a story about grammar, not church

I have lots of thoughts swirling in my head right now, having just finished a reading about the Byzantine Church for my course on Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle Ages. This would merge well with my last post, with the link about the Orthodox Century, as well as the thoughts I’m having about whether owning the complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene fathers is worth it or not.

But I want to tell you a story instead.

A story about grammar.

Once upon a time, there was a Greek verb named apollumi. Sometimes he went by apollumai if he was voiced in the middle and felt like being intransitive. At such times, he no longer meant kill, destroy or ruin, since that would be the role of a transitive verb (those that can take a direct object) in the active voice. No, in fact, at those times, apollum(a)i meant kill. One day, the Athenian orator (a professional, technically called a logographer) used him in a speech for his client Euphiletos. Euphiletos was busy explaining that he wasn’t guilty of a crime when he killed Eratosthenes, seeing as how Eratosthenes had committed adultery with his wife and morally corrupted her and dishonoured his children and maltreated Euphiletos by entering his home.

Lysias decided to put apollumi to good use in this speech, explaining that Eratosthenes had destroyed/ruined the slavegirl in order to gain entry into Euphiletos’ house and proceed to morally corrupt Euphiletos’ wife.

Then Professor Jitse Dijkstra of the University of Ottawa was teaching a fourth-year Greek class one day to a group of young men and translating this speech of Lysias’. He was having them compile a list of the irregular verbs. And it turns out that apollumi was one (he never ate enough roughage, you see). And while writing the verbs, he asked which form was transitive (does something to something/one) and which was intransitive, the one that meant to kill or the one that meant to die.

Ross spoke up and said, “You can’t die people.”

Dijkstra responded, “Can’t you die people? Which means something else.”

And now we enter the familiar territory of English pronunciation. As written, “Can’t you die people?” is nonsensical, since to die is an intransitive verb and takes no object. But, just like the panda bear in the “Eats Shoots and Leaves” joke, it all depends on punctuation. Slip in a little comma, and suddenly we discover what that something else mentioned by Dijkstra is. See:

Can’t you die, people?

And now it is logical.

This is the excitingly cool thing about grammar and punctuation, you see. With just a little tweak or adjustment, a statement can move from the illogical and nonsensical to logical sense. I enjoy that fact.

I am crazy, I know. Deal with it. (That was in the imperative mood.)


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