Organizing an Outline with Syntax Graphs

Awhile back, I blogged on how syntax graphs aren’t just helpful when it comes to searching. They can be very helpful when reading through the text as well. And they can help one organize thoughts and approach when teaching or preaching on a passage.

A case in point is First Thessalonians 5.12-13. I dug into this passage in preparation for a home group Bible study. The OpenText.org Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament: Clause Analysis helped me to organize my thoughts on how this passage is structured, therefore it helped in thinking how this passage should be understood.


When looking at the graph for 1Th 5.12-13, one sees that the primary clause has two complements. One is simply “you”, the other is an extended portion that contains most of vv. 12-13. We’re interested in it all, but for structural purposes we’re interested in the complement. At this point, it helps to review what a complement is in the OpenText.org annotation:

Complement: A Complement (C) of a clause is a word group or the word groups that completes the predicator of the clause. The categories of direct and indirect object from traditional grammar are among those classified as complements. A clause may have no complement or many complements. With relation to the process of the clause, the complement(s) are those components of the clause that answer the question “who?” or “what?” is affected by the process.
Porter, S., O’Donnell, M. B., Reed, J. T., Tan, R., & OpenText.org. (2006; 2006). The OpenText.org Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament Glossary. Logos Research Systems, Inc.

One thing I do when working through a passage is very simple. I copy the Greek text from the NA27 as text and paste it into Notepad. (yes, Notepad). Then I insert returns and tabs to organize or block the text as I best see fit. I usually do this with structure in mind, so that means I’m paying attention to main verbs and using returns/tabs to indent stuff. I don’t do this in any systematic way, I just want to get an idea of the flow of the text. After I block it, then I do my own interlinear translation (again, in Notepad).

When I looked at the graph for 1Th 5.12-13, the extended complement jumped out at me. Note that the complement consists of two embedded clauses (both are embedded clauses because their verbs are infinitive). The first embedded clause has a further complement that has three embedded clauses (participles). The second embedded clause has one complement (them) but three adjuncts. This immediately informed me how I should make my own outline:

Let’s put this all together. First, we need to realize the role of the complement. As mentioned above, it completes the verb, providing the answers to the “who?” or “what?” of the process. The main verb of the clause is “we ask”. The complements in this clause, then, can help in answering the questions “who are they asking?” (that’s the first complement, “you”) and “what are they asking?” (the second extended complement).

The second complement has two infinitive verbs, “to respect/know” and “to esteem/consider”. Thus the request of Paul here has two parts, to respect and to esteem. Each of these parts has more information we can garner from the graph.

The first part, respect, has another embedded complement. Remember, the complement helps answer the “who” or “what” question. In this case, the complement answers the “who” question. Paul is asking the Thessalonians to respect those working among them, those who supervise/administer them (overseers/elders?), and those who admonish or warn them. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if these are multiple groups of people or if these are three ways of referring to the same group of people.

The second part, esteem/consider, has a complement (“them”, referring to the ones described in the first part) and then has three adjuncts. Let’s recall how an adjunct is defined by the OpenText.org annotation:

Adjunct: An Adjunct (A) of a clause is a word group or the word groups that modify the predicator, providing an indication of the circumstances associated with the process. Common adjuncts are prepositional and adverbial phrases (adverbs) and also embedded “adverbial clauses”. With relation to the process of the clause, adjuncts provide answers to questions of the type “where?”, “when?”, “why?” and “how?”.
Porter, S., O’Donnell, M. B., Reed, J. T., Tan, R., & OpenText.org. (2006; 2006). The OpenText.org Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament Glossary. Logos Research Systems, Inc.

The adjunct provides circumstance, answering questions like where/when/why/how. These tend to be things like adverbs and prepositional phrases. So: How do the three adjuncts in the second infinitival clause provide circumstance? What questions do they answer? And how does that help us better understand what Paul is asking the Thessalonians to do in esteeming their fellow workers and leaders? (Note: If you’re interested, I have some further thoughts and interaction with the OpenText.org annotation on vv. 14-22 on my personal blog.)

