Grace Theological Journal 10.1 (1989) 29-49.
[Copyright © 1989 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
A CLASSIFICATION OF
BASED ON SPEECH ACT THEORY
RICHARD A. YOUNG
The assumption that the meaning of conditional sentences can be
determined solely by surface structure features, such as tense, mood,
and particles, severely restricts the exegetical task. The meaning of
any utterance cannot be understood apart from the speaker's intent,
the situational and linguistic context, as well as the linguistic form.
Speech act theory provides objective criteria to help the exegete
integrate these elements. When applied to conditional sentences,
speech act theory yields more meaningful results than traditional
* * *
THE approach one takes to understand an utterance rests on
underlying assumptions concerning how thoughts are communi-
cated through language. Traditional approaches to Greek grammar
have not yielded satisfactory results in classifying the meanings of
conditional sentences. Greek rhetoricians debated the meaning of
Greek conditional sentences.1 In reference to conditional sentences,
Robertson remarked, "In truth the doctors have disagreed themselves
and the rest have not known how to go.”2 Blass and Debrunner
observe, "The classical grammars are also hopelessly at variance.”3
Recent work, however, in linguistics and philosophy offer potential
for a fresh understanding of Greek conditional sentences.
l Callimachus (Epigrammatum Fragmenta 393) remarks, "Even the crows on the
rooftops are discussing the question as to which conditionals are true." Cf. Sextus
Empiricus, Adversus Grammaticos 309. For the debate see Sextus Empiricus, Adversus
2 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of
Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 1004.
3 F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other
Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961) 189.
30 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES
Most modern grammarians of NT Greek follow Robertson's
classification of conditional sentences.4 Robertson essentially follows
the system of Gildersleeve and Winer in identifying four classes of
conditionals based on the surface structure phenomena of mood and
tense.5 Meanings are then assigned to each class.
The first class condition is identified by ei] with an indicative verb
in the protasis and a verb of any tense and mood in the apodosis.6
Because the first class uses the indicative mood (the mood of reality)
in the protasis, it is commonly said to mean that the protasis is
"determined as fulfilled." Robertson claims that the speaker assumes
the reality of his premise. The premise may or may not be actually
true. If the premise is objectively true, it may be rendered with
"since." Otherwise the speaker is either falsely assuming the reality of
the premise or assuming its reality for the sake of argument.
The second class condition is identified by an ei] with a secondary
tense indicative mood verb in the protasis and the particle a@n (usually)
with a secondary tense verb in the apodosis.7 The second class condi-
tion is said to mean that the premise is determined as unfulfilled. The
indicative is used because the speaker is of the persuasion that the
premise (protasis) which he sets forth is contrary to fact. The premise
may actually be contrary to fact (John ), or it may be contrary to
what the speaker believes to be the facts (Luke ).
The third class condition is identified by e]a<n with a subjunctive
mood verb in the protasis and a verb with any tense and mood in the
apodosis (usually present or future tense and indicative mood).8 Ac-
cording to Robertson this construction means that the premise is
undetermined but has a prospect of determination. Since the subjunc-
4 Notable among modern grammarians who do not follow Robertson are C. F. D.
Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek [
ment Greek [
5 Robertson, Grammar, 1004-27.
6 There are about 300 examples of this surface structure phenomenon in the NT.
J. L. Boyer ("First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?" GTJ 2  75-114)
counts 308 using GRAMCORD. It may be questionable whether all the examples that
Boyer cites represent conditional sentences. J. W. Roberts ("Some Aspects of Condi-
tional Sentences in the Greek New Testament," Restoration Quarterly 4  72)
7 There are about 50 examples of this surface structure form in the NT. J. L. Boyer
("Second Class Conditions in New Testament Greek," GTJ 3  81.) counts 47.
J. W. Roberts ("Some Aspects of Conditional Sentences," 72) counts 51.
8 There are about 300 examples of this structure in the NT. J. L. Boyer ("Third
[and Fourth] Class Conditions," GTJ 3  163) counts 277. J. W. Roberts ("Some
Aspects of Conditional Sentences," 72) counts 332.
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 31
tive is a mood of unreality or uncertainty, its use indicates that the
premise has not yet become a reality. The third class is essentially a
future condition. The speaker regards the premise as having a greater
probability of becoming a reality than would have been true if he had
used a fourth class condition, which uses the optative mood. The
speaker does not assume the premise to be true or untrue.
The fourth class condition is identified by ei] with an optative
mood verb in the protasis and the particle a@n with an optative mood
verb in the apodosis. No example of this construction exists in the
NT having both the protasis and apodosis.9 It is said that the premise
of the fourth class condition is undetermined with remote prospect of
determination. The fourth class condition is understood to indicate a
future (undetermined) condition with a less probable chance of ful-
fillment than is true with a third class condition.
INADEQUACY OF THE TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING
The traditional approach to Greek conditionals is adequate for
classifying the surface structure phenomena. It is inadequate, how-
ever, for describing the semantic range of conditional sentences. For
example, in Luke there is a first class condition: "Father, if you
are willing, take this cup from me" (NIV). The premise is not true; it
was the Father's will for Jesus to suffer. It cannot be said that Jesus
assumes the truth of the premise for the sake of argument, for that
understanding of the statement would result in a serious theological
problem, namely, disunity in the Godhead. The other option, that
Jesus falsely assumed the truth of the premise, is highly questionable.
It could be said with Boyer10 that first class conditions merely repre-
sent a simple if/then relation. Grammatically this is correct, but
semantically it barely scratches the surface. What did Jesus mean by
the utterance? Why did he say it?
In Gal there is a second class condition: "If you could have
done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me"
(NIV). The traditional interpretation (contrary-to-fact condition)
would yield the following understanding: "If you could have done so
(which for some reason you could not do), you would have torn out
your eyes and given them to me (which of course you did not do
because the premise was never realized)."11 This is nothing more than
9 Roberts ("Some Aspects of Conditional Sentences," 72) counts 12 examples of
the partial construction in the NT, but Boyer ("Third [and Fourth] Class Conditions,"
170) denies that any exist.
