Wednesday, September 27, 2017


Eleanor Dickey, An Introduction to the Composition and Analysis of Greek Prose. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xv, 298. ISBN 9780521184250. $29.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Stephen Kidd, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site


Students usually read a good deal of ancient Greek without writing much of it, at least until they reach graduate school where there is a Greek Prose Composition requirement. By this point, they have accrued a large passive vocabulary and a fairly nuanced sense of the grammar, so the unspoken expectation often seems to be that they therefore ought to be able to write idiomatic Greek sentences too. This leads to many happy (or not so happy) hours thumbing through the LSJ and Smyth's grammar to explore the intricacies of Attic usage for particular words and phrases, finding parallels in online resources like the TLG, and trying to discern rules behind an ever-growing number of exceptions—all just to write a few polished sentences of idiomatic Greek. This is time well spent, of course, but the expectation on which this spent time is often based—that a passive knowledge of a language easily translates into an active knowledge—can only be absurd for anyone who, with a reader's knowledge, has attempted to produce recognizable sentences, let alone native, idiomatic ones, in a foreign country.

In this light, Eleanor Dickey's new book, An Introduction to the Composition and Analysis of Greek Prose, should be seen not just as a textbook for Greek Composition classes, but a system for how Greek Prose Composition ought to be taught. Rather than simply being given a grammatical topic for review and a number of English sentences to translate at home, the student instead begins with a reduced list of words to memorize actively ahead of time, and only then, after memorizing the words and grammar, turns to the assignment, which is to be done from memory. Dickey is worth quoting in full on the point: "The temptation to do prose composition without memorization, of course, derives from the impression—wholly reasonable when one is presented with a grammar and a large dictionary as one's basic reference works—that it is impossible to memorize all the necessary information and therefore pointless to begin" (ix–x). Even if students have the best intentions of committing to memory the words and phrases that they are looking up, how exactly does one memorize LSJ in a semester-long course? Dickey's solution to the problem consists of "presenting a finite body of information, large enough to cover all the really important facts but small enough to be memorized in one semester" (x).

This reduction of LSJ to manageable lists of 30-40 words per assignment is paralleled in a reduction of the grammar. Rather than developing a respectable feeling of awe before the endless number of exceptions in ever-thicker grammars, those exceptions are simply set aside in the spirit of that memorizable "finite body of information." Any guilt that might arise from this temporary neglect of grammar's fine print is absolved with a full page printed in block capitals before page 1: "Almost every rule presented in this book has exceptions, most of which are not mentioned." This mutual understanding allows both student and teacher to breathe a sigh of relief, brush the pedantic daimones from their shoulders, and get to the real task at hand: focusing on whatever the new piece of grammar is, establishing in active memory the vocabulary and grammar that had been learned passively, and developing thereby a much closer relationship with the language.

The book is divided into twenty chapters in traditional progression, beginning, for example, with accent review (Ch. 1), tenses, cases (Ch. 3), and participles (Ch. 5), and ending with topics like Temporal Clauses (Ch. 16), and Oratio Obliqua (Ch. 18). Similarly, the vocabulary review progresses in rough parallel to what has been learned in a first-year course—first and second declensions (Ch. 2) before third declensions (Ch. 6), ω- verbs (Ch. 2) before -μι and -νυμι verbs (Ch. 15), and so forth. At the end of the book, there are eight appendices including a "Partial Answer Key" to the exercises, a list of "Short, easily confused words" and a brief essay entitled "The next step: prose composition as an art form". After these appendices come a useful list of verbs with irregular principal parts, a Vocabulary, and an accompanying English Index. Dickey takes pains to make the Vocabulary useful for the memorizing student: she arranges it non-alphabetically by chapter, often thoughtfully pairing, for example, words that might be easily confused (e.g., οἰκέτης vs. οἰκητής). In the same spirit, she designs the Vocabulary to be difficult for the student who might occasionally try to bypass that fundamental first step of memorization (or simply has forgotten the word): the student must first look up the English word in the index which gives the chapter number, then flip back to the chapter's vocabulary and find that word in a non-alphabetic list.

A typical chapter begins with reminders of the material to be learned ahead of time—namely, the chapter's vocabulary at the back of the book and the grammatical forms in Smyth—as well as references to recommended reading in Smyth for a deeper review of the grammar. To take a typical chapter as an example: Chapter 12 "Purpose, Fear, and Effort" has a section concisely reviewing the grammar of purpose clauses followed by simple preliminary exercises to practice this grammar; then a section on fear clauses followed by simple preliminary exercises for practice; and then a section on effort clauses followed by more preliminary exercises. By the time students reach the exercises proper, that is, the "Sentences" section, they will have not only memorized the chapter's vocabulary but also practiced the chapter's grammar, and so will be well prepared to do the Sentences from memory.

