, not just the lexical meaning.
Understanding the word associations in clauses,
phrases, sentences and paragraphs sharpens the
specific contextual meaning of each word and assists
us in understanding the ideas those words develop.
Words have meaning not only as parts of a
sentence, but within each sentence, as they function
on another level as either part of the:
• subject - addresses who/what the sentence is about
• predicate - tells us what the subject does, is doing
• clause - independent/dependent sentence addition
• phrase - dependent word group functioning as
modifier to nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions
• modifier - adjectives, adverbs, clauses, phrases that
add meaning and information to a sentence
In review: we must study definitions, the
associations of word and sentences, and grammar as
a whole. Our job as biblical interpreters demands
that we consistently follow a system of rules and
principles so that we justly interpret all forms of
communication. Every language has rules that must
be followed. Bible study engages several sets of
rules because we are dealing with several original
languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) and our
own receptor language (English). To study the Bible
fairly demands that we know and respect them all.