10 Boyer, "First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?" 81-82.
11 Boyer ("Second Class Conditions in New Testament Greek," 83) explains the
meaning of second class conditions by means of a similar expanded paraphrase. He
remarks, "It states a condition which as a matter of fact has not been met and follows
with a statement of what would have been true if it had."
32 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
a truism that does not say anything at all. The exegete must realize
that the situation was emotionally charged and that Paul is express-
ing something more than meaningless double-talk.
The main cause for exegetical problems with the traditional
approach stems from a simplistic view of semantics.12 There is an
overemphasis on a one-to-one correspondence between form and
meaning, which does not fully recognize the semantic range of ei] or
that one type of condition may be represented by various surface
structure forms. As observed in the above survey, conditional sen-
tences are classified according to surface structure phenomena (mood
and tense) and then a meaning is attached to each class.13 The
assumption that there is a one-to-one correspondence between form
and meaning is often violated in actual usage. Lexical forms usually
have many meanings (e.g., the word "run"); likewise, grammatical
constructions often have multiple meanings (e.g., the Greek genitive
case). Any attempt to uncover the meaning of conditionals must be
based on a more productive theory of semantics.
Furthermore, the traditional approach fails to recognize the role
of the situational context in the communication act.14 To interpret the
meaning of language purely on the basis of its linguistic features is a
12 "Semantics" as used here refers to the study of total meaning rather than the
meaning of language structure. This includes the meaning of the propositional content
of the linguistic structure, the propositional content of inferential material, and the
intent of the speaker. Since these elements are necessary for understanding an utter-
ance, they must be part of the study of total meaning. Semantics then will be used in its
broadest sense and closely associated with the concept of understanding. For an
extensive bibliography on semantics, see
Bibliography," Notes on Linguistics 37 (1987) 5-43.
13 Some have rightly observed a semantic overlap between the four classes of
conditions. For the similarity between a first class form in which the protasis is
obviously false and a second class form see M. Winger ("Unreal Conditions in the
Letters of Paul," JBL 105  110-12). Winger (p. 111) states, "Grammarians
generally agree that writers of ancient Greek--classical or Hellenistic--sometimes
stated conditions they regarded as unreal without using secondary tenses or a@n. Thus,
the unreal form is only an option; any past or present condition may be unfulfilled, but
the unreal condition is explicitly, and therefore emphatically, unfulfilled." Boyer ("First
Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?" 76) isolated 36 first class examples from the
NT in which the protasis was obviously false. Boyer correctly concluded that every
sentence with a first class form will not fit the meaning attached to it by Robertson. Yet
what Boyer does is simply to replace Robertson's meaning with another, retaining the
one-to-one correspondence between form and meaning.
104-5) argues that ei] with the future tense conveys the same idea as e]a<n with the
subjunctive. There are 22 examples of ei] with the future tense in the NT.
14 The context includes such things as the shared experience of the speaker and
audience, the shared knowledge about the culture, the immediate situational setting,
the prior statements of the same and related discussions, the relationship between
speaker and audience, the formality of the situation, and the social register of the
speaker and hearer.
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 33
basic fallacy that grammarians are prone to make. Situational con-
text influences the meaning of an utterance in two ways. (1) Speakers
often allow the context to communicate part of their message for
them. Why say something that is obvious and insult your audience's
intelligence? As in most forms of human behavior, there is a principle
of least effort. People say just enough to be understood in light of the
situation. They allow the audience to compare what was said with
the context and to draw the proper inference, thereby arriving at the
intended meaning. The speaker may leave part of his propositional
content or his intent to be inferred by his audience. (2) The speaker
may be influenced by pragmatic concerns and modify how he says
something. Sometimes a conditional construction is used as a polite-
ness marker when requesting a superior to do something: "If you
wouldn't mind. . . ," or "If you would be willing. . . ." This interac-
tion between linguistic form and situational context implies that the
linguistic form cannot be adequately explained apart from consider-
ing the communication situation. How much is actually said and how
it is said will depend on various pragmatic factors, such as formality
and social register.
Little attention has been given to indirect utterances and the
distinction between propositional meaning and use. A speaker may be
influenced by pragmatic concerns to the extent that he will use a
surface structure phenomenon in a way that is alien to its literal
meaning.15 If a wife makes the statement, "The car is dirty," and her
husband replies, "You're right," and then continues to read the sports
page, he is likely to exasperate his poor wife. Her utterance was not
really a statement, it was a request. Indirect speech acts still retain
their literal meaning. The car is indeed dirty. The wife, however,
meant not only what she said, but something else in addition. The
questions that concern the semanticist are, "What were the pragmatic
influences that caused her to express her desires in the form of a
statement?" "Is it possible to develop criteria or rules to define such
use of language and to recover the speaker's intent?”16
15 Common examples of disjunction between meaning and use would be idioms,
figures of speech, and one part of speech used for another. More relevant to our study
of conditional sentences is where one type of sentence is used for another. Questions
are often equivalent to statements. For example, "What shall it profit a man. . . ?"
(Matt ). No answer is expected, rather, it is a rhetorical question that conveys an
emphatic negative assertion, "It will surely not profit a man. ..." Questions can be
used for commands or request, "Will you please close the door?" or "Can you pass the
salt?" In the latter, the ability of the person addressed is hardly the issue. Statements
may be used for commands, "It's rather drafty in here" could mean "Please close the
16 R. A. Jacob and P.
34 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
There needs to be more attention given to a speaker's intent
when interpreting what any utterance means. Both the propositional
content of what is said and how the speaker uses the words have
direct bearing on the proper understanding of an utterance. If a
hearer simply decodes the propositional content in the question "Can
you pass the salt?" he might respond with an affirmative answer
rather than the desired action. He would not have understood what
was said because he did not consider the intent of the speaker. The
goal of biblical exegesis is to understand what the writers of Scripture
said; this cannot be done by viewing the text (on any level) apart
from the intent of the author/speaker.
