When learning Greek, at some point you dutifully learn that ὅτι can be translated as “that,” “because” and more rarely, “for.” You also learn that ὅτι can function something like quotation marks in modern punctuation. These are all well and good, and coupled with context and intuition, are enough to guide a reader through most of their encounters with ὅτι in texts they read. But what is it about the syntax which guides our intuition on how to handle ὅτι? What cues the Greek writer to select ὅτι as a communicative tool? What guides the Greek reader in how they connect ὅτι to their model of the discourse?
In doing some groundwork preparing for a coming discussion of how to understand ὅτι in a passage in 1 John 2, I have gone back to the basics of the syntax of ὅτι, only applying a more syntax-focused description than what I learned Greek with. In this first post, I will hit the highpoints of what is going on in Greek syntax such that we recognize when ὅτι is functioning like a “that” and when it is functioning like a “because,” and what the difference is.
The ὅτι clause: conventional presentation
Here, we begin with a conventional discussion of the uses of ὅτι, as laid out in BDAG. This does an excellent job of summing up the categories and providing the stock translation for each one.
ὅτι heads a clause which can stand in one of four basic arrangements:
- marker of narrative or discourse content, direct or indirect, “that”
- used after verbs that denote mental or sense perception, or the transmission of such perception, or an act of mind, or to indicate what was said, etc.
- marker of explanatory clause, “that” (aka, epexegetical)
- marker introducing discourse (aka, ὅτι recitativum)
- marker of causality, “because, since,” sometimes “for”(aka, adverbial/causal)
- subordinate clause
We might summarize these usages broadly into two categories: 1-3 are all uses where the ὅτι clause functions like a noun and in usage 4 it functions like an adverb.
Of course, BDAG is a lexicon so the small amount of syntactical description here is no surprise. We could look at a conventional Greek grammar and find more robust discussions of these usages of ὅτι. But, as per the aim of this post, I want to talk about the uses of ὅτι in a syntax-oriented approach, which I think yields benefits in helping us track the cues within Greek which intuitively push us towards one or the other readings (beyond that most of the NT Greek we read, we already know what it should say, on which, see How to Improve Your Greek by Getting Outside the New Testament).
Now I want to discuss how ὅτι clauses function from a syntactical perspective. Rather than asking “How should it be translated?” I am asking, “How do the Greek structures work?”
First, we will break down the usages of ὅτι clauses using the language of arguments and adjuncts. In brief, an argument refers to a component of the clause which is necessary for the verb to complete its meaning. An adjunct, by contrast, is a non-necessary component of the clause/sentence.
Why bother with this approach? What is the payoff? In sum, treating them under this terminology provides a clear way to talk about what cues the different uses of ὅτι clauses (or at least some important cues).
An ὅτι clause is only available for a causal usage (BDAG’s 4 category) if the arguments of the main verb are already full. In other words, whether explicitly or implicitly, the arguments of the verb must all be present or clearly inferred from context. That is what cues the reader to process an ὅτι clause as either causal or epexegetical.
In this syntactic approach, we can summarize the uses of ὅτι as follows:
First we will turn to the instances where the ὅτι clause is an argument of the verb.
 Note that BDAG also includes a fifth category which is a catch-all for a few uses of ὅτι that don’t obviously fit within the others. These minor uses are of no real concern in this present discussion, though they would fit within the syntactic descriptions to be offered shortly.