Discourse Matters: Focus elements that aren't fronted (James 2:10)


By Kris (with a "K") In any given comment there’s a natural flow of information. We tend to begin with something familiar and end with something new. Another way to put it is that we generally move from general information to more specific. That’s because our brains are more apt to take in new information if its tied to something we’re already familiar with.

But this doesn’t mean that new information always comes last. No—sometimes an author will place new information before old or more general information to draw more attention to it. Which makes sense if you think about it. What happens when you see something out of place? Something that doesn't belong where it currently is? It stands out.


Now in language, the degree to which something can be considered "out of place" is just that—a degree. It's not a binary, black-and-white, ON/OFF situation. Some things can be more out of place than others, and so stand out more; and other items can be slightly out of place, and so stand out slightly less (but more so than would have been the case had they remained in their default position). In addition, it's not just about the typical flow of information (word order); parts of a sentence can also be "out of place" in how they are worded. In other words, you'd probably expect the main character of a story to be referred to by a simple pronoun, since you already know who's being talked about ("Then, Catwoman ran to edge of the rooftop. She looked down to see the villain hanging on for dear life"). So when you get something else, it stands out because it's unexpected ("out of place"): "Then Catwoman ran to the edge of the rooftop. The jet-black fierce cat looked down...." But this is stuff for another post. Let's get back to the effects of specific information coming before the more general. James 2:10b provides a great example:

ὅστις γὰρ ὅλον τὸν νόμον τηρήσῃ, πταίσῃ δὲ ἐν ἑνί, γέγονεν πάντων ἔνοχος.

For whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles in one area has become guilty of everything.

While we’ve already talked about the marked word order of James 2:10a, let’s look at the marked order in the second half of the verse this time.

One would expect James to place πάντων (everything) AFTER ἔνοχος (guilty). That’s because the former is more specific than the latter. This is reflected in the case marking of πάντων (everything): it is in the genitive case, and hence modifies the head noun ἔνοχος (guilty).

James could have just said: Whoever does such and such is guilty. But he doesn’t—he’s says more. He’s guilty of πάντων (everything).

Because of the specifying nature of πάντων (everything), and according to the principle of natural information flow, we would expect this modifying element to come after—not before—ἔνοχος (guilty). But what happens when you take something out of place and put it where it doesn’t belong? More attention gets drawn to it. As such, it makes sense to assume the reason that James violates the natural flow of information is because he wants to draw extra attention to just how guilty this person really is. It’s not just the one command he broke, it’s the entire code of ethics—πάντων.

Break one—they all fall down

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