Semantics is perhaps the least precise and most difficult sub-
division of language study. The reason for this is that there are a
great number of factors involved in the meaning of human communi-
cation, such as the intent of the author, the situational context,
shared knowledge, the words used, the arrangement of the words, the
inflection of the voice, discourse features such as prominence and
structure, the attitude of the speaker, and the relation of the speaker
to the audience. There is much more involved in meaning than simply
linguistic phenomena. The questions are how do all these factors
interact and is it possible to devise a theory of meaning that takes
everything into account?
A NEW APPROACH: IMPLICATURE AND SPEECH ACT THEORY17
The theory of "implicature" was proposed by Grice in a series of
lectures at Harvard in 1967.18 Grice recognized that the meaning of
communication is dependent not simply on what is said, but also on
what is implicated (implied). He distinguished between the inferences
that one could possibly draw from an utterance and the inferences
between form and meaning. . . . One of the major goals of linguistics, perhaps the
major one, is to make this relationship explicit."
17 The theory of implicature and speech act theory are subdivisions of the study of
pragmatics. Pragmatics is broadly defined as the study of language usage. It is con-
cerned with the relation between context and language and how language usage affects
language structure; cf. S. C. Levinson, Pragmatics (
18 His work has only been partially published; see H. P. Grice, "Logic and Conver-
sation," in P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, vol. 3, Speech Acts
(New York: Academic Press, 1975) 41-58. A recent development of Grice's theory is
relevance theory; cf. D. Sperber and D. Wilson, Relevance: Communication and
Cognition (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1986); D. Sperber and D.
Relevance Theory," Notes on Linguistics 39 (1987) 5-24; Ernst-August Gutt, "Un-
ravelling Meaning: An Introduction to Relevance Theory," Notes on Translation 112
(April 1986) 10-20; and Ernst-August Gutt, "What is the Meaning We Translate,"
Occasional Papers in Translation and Textlinguistics 1 (1987) 31-58.
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 35
that the speaker intended. The latter he called implicatures.19 This
concept arose out of five principles (or rules) that he formulated by
which efficient, rational, and cooperative use of language is achieved.20
Since meaning is conveyed through both the linguistic activity and
the situational context, it follows that there is more communicated
than what is said. "The words and sentences on the page are reliable
clues, but they cannot be the total picture. The more pressing ques-
tion is how the texts function in human interaction.”21
Two pioneers of speech act theory are J. L. Austin22 and John R.
Searle.23 Their basic thesis is that people actually perform acts by
using speech patterns.
ber of utterances that are not reports about reality and therefore not
subject to being true or false. Instead, these utterances are actions
(e.g., "I name this ship Queen Elizabeth," or "I bet you a dollar it will
rain tomorrow"). By making the utterance the speaker is actually
performing the action. Such use of language is termed "performa-
something about reality (constative utterance) or to do something
(performative utterance ).24
Often the performative will be marked in the surface structure by
a definite formula: the first person singular pronoun, the present
tense, and a performative verb, such as promise, warn, thank, com-
mand, congratulate, or apologize.25 Other times it will not be overtly
19 Distinction should also be made between Grice's concept of conversational
implicature and logical implication, which is based solely on semantic content.
20 These principles are as follows: (1) The Cooperative Principle: the participants'
contributions are in keeping with the common purpose or direction of the exchange;
(2) The Principle of Quality: the participants do not normally say things they know to
be false; (3) The Principle of Quantity: the participants' contribution is only as
informative as required by the purposes of the exchange; (4) The Principle of Rele-
vance: the participants' contributions are relevant to the discussion; and (5) The
Principle of Manner: the participants normally attempt to be brief and orderly,
avoiding obscurity and ambiguity. See Grice, "Logic and Conversation," 45-47.
21 R. de Beaugrande
and W. Dressler, Introduction
to Text Linguistics (
Longman, 1981) 3. They go on to say (p. 35) that a text is the result of an unconscious
process of decision and selection which cannot be interpreted in isolation from those
factors that were involved in its formation. "We must constantly seek to discover and
systemize the motivations and strategies according to which the creation and utilization
of texts are kept in operation."
22 J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (
23 John R. Searle, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (New
24 Austin himself came to reject this distinction since even statements about reality
can be expressed using a performative verb, "I hereby state that X." Thus all utterances
25 Austin (How to Do Things with Words, 149) claimed that there are over a
thousand such words in English. If a verb could collocate with the word "hereby" ("I
36 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
marked in the surface structure. For example, "Can you pass the
salt?" would be the implicit form of "I request that you pass me the
salt.”26 Thus, there are two categories of performatives: explicit per-
formatives (marked in surface structure by standard formula) and
implicit performatives (not marked in surface structure by standard
Performatives can carry a certain force (rebuke, warning, etc.) or
can achieve a certain effect (conviction, persuasion, etc.). The first is
called an illocutionary act (e.g., "He urged me to shoot her") and the
second is called a perlocutionary act (e.g., "He persuaded me to shoot
her"). If an illocutionary act fulfills all its necessary conditions, it will
produce in the hearer a recognition of the intent of the utterance.
In order for communication to be effective, the speaker must get
the hearer to recognize the intent of his utterance. This may be
accomplished in several ways--which one the speaker chooses de-
pends on situational factors. He may indicate his intent in a conven-
tional manner by (1) the standard formula, (2) a recognized device in
the surface structure other than the standard formula,28 (3) a sentence-
type that represents a certain illocutionary force,29 or in a nonconven-
hereby promise that X"), it was deemed a performative verb.
collection of verbs as the basis for classifying speech act types into five groups.
However, it is Searle's classification of speech act types which is more commonly
accepted today, but even his scheme is not without opponents. According to Searle
(Expression and Meaning [New York: Cambridge University, 1979] 1-29) there are five
types of utterances: (1) assertives, which commit the speaker to the truth of the
expressed proposition (e.g., assert, conclude, affirm); (2) directives by which the speaker
attempts to get the hearer to do something (e.g., request, question); (3) commissives,
which commit the speaker to some future course of action (e.g., promise, offer);
(4) expressives, which express a psychological state (e.g., thanking, apologizing); and
(5) declarations, which affect immediate changes in the state of affairs (e.g., declaring
war, christening, excommunicating). B. Fraser ("Hedged Performatives" in Cole and Morgan,
Speech Acts, 187-210) groups speech acts into eight categories based on speaker's intent.
