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By Knowing and Applying the Basics of English Grammar

For many people, grammar may not be the most exciting topic, but it is surprisingly relevant and helpful to those who desire to understand and appreciate the Bible.

"Consider what I say," says Paul in 2 Tim.2:7, "for the Lord shall give thee understanding in all things" (ASV). Paul attaches a wonderful promise to the word consider. The Lord will give understanding to the one who considers His word. When we study the Bible, we may consider many things, all of which are important: vocabulary, word usage, context, historical background—to name a few. Of course, grammar is another aspect of Scripture for us to consider. I hope to show in this article that we don't have to be expert grammarians to benefit from applying what we already know of grammar from our native language to the study of God's word. Here is an example.

Discovering the Basic Statement

"All the Body causes the growth of the Body." These words sound like someone's Bible interpretation, don't they? On the contrary, the statement is Ephesians 4:16, reduced to the basic sentence structure and leaving out most of the modifiers. All the Body is the subject, causes is the verb or simple predicate, and growth (of the Body) is the direct object—subject, verb, direct object. The Body causes the growth. In view of the fact that many Christians have the impression that the growth of the Body of Christ is caused by the ministry of a select few, this statement is revolutionary. Without some understanding of basic English grammar, however, the point of Paul's statement is easy to miss. To summarize the statement in context, God has given certain gifted members to perfect the saints unto the work of ministry, so that all the Body might cause the growth of the Body, building itself up in love.

This is just one example of how an understanding of the basics of English grammar can help us greatly in our study of the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is God-breathed and profitable..." All scripture, every word of scripture, was breathed out by God. "The words that I speak unto you are spirit and life," says Jesus in John 6:63. We do well to regard every single word with reverence, as something proceeding out of the mouth of God (Matt.4:4). It is not hard to see, therefore, that a knowledge of grammar, which is simply a description of a language and how it works, is of great value to the Bible student.

Why English Grammar?

In this article, we will examine how our knowledge of English grammar can help us understand the Bible on a deeper level. "Why not Greek or Hebrew grammar?" one might ask. Of course, they are the original languages of the Bible and are of primary importance, but the easiest way to start learning about them is to review the language with which we are most familiar. Since you are reading this article, you are probably very familiar with English; you may not, however, be completely familiar with the concepts of English grammar. Many of us learn our original language by trial and error at an early age. Though some grammar is taught in school, we may not pay that much attention to it or appreciate its relevance. Later, if and when we begin learning other languages, we realize immediately that we have a deficit when it comes to understanding the grammar of our own language.

If you are not already familiar with grammatical concepts in English, this is an article you may want to bookmark for future reference. What follows is a series of tables with grammatical concepts, descriptions, and examples. The examples are all from the Bible. Writers of biblical commentaries, dictionaries, and other resources use these terms, and many more, in an effort to explain the meaning of a verse or passage. It is my hope that the following tables will provide a handy reference to enhance your understanding of such tools and, more importantly, of the Bible itself.

Parts of Speech

The basic building blocks of language are words, and words represent real ideas and things, like people, feelings, actions, experiences, ways of doing things, etc. English has eight different kinds of words, called parts of speech. Because I included the article, which is really a type of adjective, the list below shows nine kinds of words. Representative examples from the Bible are shown in bold print. The verses are from the book and translation indicated unless otherwise noted.

Part of Speech Function Examples from John, NKJV
Noun Represents a person, place, thing, or idea 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."
Pronoun Takes the place of a noun 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
Adjective Describes a noun or pronoun, tells what kind, which one, how many, etc. 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Article Identifies something as indefinite or definite 8:35 And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.
Verb Represents an action or state of being 6:40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
Adverb Typically describes a verb, but can modify a verb, adjective, or other adverb. Tells how, when, where, why, how often, or how much. 12:8 For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.
10:10 I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
Preposition Shows a relationship 1:3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
Conjunction Joins words, phrases, or clauses 4:21 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.
Interjection Shows emotion or surprise, usually without grammatical connection to the rest of the sentence Jer.32:17 Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made heaven and earth by thy great power and outstretched arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee (KJV).