The Sentences section typically consists of some thirty sentences, with the answers for the first ten provided in the "Partial Answer Key" at the back of the book. This Partial Answer Key benefits both student and teacher. It allows students to self- correct their first ten exercises at home and so get a better sense of what Dickey is looking for in the next 20 sentences. If there is more than one possible answer (e.g., should we use the optative or retain the indicative?) all possibilities are demanded, and provided—at least for the first ten sentences—in the answer key. It should be mentioned that every exercise has a clearly intended answer and there is never any uncertainty over which word is the correct one: this may be one of the most satisfying parts of using this book. For the teacher, the Partial Answer Key is useful because it allows more sentences to be assigned than can be covered in class: with the first ten sentences self-corrected at home, the class can be largely devoted to the rest of the sentences, all resulting in students writing more Greek than they otherwise might have done.

A typical chapter ends with an "Analysis" section: short Greek sentences or passages from authors like Xenophon, Plato, Demosthenes, Lysias, and Thucydides. These passages do not just function as examples of the chapter's grammar or pleasant breaks from the English-to-Greek sentences. Rather, they introduce into the weekly assignments and class discussions an appreciation of Greek prose style, a topic too often postponed until the end of the semester. This focus begins in earnest in Chapter 6, "The structure of a Greek sentence: word order and connection", where Dickey introduces the useful tool of diagramming or blocking out Greek sentences into "units with one verb form in each" (59). From that point on, students are asked to dissect the Analysis passages in this way, a practice that allows students to start observing, for example, the differences between word order for the sake of clarity and word order for the sake of rhetorical effect, as well as the individual stylistic choices that each author makes.

In its goals, precision, and effectiveness, Dickey's book is the best on the market—in fact, it is hard to imagine a better one. The old school texts (e.g. North and Hillard, Sidgwick) are books that, as Dickey notes, "were designed for British schoolboys of a bygone era" (xiii), while more recent textbooks, for example, Susan Stephens' Greek Prose Composition (Bryn Mawr, 1996, second edition 2012) and Stephen Anderson and John Taylor's Writing Greek (Bloomsbury, 2010), despite their merits, are altogether different in feel and character. To focus on just one difference (for the sake of brevity) that applies to all of these books: each provides a traditional glossary but only Dickey's divides the vocabulary chapter by chapter. This seemingly small difference has wide-ranging consequences: it causes the exercises to be more focused (each chapter's exercises center mainly on the vocabulary of that chapter), it makes the chapters feel more individualized (not just new grammar but new vocabulary), and it gives students a feeling that there is always a right answer—rather than a range of possible ones—since it is always clear what the student is supposed to be practicing in regard to both grammar and vocabulary. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dickey's approach facilitates memorization rather than consultation.

The book is polished and practically error-free. The few errors or suggestions I note here are given only in the positive spirit of adding to the many reprints this book will certainly have: p. 71, sentence 2, "plain" is not introduced until Ch. 16; p. 119, sentence 9, read "You (pl.)" for "You"; p. 127, sentence 13, for "though" read "through"; p. 158, paragraph 2, "spend (time)" διατρίβω is not introduced until Ch. 18, while "kind" and "go up" are not in the vocabulary; p. 240, XV.2.b and XV.2.d, for οὐχ σπέσθαι read either οὐ or ἕπεσθαι; p. 246, sentence 2, read ἀπαντήσεσθαι for ἀπανἠσεσθαι; p. 250, B.3, for Laws 713d read 713e. Although the distinction between ἄρχομαι + infinitive vs. ἄρχομαι + participle is given in Ch. 5, only παύω + participle is given, yet παύω + infinitive would seem to be suggested by p. 80, sentences 20–21 (cf. more ambiguously p. 72). Finally, a Greek index might be a nice addition alongside the English one. I understand fully the reasons for making the words difficult to look up, but often the issue for students is not whether they knew the word or not, but whether the word had been introduced in the book yet. For example, using φαίνω for "show" until Ch. 15's δείκνυμι is not particularly intuitive (similarly avoiding the use of δύναμαι until Ch. 15). A Greek index would help students double-check those rare counterintuitive moments.

Dickey dedicates this book to her students, and this devotion to students can be felt on every page. The choices made, the added details, the streamlined exercises all betray her thoughtful care and genuine concern for the student's experience. Witnessing my own students work through this book proved my original impressions about it: the students not only quickly improved and mastered the material despite its challenges, but clearly enjoyed doing so. But the best news of all may be that with the book's partial answer key and clear instructions, no student needs to wait until the class is on offer at their (or some nearby) university: just go buy the book, get to work, and enjoy it.

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