Syntax graphs can help us approach a passage taking the underlying syntax into account. Focusing only on words means we are considering vocabulary (and we need to do this) but when we take the higher level of syntax into account and think about how all of these words and these groups of words relate to each other, we end up with a better and more cohesive understanding of the passage itself. Words by themselves are puzzle pieces; syntax helps us in assembling the puzzle into something recognizable.

Using the syntax graphs in this passage, we’ve isolated the main verb and examined how the main verb is “completed” (the complements). We’ve examined one of the complements to better understand what Paul was asking the Thessalonians. Paul’s request was twofold: respect and esteem. Based on the syntax, each of these two parts has further information that helps in answering the original question. If I was teaching or preaching this, I’d probably have two main points in the outline (the infinitives); each of those main points would have three sub points (complements one set of three, adjuncts the other set of three).

Of course, if you’re like me, you’d use that as a basis to start your work and would likely end up with something a little different than you would if you strictly adhered to the OpenText.org reading of this passage. But that’s OK. Syntax should be one thing that informs your process of exegesis; your lesson/sermon/whatever should be the outcome of that process. Perhaps after you consider syntax, you have other information (vocab/word studies, genre, rhetoric, textual variants, other grammatical features, historical interpretations, etc.) that point you in another direction. This is all just fine. Again, the lesson/sermon is the result of your study.

Syntax simply helps inform that result. This is my primary use of the syntax graphs. Sure, they’re helpful for noticing phenomenon and in constructing searches to isolate other instances of that phenomenon. And that sort of thing is helpful. But I use the graphs much more as I simply read the text, to help me understand how the current passage is structured and therefore help me in my interpretation of it.

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7 Responses to “Organizing an Outline with Syntax Graphs”

  1. Tim June 26, 2006 at 7:36 am #

    Rick,
    I’m a little surprise that you use Notepad to do your “diagramming”. What about the LDLS Sentence Diagrammer?

  2. Rick Brannan June 26, 2006 at 9:04 am #

    Hi Tim.
    It’s true. For quick indentions, I just copy/paste to notepad. (Don’t even ask me how I go about making quickie HTML pages … ). This is typically because I do a translation of each block line as part of my process and I like to do them under the Greek. For stick diagrams, I use the Logos diagrammer exclusively. I do use the block stuff in the Logos diagrammer for other things, and sometimes even for quickie blocks.

  3. Michael June 26, 2006 at 11:36 am #

    Rick-
    Could you please explain the three complements that you see under the first infinitive and how you would outline it?

  4. Rick Brannan June 27, 2006 at 9:18 am #

    Hi Michael.
    I guess that I would see the main verb as “we ask”. The “asking” is broken into two parts, each represented by infinitive verbs. The first part has to do with asking “to respect”. That’s the first infinitive verb.
    Complements ‘complete’ the verb; they tell the ‘who’ or ‘what’ in relation to the verb. There are three complements here:
    * the ones working with you
    * the ones who supervise you in the Lord
    * the ones who admonish you
    Each of these three answer the question of who Paul is asking the Thessalonians to respect. So if I were doing a study on this, I would probably have two or three parts to the portion on respecting. I’d say we’re to respect fellow workers, and we’re to respect those who are placed over us in leadership. I’d probably spend some time on the verb ??????? (to respect).
    The next part of the outline would deal with the second infinitive, esteeming those whom we work with and who are in leadership positions over us and the “how and why” for doing that, as the three adjuncts that modify the infinitive detail:
    * how: “beyond all measure” and “in love”
    * why: “because of their work”
    Hope it helps!

  5. Allycia Godbee September 28, 2006 at 1:51 pm #

    Will the syntax graphs work?

  6. Philana Crouch February 12, 2007 at 1:45 pm #

    what about making it possible to diagram and put the English directly under the Greek or Hebrew. In fact how about making a report or document type that would allow students to do translation work. For example in my Prophet’s & writings class at seminary we have to do a literal translation with the English above or next to the Hebrew words and then parse the verbs, do a literal translation, commentary reaction, and add our notes from class. Doing translations like that in Word is tricky with Hebrew, it would be nice to have a user customized document within Logos that allowed us to not only create such documents to print, but save them as well.

  7. Thomas Walker February 14, 2008 at 1:47 pm #

    I can’t do a syntax search on Hebrews 11:8 do you know why? Problem starts after the second EC to the C on line 7.