Thursday, March 17, 2022

Does Ancient Greek have Dangling Prepositions?

A dangling preposition is also called a hanging preposition or a stranded preposition. That is, it is a word that appears to have no function in a sentence. It is dangling because prepositions in English and Greek are words that appear in prepositional phrases in which the preposition takes an object. Here is an example: I went into the house. Into is the preposition and house its object. Occasionally, however, we use prepositions without an object in conversational English and in that case the preposition is said to dangle, having no real function in the sentence, since it no longer functions as a preposition. Here is an example: I wish I had a friend to travel with. With, in this sentence, is a preposition; it has no object. On the other hand, one might construe the verb to be "travel-with," which is not really a word, except, perhaps, in casual colloquial English. Here is another: I bought some new music to listen to. To is a dangling preposition since it has no object; although in colloquial English it might be "thought-of" as a part of the non-existent verb "listen-to." Here is another: Under these circumstances crucial actions are called for. For is the dangling preposition unless you construe it to be part of the nonexistent verb "called-for."

            A similar situation with prepositions also appears in ancient Greek but is nevertheless considered proper Greek by grammarians. I "looked-up" in the Gospel of Mark all the uses of the Greek verb eiserchomai (εισερχομαι). This word is a compound comprised of a Greek preposition eis (into) + the Greek verb erchomai (to come). It has the resulting translation (in the Danker-Bauer Greek Lexicon) of "to enter" or "to come into." In other words, the word has the force of something moving into something. If such a translation is correct, then why does Mark use another eis (into) with eiserchomai, which already has a preposition built into the verb eiserchomai? As best as I can tell the word appears some seventeen times in the Gospel of Mark. Fourteen times it appears using what I construe as the unnecessary preposition eis (because eis is already compounded in the verb). Once it appears using the preposition pros (to, unto, 15:43).1 And twice it appears without a redundant preposition (5:39; 13:15). In Mark 15:43 eis (into) would clearly be incorrect (one doesn't move into another person). Hence Mark uses pros (to): Joseph enters to Pilate. Mark drops the unnecessary eis in 5:39 and 13:15 since no location being entered into is stated. The general grammatical rule for Mark seems to be that eis is required to complete the verb eiserchomai, if a location being entered into is stated.2 If the location is stated, then eis or another preposition is required.

            Ancient Greeks construed eiserchomai as a deponent verb (passive in form but active in meaning); it is also construed as intransitive (meaning that it does not take a direct object) even though it is active in meaning. Hence, they would not usually complete the verb with a direct object. With certain prepositions, however, ancient Greeks can attach a complement in the accusative case directly to the verb without an extra redundant preposition. Mark, for example, renders proerchomai as transitive in Mark 6:33 and gives it a complement in the accusative (autous): "came before them" (proēlthon autous).3 The question becomes why should not the implicit preposition built into the prefix of the compound verb eiserchomai also obviate the need for another preposition after the verb? Or to put the issue differently: Why exclude eiserchomai from the list of verbs that can be used without the redundant preposition? What is different about the preposition eis? Surprisingly according to Liddell and Scott, Homer and the Greek poets use eiserchomai with the accusative and without a redundant preposition, but among prose writers eiserchomai is used mostly with the extra preposition and a complement in the accusative. Here is an example of eiserchomai with the accusative from Homer, The Iliad 3.184: και Φρυγιην εισηλυθον ("I went into Phrygia").4 In such instances, one wonders, would the Greek writer construe the accusative as the object of the preposition or the direct object.5

            An enterprising Greek linguist might regard Mark's duplication of the unnecessary preposition as an instance of a pleonasm (the use of more words than are necessary in order to convey meaning, which is either a fault of style or done for emphasis6). Blass/Debrunner/Funk report that "it is a common feature of the [Greek] language that a preposition compounded with a verb in its literal, local sense is repeated with the complement."7 Perhaps it is a pleonasm, but the use of eis with eiserxomai seems to me more a fault of style than something used for emphasis. An emphatic pleonasm would have been amen, amen (John 1:51; compare a single amen in Matt 5:18). In other words, Mark has presented the reader with a redundancy of linguistic expression by using eis after the compound verb eiserchomai; eis appears to be completely unnecessary or useless, since it is already built into the verb.

            From a historical perspective the ancient Greeks appear conflicted about what to do with eiserchomai. Should an extra preposition be added to the deponent verb compounded with eis? Homer and the poets say no; prose writers say yes. For Homer and the poets eiserchomai with the added complement was construed as sufficient; no extra redundant preposition was needed.

What is the significance of my observation? Perhaps it is nothing more than a pedantic exercise. On the other hand, however, perhaps it might suggest that Holy Scripture is not a "perfect treasure"8 (although some do regard it as precious9) since the Greek language in which it is written is not a perfect medium, and for that matter neither is English, one language into which Holy Scripture is translated. Language is no more perfect than the people who speak and write it.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Oddly, Mark uses pros with eiserchomai in this case rather than change the verb to proserxomai.

2Winer reports that compound verbs using eis "uniformly repeat εις." G. B. Winer, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament (7th ed. revised, enlarged and improved by G. Lünemann; Draper, 1892), 427.

3F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (trans. and rev. by Robert W. Funk; Chicago, 1961), 83-84 (para. 150). Here are two other examples of erchomai compounded with a preposition followed by the complement in the accusative: Luke 22:47; 19:1. There is probably another instance in manuscript P45at Mark 6:48. Other examples will be found in paragraph #150.

4Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Clarendon: Oxford, 1996).

5See H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar (revised by G. M Messing; Cambridge: Harvard, 1956), para. 1553.


7Blass, Debrunner, Funk, Greek Grammar, 256 (para. 484). F. Blass, Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch (revised by Albert Debrunner; Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht: Göttingen, 1949), p. 224.

8Baptist Faith and Message Statement, 2000: "The Holy Bible is a perfect treasure of divine instruction."

9From the hymn, "Holy Bible, Book Divine," whose first line reads: "Holy Bible, Book divine, precious treasure, thou art mine," words by John Burton, Sr. in 1803.