26 Some suggest that implicit performatives are merely idioms. Levinson (Prag-
matics, 268-70) argues to the contrary. Among his reasons are: (1) indirect speech acts
may be responded to literally, indicating that they retain their literal meaning (e.g,
"Can you pass the salt?" "Yes I can, here it is"); and (2) many indirect speech acts can
be transferred literally into another language since the principles of their formation are
not language specific.
27 All implicit performatives can be expressed explicitly with the formula "I
(hereby) V p (you) (that) S," where V p is a performative verb and S is an embedded
28 Levinson (Pragmatics, 233) observes that the force of implicit performatives
could be indicated by mood ("Shut the door" rather than "I order you to shut the
door"), particles ("Therefore, X" rather than "I conclude that X"), adverbs ("I'll be
there without fail" rather than "I promise that I will be there"), and even intonation of
voice ("It's going to change" rather than "I state [or question] that it's going to
29 The interrogative sentence is normally associated with the act of questioning, an
imperative with commanding, and a declarative with stating. Yet this correspondence is
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 37
Necessary Conditions for Requests and Assertionsa
Conditions Requests Assertions
Propositional Content Future act of hearer Any proposition
Preparatory Speaker believes hearer can Speaker has evidence for the
do act truth of proposition
It is not obvious that hearer It is not obvious to speaker
would do act without being that hearer knows
Sincerity Speaker wants hearer to do Speaker believes proposition
Essential Counts as an attempt to get Counts as an undertaking to
hearer to do act the effect that proposition
represents an actual state of
a Adapted from Searle, Speech Acts, 66-67.
tional manner by (4) framing his words in such a way (without any
commonly recognized surface structure marker) so that the audience
can make the proper inferences. The first would be a direct speech
act; the other three would be indirect speech acts.
By avoiding the standard illocutionary force marker a speaker
can soften an otherwise harsh performative ("Can you pass the salt?"
instead of "I request you to pass me the salt"). It is probable that
speakers of Koine Greek used conditional sentences to tone down the
force of certain acts such as rebuke or request. When Martha rebuked
the Lord for not being there to prevent Lazarus from dying, she used
the form of a conditional sentence: "If you had been here, my brother
would not have died" (John ). If Martha's utterance is analyzed
according to the traditional understanding of second class conditions,
her intention will not be understood.
If some performatives are not marked in the surface structure by
the standard formula, there needs to be some criteria for exegetes to
determine what type is taking place. Searle argues that speech acts
"are performed in accordance with certain rules for the use of linguis-
tic elements.”30 He devised a set of necessary and sufficient conditions
for speech acts to be successfully performed in a given utterance (see
not strictly observed. For example, the explicit performative "I request that you close
the door" could be communicated with an interrogative ("Can you close the door?"),
an imperative ("Close the door"), or a declarative ("I would be very happy if you'd
close the door"). Some would classify sentence types that are recognized as expressing
a certain performative act as explicit rather than implicit performatives (e.g., impera-
tives for expressing a command).
30 Searle, Speech Acts, 16.
38 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
From his conditions, Searle derived a set of rules for the use of
the illocutionary force indicator.31 He has since modified his theory to
accommodate Grice's theory of implicature by adding criteria to help
determine the illocutionary force of indirect speech acts, e.g., to
determine when the speaker is asking the hearer to pass him the salt
and when he is merely concerned with the hearer's ability to do so.
After analyzing various indirect requests, Searle proposed the follow-
ing generalizations: (I) a speaker can make an indirect request by
either stating that or asking if the propositional content condition
concerning the future act of the hearer is in effect (e.g., "Do you have
change for a dollar?"). (2) A speaker can make an indirect request by
either stating that or asking if the preparatory condition concerning
the hearer's ability to do an act has efficacy (e.g., "Can you pass the
salt?"). (3) A speaker can make an indirect request by stating that
(not asking if) the sincerity condition concerning his desire to the
hearer to do an act is true (e.g., "I wish you wouldn't do that"). (4) A
speaker can make an indirect request by either stating that or asking
if there are sufficient reasons for doing an act (e.g., "You had better
go now"). (5) A speaker can make an indirect request by asking if
the hearer wants to do an act (e.g., "Would you like to go to the
Indirect speech acts which are constructed by questioning or
stating one of the necessary conditions are called conventional. Some,
however, do not follow this pattern; e.g., "Boy, I'm starving" can be
used for a request. Such nonconventional indirect speech acts seem-
ingly violate Grice's principles of communication and place the bur-
den on the hearer to make the proper inference.
The hearer can usually discern that an utterance is a certain type
of performative by inference from what was said in light of the
context.33 For example, the utterance "There is a bull in the field"
could either be a simple remark or a warning. It all depends on which
31 Rules for the illocutionary force indicating device of a request are as follows.
(I) The Propositional Content Rule: the request is to be uttered only in the context of a
sentence or longer stretch of discourse. The utterance predicates a future act of the
hearer. (2) The First Preparatory Rule: the request is to be uttered only if the speaker
believes the hearer can do the act. (3) The Second Preparatory Rule: the request is to
be uttered only if it is not obvious that the hearer would do the act without being
asked. (4) The Sincerity Rule: the request is to be uttered only if the speaker wants the
hearer to do the act. (5) The Essential Rule: the utterance of the request counts as an
attempt to get the hearer to do the act. See Searle, Speech Acts, 62-63.
32 John R. Searle, "Indirect Speech Acts," in Cole and Morgan, Speech Acts, 59-
82. The essay was reprinted in Searle, Expression and Meaning, 30-57.
33 Searle (Expression and Meaning, 32) states, "In indirect speech acts the speaker
communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their
mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together
with the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer."
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 39
side of the fence the person being addressed is standing! In the same
way one can infer from the context and what was said that Martha's
utterance (John ) has the illocutionary force of a rebuke.
