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The generations-old question of canonical Greek word order was finally solved by Helma Dik's demonstration that the normal order of movable components in main clauses is

Theme – Topic – Focus – Verb – Tail

where, to simplify, the "Theme" consists of modifiers providing context, "Topic" is what the clause is talking about, "Focus" its main point, "Verb" the main verb (unless it is topic or focus), and "Tail" all other matter.

Anyone used to this order will know how much it clarifies the reading and teaching of Greek prose. But as Dover had written and as Dik acknowledged, other factors may affect the order of words. Consideration of some of these factors will show that a single principle may operate on more than one level. The relative weight given to each factor, moreover, varies from domain to domain: the principle that is generally decisive in establishing the order of constituents in a clause may not dominate the order of clauses in a sentence.

In narrative prose, the dominant clause-ordering principle is chronology: the various clauses, whatever their syntactic connection to each other, will normally appear in the order in which the events are said to have occurred. Thus when Herodotus writes that the Phoenicians

á¼€πὸ τῆς Ἐρυθρῆς καλεομένης θαλάσσης á¼€πικομένους ἐπὶ τήνδε τá½´ν θάλασσαν, καὶ οá¼°κήσαντας τοῦτον τὸν χῶρον τὸν καὶ νῦν οá¼°κέουσι, αὐτίκα ναυτιλίῃσι μακρῇσι ἐπιθέσθαι, á¼€παγινέοντας δá½² φορτία Αá¼°γύπτιά τε καὶ Ἀσσύρια τῇ τε ἄλλῃ ἐσαπικνέεσθαι καὶ δá½´ καὶ ἐς Ἄργος (1.1.1).

the focus of the narrative is the Phoenicians' arrival in Argos, where they proceeded to abduct Io; but the order of the clauses, and even of the constituent phrases (á¼€πὸ τῆς Ἐρυθρῆς καλεομένης θαλάσσης ... ἐπὶ τήνδε τá½´ν θάλασσαν) is entirely chronological. This rule, almost universal for ordering of clauses in narrative, is also the default order for phrase ordering; but here it can be trumped by the normal Topic-Focus order, as in Herodotus 2.7.1:

á¼”στι δá½² ὁδὸς ἐς Ἡλίου πÏŒλιν á¼€πὸ θαλάσσης ἄνω á¼°ÏŒντι παραπλησίη τὸ μῆκος τῇ ἐξ Ἀθηνέων ὁδá¿· τῇ á¼€πὸ τῶν δυÏŽδεκα θεῶν τοῦ βωμοῦ φερούσῃ á¼”ς τε Πá¿–σαν καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν νηὸν τοῦ Διὸς τοῦ Ὀλυμπίου

where the topic is the previously-mentioned road to Heliopolis; the words á¼€πὸ θαλάσσης ἄνω á¼°ÏŒντι then describe the road, putting the two place designations, Heliopolis and the sea, in the opposite order from the one in which the person going inland (ἄνω á¼°ÏŒντι) would meet them.

Derived from chronological order is the more artful version in which the order of the grammatical items is that in which the author wishes to present them to the reader:

ἐδÏŒκει τίς μοι γυνá½´ προσελθοῦσα καλá½´ καὶ εὐειδής, λευκá½° á¼±μάτια á¼”χουσα, καλέσαι με καὶ εá¼°πεá¿–ν· á½® ΣÏŽκρατες· ἤματί κεν τριτάτῳ Φθίην ἐρίβωλον á¼µκοιο (Plat. Crito 44a-b).

The focus of what Socrates has to say is the Homeric quotation at its end, but the chronological order is not as things "happened" in the dream (the woman was presumably beautiful and dressed in white before she approached), but as Socrates would have noticed them: "a woman – coming towards me – good-looking – dressed in white – calling me –" and only then the words she said.

Other principles of order, in particular the postponement of the focus to make it a "punch line" or to connect it to the following clause or sentence, may also compete with the Topic-Focus-Verb order. In certain contexts the weaker principle will win, forcing a non-canonical word order. That one cannot deny. The interest of these principles, none of which is new, is in (1) their ability to compete with, and occasionally to overcome, the canonical order, and (2) their applicability on more than one domain (word, constituent, clause), while the weight of each principle varies according to the domain involved.


  • Devine, A. M., and Laurence D. Stephens, Discontinuous Syntax: Hyperbaton in Greek (Oxford, 2000).
  • Dik, Helma, Word Order in Ancient Greek: A Pragmatic Account of Word Order Variation in Herodotus (Amsterdam, 1995).
  • ead., Word Order in Greek Tragic Dialogue (Oxford, 2007).
  • Dover, Kenneth, Greek Word Order (Cambridge, 1960).
  • Levinsohn, Stephen H., Discourse Features of New Testament Greek: A Coursebook on the Information Structure of New Testament Greek (Dallas, 2000).

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