Gesenius-Kautzsch – Verbal and Nominal Clauses

In two videos I briefly introduced verbal and nominal clauses.  In the video on the verbal clause video I explained how the nominal clause and the verbal clause differ in meaning.  In this ‘Grammarians’ Corner’ segment, I will take a look at Kautzsch’s description of verbal and nominal clauses in his 28th edition of Gesenius’ grammar.  His discussion is very helpful in understanding the difference between the two types of clauses; however, he adds an unfortunate twist at the end.  I will be taking quotes from Sections 140 and 142 of the grammar (the sign § indicates ‘section’).

Kautzsch recognizes that a distinction exists between verbal and nominal clauses, noting that the distinction “is indispensable to the more delicate appreciation of Hebrew syntax (and that of the Semitic languages generally)” (§140e).  More importantly, he points out that the difference between the two types of clauses “is by no means merely external or formal, but involves fundamental differences of meaning” (§140e).  Noun clauses, according to Kautzsch, describe a state, something fixed.  In contrast, verbal clauses denote “something moveable and in progress, an event or action” (§140e; see also §142a).  Kautzsch’s explanation of the difference between verbal and nominal clauses hits the nail on the head.

Unfortunately, Kautzsch – for reasons unknown – tweaks the definition of nominal clauses that contain a verbal clause as the predicate (or ‘announcement’).  Traditionally, anytime a subject precedes a verb, the clause is labeled ‘nominal’ (cf. Ruth 1:14, beginning with “but Ruth”).  When the verb precedes the subject, the clause is labeled ‘verbal’ (cf. Ruth 1:3).  Kautzsch recognizes that this is the standard definition given by Arab grammarians (§140 Rem.). He even states that this distinction “is often of great importance in Hebrew also” (§140 Rem.).  Nevertheless, Kautzsch redefines subject-before-verb clauses, labeling the clause ‘verbal’ (§§140b, 142a).  Furthermore, ‘nominal clauses’ are only those in which the subject and predicate “are nouns or their equivalents” (§140a).

Kautzsch clearly admits that he rejects the traditional definitions of verbal and nominal clauses, even though he accepts them in previous editions of the grammar (§140 Rem.).  It is interesting to note that the function he assigns to subject-before-verb verbal clauses is the same function he assigns to nominal clauses!  Kautzsch writes, “In the great majority of instances, however, the position of the subject at the beginning of a verbal-clause is to be explained from the fact that the clause is not intended to introduce a new fact carrying on the narrative, but rather to describe a state” (§142a).  He goes on to say, “Verbal-clauses of this kind approximate closely in character to noun-clauses, and not infrequently . . . it is doubtful whether the writer did not in fact intend a noun-clause” (§142a). Why change the definition of subject-before-verb clauses if the function does not change?

Kautzsch does not give his reason(s) for changing the definition of verbal and nominal clauses.  While his descriptions of the functions of and the distinction between the two clauses are very helpful, it is not necessary to change the definition of the clauses.  The traditional definition of nominal (verbless and subject-before-verb) and verbal (verb-before-subject) clauses, as described by Arab grammarians, still stand true.  Semitic grammar labels subject-before-verb clauses as nominal clauses because the clause focuses on the subject (or ‘initiator’) and not on the action of the verb.

Despite his redefinition of noun and verbal clauses, Kautzsch’s explanation of the differences in meaning remains invaluable to understanding Hebrew grammar.

Published by Richard C. McDonald

I am married to Nancy McDonald and we have two boys, Noah and Stephen. I am a high school history teacher at Whitefield Academy in Louisville, KY. I am also an adjunct instructor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. I am a fan of LSU, and college football in general. My family and I are members at Sojourn Church-JTown in Louisville, KY.

2 thoughts on “Gesenius-Kautzsch – Verbal and Nominal Clauses

  1. Yes! Earlier editions of Gesenius’ grammar used the traditional Semitic definitions of clauses. In the 28th edition (Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley), which is what you will find in the bookstore today, the grammar decisively moves away from the traditional definitions. However, they do say it is “relatively correct.” You can observe Hebrew grammar moving away from its Arabic roots in grammars of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today the use of Arabic in Hebrew grammar is virtually absent.


    1. I haven’t seen anything. It just seems to move on without much comment. Other grammars from that time seem to give their definitions of the clauses, and then just tip their hat to the old Arabic definitions. The same is case with the verb היה. Some will say it’s a copula while acknowledging Semitic languages do not have a copula. No reason given.

      Liked by 1 person

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