Basically there are two elements involved in understanding an
utterance: (I) the propositional meaning, or what was said, and (2)
the intent of the speaker, or why it was said (the illocutionary force).34
In some cases the two elements are not detachable; the propositional
content includes the force indicating device. If the fellow picking
daisies on the other side of the fence recognized only the proposi-
tional meaning of "There is a bull in the field," he would probably
end up being gored. He may have been able to parse every word and
to look up the meanings in a lexicon, but he would have failed to
understand because he missed the intent. Both elements should be
recognized as an interconnected unit. Illocutionary force then is an
aspect of meaning that can be described in terms of conditions or
rules. Propositional content conveys what is being said, and the
illocutionary force conveys how it is to be taken. To understand
the statements in Scripture, exegetes must be sensitive not only to the
propositional meaning but also to devices that mark illocutionary
ANALYSIS OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES
Speech act theory categorizes utterances according to function
rather than form. There is greater exegetical and homiletical value in
classifying conditionals in this way, for it brings the interpreter closer
to the speaker's intent. When viewed through the speech act model,
all conditionals are seen as implicit performatives which are used to
do something in addition to stating a condition; i.e., to persuade the
listener, to make a strong assertion, to manipulate the listener, to give
an exhortation, to express a respectful rebuke, to ask something in a
polite way, to justify one's self, to mock someone, or to convey a
lament. Pragmatic reasons cause a speaker to use a conditional in-
stead of a more direct expression. The following is a partial classifica-
tion of conditionals on the basis of function.
To soften a rebuke and make it more respectful, it may be
cloaked in a conditional sentence or some other rhetorical device.
Shakespeare has said, "Your 'if' is the only peacemaker; much virtue
34 Searle (Intentionality [New York: Cambridge University, 1983] 27), in discussing
the relation between illocutionary force and intentionality, states, "To characterize
them [utterances] as beliefs, fears, hopes, and desires is already to ascribe intentionality
40 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
in 'if,.”35 The necessary conditions (in terms of Searle's theory) for a
rebuke are that the hearer performed an act in the past (propositional
condition), the speaker does not believe that the act was in his best
interest (preparatory condition), the act angered the speaker (sincerity
condition), and the speaker intends his expression as a reprimand
(essential condition). Indirect rebukes may be made by questioning or
stating anyone of the above conditions. For example, a speaker may
question why the hearer did an act ("Why didn't you get the car
fixed?"), or he may state that an act was not in his best interest ("You
sure got us in a jam this time"). A speaker may combine the proposi-
tional content with what would have been in his best interest ("If you
had gotten the car fixed, we wouldn't be stranded out in the middle of
An example of a conditional sentence used as a rebuke is found
in John 11:21, "If you had been here, my brother would not have
died.”36 A number of factors were involved in the formation of
Martha's utterance. Her brother had just died. She was in deep
sorrow and perhaps angered that Jesus had not been there to heal
Lazarus's sickness. Martha was not in the frame of mind to begin a
discourse in logic with her teacher. The sight of Jesus only caused her
emotions to become more agitated. This charged emotional state then
surfaced in a rebuke. The most important factor involved in the
formation of Martha's utterance was the social register between her
and Jesus. She was his devoted follower, having great respect and
admiration for him as her teacher. The last thing she would want to
do is to offend him. Because of this, she softened her rebuke by
avoiding the illocutionary force marker and framing it in the form of
a conditional sentence. The explicit form would have been, "I hereby
rebuke you for not being here and preventing my brother from
Consider the statement, "If my husband were still alive, I would
be so happy." If it is not known that the husband is dead, the speaker
is expressing hope; if it is known that the husband is dead, the
speaker is expressing a lament. The protasis of a conditional used to
express a lament is contrary to fact. About one-fourth of the so-called
second class conditionals in the NT express lament. The necessary
35 As You Like It, V.iv.108.
36 This was the initial statement that both Mary and Martha made when they saw
Jesus (John , 32). Mary's utterance, however, could be a lament. Since most of
the necessary conditions for a rebuke and lament are the same, many of their indirect
forms could be constructed in the same way. The observation that Mary fell down at
Jesus' feet and wept suggests that her utterance was a lament rather than a rebuke.
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 41
conditions for a lament are that an event happened in the past
(propositional condition), the speaker does not believe that the event
(which he believes to have occurred) was in the best interest of
himself or the hearer (preparatory condition), the speaker is grieved
because of the event (sincerity condition), and the speaker counts his
utterance as expressing sorrow (necessary condition). Indirect laments
may be conveyed by stating the event the speaker would like to have
happened (e.g., "I wish that John had not gotten aboard flight 256"
or "If John had taken another flight, he would still be with us").
In Matt a conditional is used to express a lament: "Woe.
unto thee, Chorazin! Woe
works, which were done in you, had been done in
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." The
explicit form of the lament is "I hereby lament that you did not
The illocutionary act of arguing (i.e., an attempt by a speaker to
persuade the hearer to accept his opinion) is very common in condi-
tionals. Two rules of inference are involved in the use of conditionals
for arguing (these rules will be illustrated by the conditional state-
ment, "If I get my car fixed, then I will come to see you"). Modus
ponens (method of affirming) is used to argue that the consequent is
true by affirming the antecedent ("I fixed my car. Therefore, I will
come to see you"). Modus tollens (method of denial) is used to argue
that the antecedent is false by denying the consequent ("I did not
come to see you. Therefore, I did not get my car fixed"). No valid
conclusion can be drawn regarding the consequent by denying the
antecedent ("I did not get my car fixed. I may or may not come to see
you depending on whether I can get another ride ") or regarding the
antecedent by affirming the consequent ("I came to see you. I may
or may not have fixed my car. Actually, someone else gave me a
ride"). Thus, in order for a conditional to be used to argue a point,
both parties must agree that the "if" clause is true or the "then"
clause is false.37 The point of agreement does not need to be asserted
in the text; it may be understood from the context.