More About Verbs

The verb is the engine that drives a sentence or clause. The subject performs the action of the verb whereas the direct and indirect objects, if present, receive the action. Adverbs describe the action, and prepositional phrases may describe the action as well. Because verbs are so important, let's take more time to look at some grammatical concepts related to verbs, realizing that we could do this with the other parts of speech too if we had time.

Verbal Terms Function Examples from Romans, ESV
Verb Tense Specifies time of action (past, present, or future) as well as kind of action (simple, complete, or ongoing). 1:2 Which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. (Simple past, also called preterit, without reference to duration.)
Present Indicates action or state in present time (may be simple or progressive, i.e. ongoing) 1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.
Past Indicates action or state in past time (may be simple or progressive) 1:25 Because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Future Indicates action or state in future time, uses will or shall as a helping verb, (again, may be simple or progressive) 11:26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, "The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob."
Perfect Makes a reference to a completed action in relation to present time 1:13 I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.
Past Perfect Makes a reference to completed action in relation to past time, also called pluperfect 9:10 And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac.
Future Perfect Makes a reference to a completed action in relation to future time (a rare tense) Mt.18:18 Assuredly I am saying to you, Whatever you forbid on earth, shall have already been forbidden in heaven. And whatever you permit on earth, shall have already been permitted in heaven (Wuest).
Progressive Form Expresses continuous action in any tense except the perfect tenses 8:14 For as many as are being constantly led by God's Spirit, these are sons of God (Wuest).
Finite Verb Any verb rendered with reference to time (excludes infinitives, participles, and gerunds) 8:15 You did not receive a spirit of slavery again with resulting fear... (Wuest).
Infinitive A form of the verb that does not make reference to time, preceded by "to" 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
Participle A verbal adjective, it may also be used adverbially, in which case it "participates" in the action of a finite verb associated with it 12:6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith.
Present Participle Participle ending in "ing," also used with a helping verb to form progressives. 8:13 But, assuming that by the Spirit you are habitually putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Wuest).
Past Participle Participle often ending in "ed," also used to form perfect tenses 7:5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.
Gerund A verb turned into a noun by adding "ing," common in English but not in Greek 8:19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
Imperative Used to express a command, sometimes formed by using do, let, be, or other helping verbs 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Subjunctive Used to express a probable or possible action, not common in today's English except as expressed using modal auxiliary verbs John 14:2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (The use of it were is a true English subjunctive.)
Modal Auxiliary Helping verbs that enable English verbs to express various shades of meaning, words like should, would, could, can, shall, must, may, and might. Look for these in the New Testament after the words in order that or that, where they help translate the Greek subjunctive in a purpose clause. 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
6:1 Should we continue in sin that grace may abound? (Darby)
Active Voice The subject performs the action of the verb or is in the state described. 5:8 But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Passive Voice The subject of the verb is acted upon by an agent; look for the word by with the agent responsible for the action. 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Phrases

Phrases are words grouped together to perform particular functions within sentences. They generally do not, in themselves, express complete thoughts.

Type of Phrase Function Examples from Hebrews, Phillips
Phrase Group of two or more words without a subject or predicate, functioning in a sentence as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. 1:1 God, who gave to our forefathers many different glimpses of the truth in the words of the prophets... (Four prepositional phrases appear here.)
Noun Phrase A phrase functioning as a noun; theses may include gerund, infinitive, and prepositional phrases. 10:31 A fearful thing [it is] to fall into the hands of the Living God! (Rotherham) Here, an infinitive phrase consisting of an infinitive and two prepositional phrases functions as a noun.
Prepositional Phrase This includes a preposition, its object, and any modifiers. 1:10 Thou, Lord, in the beginning has laid the foundation of the earth.
Adjective Phrase Prepositional phrase that describes a noun 1:7 ...Who maketh his angels winds and his ministers a flame of fire.
Adverb Phrase Prepositional phrase that describes a verb, telling where, when, how, why, or to what extent 2:3 For this salvation came first through the words of the Lord himself.
Infinitive Phrase Infinitive with object and modifiers 5:12 You need teachers yourselves to repeat to you the ABC of God's revelation.
Gerund Phrase Gerund with objects and modifiers 6:11 …that every one of you should show a similar keenness in fully grasping the hope that is within you, until the end.
Participial Phrase Participle with object and/or modifiers 6:19 This hope we hold as an utterly reliable anchor for our souls, fixed in the innermost shrine of heaven.
Appositive Phrase Appositive and its modifiers; an appositive is a word that restates or renames someone or something (appositives are italicized here, while entire appositive phrases are in bold) 1:3 This Son, radiance of the glory of God, flawless expression of the nature of God, himself the upholding power of all that is, having effected in person the cleansing...
Verb Phrase Not a phrase in the sense given above, this refers to all words included in a verbal idea. 1:4 Thus proving himself, by the more glorious name that he had been given, far greater than all the angels of God.

