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How To Study The Bible (#7) Understanding Words And Sentences (Grammar) Introduction 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.