An example of a first class conditional used for a modus tollens
argument is found in Matt : kai< ei] o[ Satana?j to>n Satana?n
e]kba<llei, e]f ] e[auto>n e]meri<sqh / 'And if Satan casts out Satan, he is
the ideas in this section have been adapted from J. K. Baima, "Making Valid Con-
clusions from Greek Conditional Sentences" (Th.M. Thesis, Grace Theological Semi-
42 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
divided against himself'. It is clear from the following rhetorical
question ("How then will his kingdom stand?") that the consequent is
false. Satan's kingdom does stand and he is not divided against
himself. Since the consequent is false, then the antecedent must also
be false. Jesus, then, is arguing that Satan does not cast out Satan.
He is not merely assuming the verity of the antecedent for the sake of
argument (in which case his own position would be indeterminate); he
is arguing for its falsity. This then becomes the basis for the rest of
the argument of the passage (Matt -28).
A second class conditional using the modus tollens form of
argument is found in Luke 7:39: Ou$toj ei] h#n profh<thj, e]gi<nwsken
a}n ti<j kai> potaph> h[ gunh> h!tij a!ptetai au]tou? / 'If this man were a
prophet he would know who is touching him and what kind of
woman she is--that she is a sinner' (Luke , NIV). Robertson
states, "The Pharisee here assumed that Jesus is not a prophet be-
cause he allowed the sinful woman to wash his feet.”38 The pharisee,
however, was not merely assuming the case, he was convinced that
Jesus was not a prophet. By denying the consequent ("Jesus does
not know what kind of woman is touching him"), the pharisee was
seeking to persuade the others that Jesus was not a prophet.
Many first class conditions use modus ponens to argue for the
truth of the consequent. The truth of the antecedent is often clearly
the point of agreement and thus not explicitly affirmed. In such cases,
ei] may be translated "since." For example, in Rom -30 Paul
argues that the Jews do not have sole claim on God: "Since God is
indeed one, then he is God of the Gentiles as well." Paul used the
common agreement regarding the unity of God to argue for the truth
of the consequence.
Sometimes a speaker will frame a request or command in the
form of a conditional sentence for the sake of being polite. An
employee would not barge into his boss's office and bluntly demand a
raise. Rather, he would soften his request with "If you would con-
sider" or the like. The "if" clause is a mitigator or politeness marker.
There is a polarity between being direct (i.e., "I command you to
pass me the salt" or "Give me the salt") and being polite (i.e., "Can
you pass the salt" or "If you wouldn't mind, I would like some salt").
A speaker would tend toward politeness if the situation is formal, the
social status of the hearer is above that of the speaker, there are
others listening, the hearer is in close proximity to the speaker, or if
the speaker desires the conversation to continue. The demands for
politeness usually supersede the need for clarity.
38 Robertson, Grammar, 1012.
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 43
An example of a conditional used for a request is found in Matt
17:4: ei] qe<leij, poih<sw w$de trei?j skhna<j / 'If you wish, I will put up
three shelters' (NIV). The impetuous Peter might normally have
blurted, out, "Let me put up three shelters." But the awe of the
situation--seeing Jesus in his radiant splendor conversing with Moses
and Elijah--led Peter to frame his request in a politer form using a
Jesus' request in the
may this cup be taken from me" [Matt 26:39; cf. Luke and
Mark ]) is perplexing. One line of reasoning argues that the "if"
clause introduces an indirect request asking whether the preparatory
condition of the hearer's ability to do the requested act has efficacy.
The utterance would then be after the analogy of "Can you pass the
salt?" The sincerity of the request is explained by saying that the
belief that the act was possible arose from the human nature of Jesus,
which was not yet in perfect harmony with the desire of the Father.
This disharmony perhaps was due to a temptation to avoid the path
of suffering, but nevertheless, it is said, Jesus recognizes the impossi-
bility of circumventing the cross in his second prayer, "If (since) it is
not possible. . ." (Matt 26:42) and accepts the will of his Father.
Such a line of interpretation does not do justice to the hypostatic
union between the divine and human in Jesus. A second line of
reasoning understands the "if" clause as an expressive, not a directive.
That is, the "if" clause expresses a condition necessary for the hearer
to perform the requested act, but both the hearer and the speaker
realize that the "if" clause is impossible (i.e., false). In such a situa-
tion, the conditional makes no logical sense (see the discussion of
conditionals used to argue above), but makes perfect sense if it is
understood as expressing the speaker's feelings or needs. For ex-
ample, if a boy had a particular dislike for a certain girl, he might say
to his friend, "If you give me a million dollars, I'll ask her out for a
date." Both he and his friend realize that the friend does not have a
million dollars; thus the speaker is not questioning the hearer's ability
to meet a necessary condition (he already knows that he cannot meet
the condition) but is using a conditional form to express his aversion
to dating that particular girl. Thus, Matt 26:39 can be understood not
as a request that the immutable God reverse one of his eternal
decrees, but as expressing the agony Jesus felt as he faced the cross
The necessary conditions for an assertion are the same as for an
argument except that the assertion is not an attempt to convince the
hearer of a proposition. Assertions are recognized in conditionals
44 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
when the "then" clause does not follow logically the "if" clause.39 For
example, in the sentence "If Hitler was a military genius, then I'm a
monkey's uncle," the consequence is so obviously false that the sen-
tence is in fact a strong negative assertion-- "Hitler was in no way a
military genius." Most uses of conditionals in the NT for assertion are
a form of Hebraic oath in which only the "'if" clause is stated; the
"then" clause is omitted because the conclusion is unthinkable or
An example of a conditional used to make an assertion is found
in Mark 8:12: ei] doqh<setai t^? gene%? tau<t^ shmei?on. A literal trans-
lation would be, "'If a sign will be given to this generation. . . ." An
idiomatic translation that captures the illocutionary force of the
speaker would be, "A sign will not be given to this generation."
Asseverations marked by aposiopesis, such as Mark , most likely
reflect Semitic influence. Mark, however, made no attempt to explain
the Semitism to his Roman audience as he does on other occasions.