Clauses and Their Components

Although clauses, which consist of a subject and predicate with accompanying modifiers, may be sentences by themselves, many sentences have multiple clauses, especially in the New Testament, where compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences are the norm. In fact, in Greek, because there was originally no punctuation, what we consider to be sentences may go on for some time, forming a logical argument delineated by conjunctions and other connecting words instead of by punctuation.

Clause or Component Description Examples from 1 Thes., Darby
Clause Group of words containing subject and predicate 1:2 We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you at our prayers.
Subject Who or what the clause is about; the one performing the action of the verb. 1:5 For our glad tidings were not with you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit...
Predicate What the clause says about the subject; the verb and its modifiers. 1:5 For our glad tidings were not with you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit...
Independent Clause Able to stand alone 2 Cor.4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us.
Dependent Clause Not able to stand alone 2 Cor.4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us.
Subordinate Clause Another name for a dependent clause 2 Cor.4:3 But if also our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those that are lost.
Relative Clause A dependent clause connected by relative pronoun 2 Cor.4:11 For we who live are always delivered unto death on account of Jesus...
Conditional Clause A dependent clause connected by "if" or "since" 1 Thes.3:8 Because now we live if ye stand firm in the Lord.
Subordinate Conj. Joins subordinate clause to another clause 2 Cor.4:1 Therefore, having this ministry, as we have had mercy shewn us, we faint not.
Coordinate Conj. Joins two clauses, phrases, or words; used to join independent clauses in compound sentences. 2 Cor.12:5 Of such a one I will boast, but of myself I will not boast, unless in my weaknesses.
Conjunctive Adverb Joins independent clauses usually after a semi-colon 1 Thes.2:17-18 But we, brethren, having been bereaved of you and separated for a little moment in person, not in heart, have used more abundant diligence to see your face with much desire; wherefore we have desired to come to you, even I Paul, both once and twice, and Satan has hindered us.

Types of Sentences

A number of sentence types are common in English and in most other languages. In the following list, the first four are basic sentence types while the others are variations in the degree of complexity of sentences.

Sentence Type Description Examples from Galatians, NASB
Declarative Presents statement as fact 5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free.
Imperative Delivers a command 5:1 Keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
Interrogative Asks a question 3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
Exclamatory Expression of strong emotion 3:21 May it never be!
Simple Sentence A single clause (simple subject and predicate are in bold) 3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Compound Two or more independent clauses (again, simple subject and predicate are in bold, and so with the following examples) 3:25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia...for she is in slavery with her children.
Complex Contains one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. 2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
Compound Complex Contains at least one dependent and at least two independent clauses 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me...
Conditional A complex sentence that contains a conditional clause (using if or since) 5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

Sentence Components

Sentences relate thought by presenting a subject and a statement about the subject, the latter being called a predicate. The subject is generally a person or thing and is therefore represented by a noun or pronoun. The predicate, in its simplest form, is a verb—expressing either an action or a state. In the nomenclature used below, S stands for subject, V for verb, LV for linking verb, DO for direct object, IO for indirect object, PN for predicate nominative, PA for predicate adjective, and OC for object compliment—all of which will be explained in turn. These alphabetical symbols are used to identify the basic structure of a clause or sentence, much the same as sentence diagrams do. (I took the liberty to use them to show compound subjects and predicates, something for which I have not seen them used before.)

