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This question arose on the Bible Hermeneutics site regarding Hellenistic Greek but the question is, I would assume, universal and I hoped it could be answered here, with regard to the English language.

Can it be said that the grammar which conveys a particular word actually alters the meaning of that word. And, in particular, can the addition of an article be said, properly, to 'alter' the meaning ?

A particular word may have more than one meaning if it is a homonym. And that homonym may be unambiguous depending on its grammatical context. Are you well ? // The well is deep.

But is it true that the grammar which conveys a word in speech can have sufficient influence to affect the inherent meaning of a word, such that a dictionary definition becomes inaccurate ?

This is a very relevant question in the matter of translation. Can (or should) a word always be translated by a single word ? But if one allows oneself latitude to alter meaning, within different grammatical structures, then why was not a different word chosen in the language being translated ?

And if grammar changes the meaning of words, then is it wrong to insist on dictionary definitions ?


EDIT after comment : the word under discussion in BH was θεος, Theos meaning God, but I don't think that the specific meaning will help. I was looking for a general rule, if there is one.

  • Are you asking if grammatical context can change the meaning? Like is it clear from grammar which meaning of "exact" is meant by "He wrote the exact number" versus "He is going to exact revenge"? – DJClayworth May 10 at 18:45
  • @DJClayworth I would have classed that example as a homonym, myself. In which case that is not what I am after. I am trying to discover if grammar itself alters the meaning of non-homonyms. – Nigel J May 10 at 18:50
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    If a word can have two meanings dependent on context or grammar, then those words are homonyms by definition aren't they? By excluding homonyms aren't you just asking about how a word can have two meanings, but excluding cases when a word has two meanings? – DJClayworth May 10 at 19:02
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    Do words have inherent meaning? What would that mean? A meaning that's totally free of context? I'd say that no word has any meaning if it has no context. Maybe if you gave the example from Greek it would make the question easier to understand. – Juhasz May 10 at 19:18
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    I can easily imagine a case where use of a grammar like AAVE could alter the preferred meaning of a word where the use of standard English would prefer another. If the AAVE definition were a new slang word, that definition might not yet be in the dictionary. Let me see if I can think of a good example. – Jim May 10 at 21:29
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"My brother was arrested at the zoo."

"What for?"

"Feeding squirrels."

"What's wrong with that?"

"He was feeding them to the lions."

The verb "feed" has a variety of interpretations, depending on how many arguments you feed it and of what kind. On hearing it used with just a direct object, we naturally assume that that denotes the creature receiving the food. Then we hear "feed" used with a phrase "to N" as well, so now the grammar is different. And with this grammar, the direct object denotes the food.

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The question's so intriguing that I can't refrain from taking a chance:

He fell to the bottom.

He's fallen to the bottom.

Assuming that the only difference between those above is the grammar applied to the verb "fall", could they be understood in a way:

He fell to the bottom. (= He lost everything, family, money, honour.)

He's fallen to the bottom. (= He has many sins. He's fallen/evil to the bottom of his soul.)

If this makes any sense, it would mean, yes, grammar itself conveys the difference in meaning.

???

  • So, yes, inflection affects mood, voice, etc. But what of the meaning of the infinitive stem 'to fall' ? – Nigel J May 10 at 19:40
  • Ok, I guess I invented one, this is going to be super-experimental: "To fall, or not to fall..." Mother nature was wondering, watching the children play in the late October blaze. I mean "fall" (autumn) is a noun, but why not make it a verb? Wouldn't that be a case where the dictionary definition becomes inaccurate? – shogun May 10 at 19:52
  • The dictionary gives several meanings for 'fall'. 1) Autumn 2) to fall down physically 3) a moral fall 4) failure of some kind. But those meanings are not dependent on grammar. They are meanings inherent in the word, as arrived at by language evolution. – Nigel J May 10 at 20:19
  • Why can't both of those metaphorical uses of "fall" -- and the literal one, besides -- apply to each of your sentences? The difference, to me, is whether you are telling me about something in the past (He fell) or where this man is now and how come he's down there (He's fallen). – Rosie F May 11 at 5:28
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I'm going to give you an answer for French, and not English. But since you're asking about Greek, I assume that something that occurs in French is relevant.

In French, grammar can definitely change the meaning of words. Adjectives change meanings and change shades of meanings depending on whether they appear before or after the noun. The amount the meaning changes varies depending on the adjective, and can range from almost non-existent to minor to quite large.

For example, l'ancienne bibliothèque means the former library and la bibliothèque ancienne means the ancient library. (And, interestingly, both word orders can be translated by the old library in English.)

I can't think of any English examples that are as clearcut as this French one, but maybe somebody else can.

  • Thank you. Appreciated. – Nigel J May 10 at 19:36

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