The apparent acceptance of this Semitism into Greek supports the
contention that the formation of indirect speech acts is not entirely
language specific, the syntax being understood across language bound-
aries. Robertson remarked that his construction is "'not un-Greek in
itself.”40 Other examples of this construction are OT quotations (e.g.,
Heb 3: 11, 4:3, 4:5).41
39 K. Sorensen ("Asseverative IF and its Congeners," English Studies 59  248)
remarks that these conditionals "are assertions that operate under cover of logic."
40 Robertson, Grammar, 1024.
41 A milder form of assertion employs a concession or contraexpectation relation
between the two propositions (perhaps they could be called acts of maintaining). The
speaker states a contrary thesis and then maintains his position in spite of it. Even
though this relation may be conveyed by a first class form (using ei], ei] kai<, or ei@per),
the subordinate clause does not stipulate a condition (e.g, "Although all will be
offended in you, I will never be offended"
112) argues that such sentences should not be regarded as conditionals, saying "The
force of a concessive sentence is thus very different from that of a conditional sentence.
The latter represents the fulfillment of the apodosis as conditioned on the fulfillment of
the protasis; the former represents the apodosis as fulfilled in spite of the fulfillment of
the protasis." J. H. Greenlee ("IF in the New Testament," TBT 13  42-43) agrees,
saying, "Whereas a conditional clause sets up a condition favorable to the occurrence
of an event, a clause of concession sets up a condition which is affirmed to be
inadequate to bring about the event." Nelson Goodman (Fact, Fiction, & Forecast
do not assert a causal connection between the antecedent and consequent; rather they
deny that such a relation exists. The idea of connection is a basic element in real
conditions. J. Haiman ("Conditionals are Topics," Language 54  579) observes
that some logicians and linguists "deny that semifactuals are conditionals at all-
regardless of their superficial morphological similarity to true conditionals." The ques-
tion, however, is really one of definition. Haiman (564) remarks, "Until a satisfactory
definition for a category exists, the sole criterion for identification of its supposed
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 45
A speaker may use a conditional to manipulate the listener. A
manipulation is an attempt to get someone to do something that he
normally would not do or thinks is wrong (e.g., "If you won't be a
good boy, Santa won't come"). The necessary conditions for the
performance of a manipulation are that the hearer perform a future
act (propositional condition), the hearer is able to do the act, but it is
not obvious to the speaker that the hearer is willing to perform the
act (preparatory condition), the speaker wants the hearer to perform
the act (sincerity condition), and the speaker counts his utterance as
an attempt to force the hearer to perform the act (essential condition).
Indirect manipulations may be performed by questioning the hearer's
ability to do an act ("You cannot do . . .") or by questioning the
hearer's character ("If you're a man, you would. . .").
An example of a conditional used for manipulation is found in
Matt 4:3: Ei] ui[o>j tou? qeou?, ei]pe> i!na oi[ ou$toi a@rtoi
ge<nwtai / 'If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become
loaves of bread'. If a command if found in the consequent, then the
truth value of the antecedent is dependent upon the response. If Jesus
obeyed, making the consequent true, nothing could be said regarding
the truth value of the antecedent. If, however, he did not obey,
making the consequent false, then by modus tollens the antecedent is
also false-a denial of his own deity. To escape Satan's trap, Jesus
responded by saying that obedience is due God rather than to his
tempter. Satan is not merely assuming the premise to be true, he
is using Jesus' character as a leverage to force him to do some-
thing.42 Other examples of manipulation are found in John
and Phlm 17.
An exhortation is an attempt to urge a hearer to do something
he recognizes is proper. It differs from a manipulation in the prepara-
tory and necessary conditions; it is not obvious to the speaker that
the hearer would do the act without being encouraged, and it counts
as an attempt to urge the hearer to perform the act. Exhortations
members is common superficial form: in the case of conditional clauses, the presence,
in English, of a common conjunction if; in other languages, of a corresponding
conjunction, word-order, verbal desinence, or whatever." Exegetical precision calls for
a definition of conditionals based on the logical relations between propositions and on
the speaker's usage, rather than solely on form.
42 It is obvious that Satan was attempting to force Jesus to do something that he
would never otherwise do (obey him rather than the Father). As such it is classified as a
manipulation rather than an exhortation. However, the question remains whether ei]
46 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
may be strengthened by stating the reason the act should be done.
Among the ways a causal relation can be formed in Greek is by using
the conjunction ei]. Such usage should not be considered conditional.
An example of an exhortation is found in 1 John 4:11: ]Aga-
pthtoi>, ei] ou!twj o[ qeo>j h]ga<phsen h[ma?j, kai> h[mei?j o]fei<lomen
a]llh<louj a]gapa?n / 'Beloved, since God so loved us, we also should
love one another'. Exhortations are also found in
John 13:14 and
3:1. The matrix clause may contain an imperative, a statement using
"ought," or a rhetorical question which can be interpreted as an
imperative (e.g., Luke ).
Sometimes a person will boast about being correct and mock or
deride another for being wrong. This ridicule is made even more
pointed when it is constructed in the form of a conditional sentence.
The conditions necessary for the performance of a mockery are that
the hearer has performed a past act or made a proposition (proposi-
tional condition), the hearer believes the act was right or the pro-
position true (preparatory condition), but the speaker believes the act
was wrong or the proposition false (sincerity condition), and the
speaker counts his utterance as an attempt to ridicule the hearer
An example of mockery is found in Matt 27:40: Ei] ui[o>j ei# tou?
qeou?, kata<bhqi a]po> tou? staurou? / 'If you are the Son of God, come
down from the cross'. The scorners were certainly not trying to
manipulate Jesus to come down from the cross (they did not believe
that he could). Instead, they were deriding Jesus for his "false assess-
ment" of who he was and asserting that they were right all along--the
fact that he was hanging helpless on the cross proves for them that
they were correct; he cannot be the Son of God. For other examples
of mockery see Matt 27:43; Luke 23:35, 37.
Speech act theory has called attention to the function of an
utterance in human communication and to the necessity of consider-
ing both the propositional meaning and speaker's intent when inter-
preting what any given communication means.43 The speaker's intent
should be rendered "since" or "if". "Since" would indicate that Satan is manipulating
by flattery; "if" would indicate that Satan is manipulating by modus tollens. Both types
of manipulation are performed by questioning the hearer's character or ability. The
hearer is being forced to comply in order to vindicate his reputation. The latter,
however, is much more forceful and is, therefore, probably the force Satan intended.