Sentence Part Description Examples from Luke, NASB
Simple Subject Noun or pronoun that governs the verb 1:10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. (Sentence structure is S V)
Subject Simple subject plus its modifiers 1:10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.
Simple Predicate Verb by itself 2:18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. (Three clauses: S V, S V DO, S V IO)
Predicate Verb along with accompanying words 2:18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.
Compound Subject Two or more subjects govern verb 15:2 Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble. (S S V)
Compound Predicate Two or more actions performed 1:21 The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. (S V V)
Direct Object Receives the action of the verb 2:30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation. (S V DO)
Indirect Object Indirectly receives the action of the verb 11:11 ...he will not give him a snake ... (S V IO DO)
Object Complement Complements direct object John 6:15 So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself alone. (S V, S V OC DO)
Linking Verb Links subject to element in predicate; the most common linking verb is the verb be, with its various forms (is, are, am, were, etc.). Acts 15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...(S LV PA)
Predicate Nominative Identifies the subject in the predicate 24:44 These are My words ... (S LV PN)
Predicate Adjective Describes the subject in the predicate 12:10 He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. (Four examples of S LV PA)

Application: A Very Simple Grammatical Analysis of a Verse of Scripture

All of what we have seen above is of little value unless it helps open our understanding of God's word. Of course, we cannot expect this to happen overnight, but through consistent and careful consideration and prayer, we can aspire to have "a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the sphere of the full knowledge of Him" (Eph.1:17). Let me suggest a few ways that the information we presented may be helpful, realizing that without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and the opening of the eyes of our heart (Eph.1:18), mere study will not yield much fruit. On the other hand, because the Lord's words are spirit and life (John 6:63), we do well to place ourselves in front of the Bible and to consider it from every angle, giving Him the opportunity to speak to us.

In the first table above, we reviewed parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Let's consider these in a familiar passage of Scripture, John 3:16. In just about any translation (I'm using ASV), the nouns in the verse are God, world, Son, and life. The verbs are loved, gave, believes, perish, and have. The adjectives are only-begotten and eternal. The pronouns are he, his, whosoever, and him.

Stop and Consider

Let's stop and consider, following Paul's advice mentioned earlier (2 Tim.2:7) what the writer is saying. The verse speaks of God, the world, God's Son, and life. It tells us that God loves and that the direct object of His love is the world: not Satan's world order, but the fallen, hopeless, helpless human beings trapped in that system and in imminent danger of perishing with it. It also tells us that God loved to such an extent (expressed by the adverb so) that He did the unthinkable, what none but God's love could do: He gave His Son, identified here as His only-begotten Son.

We know the incomparable Son of God from other passages: He is the One in whom the Father delights and with whom He is well-pleased (Mat.3:17), the One who was coexistent with the Father from eternity (John 1:1), the One through whom God made the universe (Heb.1:2) and apart from whom nothing has come into being (John 1:3), the One who declares the Father and who is constantly pressing into His bosom (John 1:18), and the One who alone knows the Father and reveals Him to men (Mat.11:27).

God so loved the perishing world that He freely gave this beloved One to be lifted up (John 3:14) on the cross to die for sinners. The gift is for whosoever (in this broadest possible indefinite pronoun we see God's desire to extend His gift to everyone), and it is appropriated not by fulfilling some legal requirements or by being in any sense worthy of the gift (what an insult in view of the value of God's gift and the love of the Giver!) but simply by believing. The believer has (possesses) eternal life, the life which is life indeed (1 Tim.6:19), the divine life which is God Himself (John 14:6; 1 John 5:12, 20). When we look at the subject/predicate combinations (including the direct objects of the verbs) in this verse, we see the following: 1) God loved the world; 2) God gave His Son; 3) we (whosoever) believe; 4) we shall not perish; and 5) we have eternal life. What a tremendous view of the flowing-out love of God is here in this one verse! And what encouragement is here for sinners to lay hold of Christ!

Unlimited Possibilities

Understanding basic grammar, when coupled with a sincere desire to understand the Bible and to know the Lord, can be a valuable aid. It provides a simple way to take up Paul's charge to Timothy to consider the apostle's teaching. From our brief examination of one verse, I trust you feel as I do that the possibilities of such a simple approach to studying the word are limitless, far greater than one lifetime can encompass. No wonder Paul prays that we "may be strong to apprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and height, and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that [we] may be filled unto all the fullness of God" (Eph.3:18-19). It takes the whole Body to appreciate the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph.3:8).

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