43 Speech act theory lends substantial weight to Hirsch's contention that the text is
not autonomous from the speaker's intent (E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 47
can be detected from surface structure markings or by the interaction
of the surface structure and situational context. This latter observa-
tion forces the exegete to integrate the total context (situational as
well as linguistic) into his grammatical and lexical analysis at all
Analyzing conditionals in light of speech act theory can be a
useful tool to bring the exegete nearer to the intended meaning of the
speaker/author and to resolve exegetical problems. The analysis of
conditionals in light of mood, tense, and particles is not wrong, but it
only examines part of what contributes to meaning. Viewing a prob-
lem from different angles usually results in a clearer understanding. It
is like taking pictures of different sides of a building. A picture of the
front of the building may be an accurate representation, but it cannot
provide the viewer with an understanding of the whole (How long is
the building? Is there a back porch?). Analyzing conditionals in light
of speech act theory simply takes another picture of the problem from
a different angle, augmenting the understanding based on traditional
One purpose of this paper has been to question the prevailing
assumption that the linguistic form of a conditional sentence (i.e.,
tense, mood, and particles) is the sole criteria to ascertain meaning.
This has been the approach of most previous work on conditionals.
Perhaps the reason for the prevalence of this assumption is that
Greek studies have traditionally been confined to linguistic features.
Those who have passed through traditional instruction, therefore,
have a tendency to equate propositional meaning with total meaning.
Further studies could be made in several areas. First, more
precise categories and criteria will enhance the accuracy of the results
and eliminate some subjectivity. For example, what determines that
an utterance fits the criteria for a certain illocutionary act when
exactly the same words are said (as in the case of Mary and Martha
in John 11:21, 32)? To say that Martha's utterance was a rebuke and
that Mary's was a lament when they say exactly the same thing must
rest entirely on the exegete's analysis of the total context, including
the actions of the speakers and hearers when the utterances were
made. For example, a rebuke is rarely given when a person is bowing
down before another and weeping (as Mary was). Mary's posture
reflects her being deeply grieved rather than resentful and angry.
The various aspects of the total context must be evaluated in
terms of how they influence the necessary conditions for a particular
speech act (the propositional, preparatory, sincerity, and essential
conditions). A rebuke and lament differ mainly in the sincerity and
intent is inseparably linked with both the surface structure and the situational context.
48 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
essential conditions. The reason their indirect forms can be expressed
with identical surface structure phenomena is because the proposi-
tional (a past act of the hearer or a past event) and preparatory (the
speaker believes the past act or event was not in his best interest)
conditions are very similar. The sincerity condition reflects an inner
disposition or emotion which often surfaces in observable actions.
These actions, for the most part, are not consciously performed, yet
they do convey a certain emotional state. The sincerity condition for
a rebuke (the speaker is angered because of an act) might be revealed
by voice inflection and increased volume, rapidity of speech, short
choppy phrases, or tension and rigidness of body. The sincerity
condition for a lament (the speaker feels grieved because of an event)
could be discerned from weeping, solitude, bowing the head, or a
quiet, broken voice. None of the behavior patterns for a lament were
observed in connection with Martha's utterance, but two accompanied
Mary's. It is only on such a basis that a difference in meaning can be
determined when the propositional content is identical.
The essential condition reflects an attempt to communicate a
certain disposition or intent. The behavior patterns associated with
the essential condition, therefore, are more deliberate than those
associated with the sincerity condition. Circumstances accompanying
a rebuke might include the speaker being in close proximity to the
hearer, the speaker leaning forward, a characteristic facial expres-
sion, or short quick gestures with the lower arm and hand. A rebuke
is more confrontational than a lament. Actions in the ancient Jewish
culture that help to convey a lament include beating the breast,
rending one's garments, lifting one's hands, fasting, dressing in black
garments, going barefoot, removing ornaments from one's attire,
sitting among ashes or sprinkling ashes on oneself, or public wailing.
The expression of a rebuke involves retaliative behavior against an
offender instead of outbursts of undirected energy, as with a lament.
Martha's meeting with Jesus was more confrontational, thereby sug-
gesting that she was rebuking him.
The above represents suggestions for integrating the situational
context with the propositional content to arrive at the speaker's
meaning. All of the behavior patterns mentioned, whether consciously
or unconsciously performed, are modes of communication. Since they
contribute to the total meaning, they cannot be ignored by the exe-
gete. Of course, some behavior patterns cannot be discerned from a
literary text, but many can, especially in the Scriptures. The Hebrew
people were honest with their feelings and when something displeased
them, they would not hesitate to lift their voice to God and cry out,
"Why have you allowed this to happen?" Such outbursts were not
disrespectful, as might be construed in a more reserved culture.
YOUNG: A CLASSIFICATION OF CONDITIONAL SENTENCES 49
A second area of further research lies in applying speech act
theory to other categories of language study. For example, a rhetori-
cal question is an indirect speech act that can be formed when a
speaker questions the truth of a proposition. The preparatory condi-
tion for an assertion is that the speaker has evidence for the truth of a
proposition. By questioning the truth of a proposition, a speaker is
actually making a strong negative assertion. Thus, the rhetorical
question, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and
lose his own soul?" (Mark ), is actually a negative assertion, "It
will surely not profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own
A third area of further research concerns the implications of
speech act theory for translation work. Speech act theory indicates
that the illocutionary force of a sentence must be retained if a sen-
tence is to be understood. For instance, explicit performatives in a
source language may be best rendered implicitly in a receptor lan-
guage. For example, Luke 14:18b reads, e]rwtw? se, e@xe me par^th-
me<non. The NIV translation, "Please excuse me," accurately renders
the illocutionary force of the sentence without explicitly translating
every lexical item from the source language.
Traditional grammar does not adequately explain the meaning of
certain passages of Scripture. This article has demonstrated that
speech act theory can lead to a better understanding of the biblical
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: email@example.com