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What Is Syntax? And Why Is It Important?

by Melissa MacAulay

Published at 2024-01-24

We’ve all heard it before: “Words are the building blocks of language.” Writers understand this better than anyone, as they are all too aware – sometimes painfully so – that the first step to writing anything is putting those first words down on the page. 

From that point on, as Stephen King says, “words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe” (On Writing). But before you get started on your masterpiece, it is essential to understand these building blocks of language and how they fit together. This is where syntax comes in!

Syntax is simply the rules according to which words are put together to create phrases and sentences. Luckily for us, humans are generally experts at putting words together in the right order by a very young age. 

But how do we do this? This blog takes a bit of a deep dive into better understanding how syntax works, which will help you hone your craft and take your writing to the next level.

Syntax: A Primer

At the very minimum, complete sentences in English contain a subject [S] and a verb [V], in that order:

“My dog [S] barked [V].” 

Most English sentences, however, are made up of a subject, a verb, and then an object [O]:

               “My dog [S] barked [V] at the TV [O].” 

This is called SVO (subject-verb-object) word order, and it is standard in many languages, from English to Mandarin to Swahili. This is not the only possibility, however. In fact, most languages in the world feature SOV word order (e.g., Japanese), according to which the above sentence might look more like this: 

“My dog [S] at the TV [O] barked [V].”

Other possibilities include VSO, (e.g., Hawaiian), VOS (e.g., Malagasy), and even OVS and OSV!

But the fun doesn’t stop there. There are also syntactical rules about where to place adjectives, adverbs, and other modifiers. In English, adjectives generally come before the thing they describe (e.g., “a hot coffee”), whereas in French, they often come after (e.g., “un café chaud”). There is even a rule about the order in which multiple adjectives must appear (sometimes called the Royal Order of Adjectives), which you probably didn’t even know you knew: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Consider the following examples, the second of which sounds “less correct” to English speakers, even if they can’t explain why: 

Correct: “In the corner was a lovely, old, square, wooden table.” 

Incorrect: “In the corner was a wooden, old, square, lovely table.”

Syntax gets even more complicated when taking into account the fact that multiple SVOs can occur in the same sentence, and can sometimes even embed themselves into one another, forming subordinate clauses, compound clauses, and compound-complex sentences.

But how is any of this going to help you write your masterpiece? How will an enhanced understanding of syntax deepen your relationship with words?

Getting It Right

The first benefit of learning about syntax is that you will make fewer errors

If you were a carpenter, you would need to learn, at a minimum, the basic techniques for joining pieces of wood: drilling, boring, gluing, clamping, etc. As a writer, you build things using words. It therefore makes good sense to educate yourself not only about the different kinds of words there are, but also about how they fit together to form proper sentences.

Take one of the most common errors that editors come across: the comma splice. This happens when two independent SVOs are separated only with a comma.

Incorrect: “My dog barked at the TV, I changed the channel.”

Because there are two separate SVOs here, they need to (a) be split into two separate sentences or (b) joined using a comma plus a coordinating conjunction (e.g., “so”): 

Correct: “My dog barked at the TV, so I changed the channel.” 

Another common error that editors see is the dangling modifier. This happens when a descriptive phrase in a sentence ends up describing the wrong thing. Consider the following example:

“Having barked at the TV all day, I decided to take my dog outside for a walk.”

It is a rule of English syntax that a descriptive phrase applies to whatever thing immediately follows it. In the above example, the descriptive phrase “Having barked at the TV all day” is immediately followed by “I.” But it’s the dog who has been barking at the TV all day, not me! 

Simply put, the more you know about the rules of English syntax, the less likely you are to fall prey to these common errors. 

Going Beyond the Basics

Once you know the basic principles of English syntax, you will be able to use (or even flout!) these rules to enhance your own personal voice, tone, and writing style. Returning to the above analogy, once a carpenter has learned the basics of woodworking, they are in a better position to add decorative flair to their creations through design choices, shaping, moulding, scrollwork, etc.  

One way that writers can enhance their sentences is by choosing appropriately between active and passive voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing an action (the verb) in standard SVO form:

“My dog ate my homework.” 

In passive voice, however, the object being acted upon (my homework) becomes the grammatical subject of the sentence, whereas the thing doing the acting (my dog) comes later in the sentence: 

“My homework was eaten by my dog.”  

Neither of these sentences is incorrect. The first one emphasizes the dog: What did my dog do? He ate my homework! The second one emphasizes the homework: Where is my homework? It was eaten by my dog! As a writer, the choice is yours as to which sentence is more appropriate in a given context. 

Another way that writers exercise creative control through syntax is by using left-branching or right-branching sentences. In the above example, the emphasis is placed on whatever comes earlier in the sentence – the dog or the homework. But sometimes the thing you want to emphasize is best left to the end of the sentence. Consider the following sentence, from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."

This is an example of a left-branching sentence, because the subordinate clause (“And now that you don’t have to be perfect”) comes before – or to the left of – the main clause (“you can be good”). If we switch this around, creating a right-branching sentence, the emphasis changes dramatically and the sentence feels very different: 

“And you can be good now that you don’t have to be perfect.”

Once again, neither is incorrect, but the choice between one or the other will determine your own unique voice as a writer. 

Find Out More! 

These are just a few examples of how understanding the rules of syntax will not only help you to avoid errors, but also elevate your writing style to the next level. Luckily, there is no need to apply to a degree program in linguistics to harness the power of syntax in your own writing. There are a ton of free online resources, made specifically for writers, to help you get started. 

For example, see TEC’s many grammar-related blog posts to get the ball rolling!  

 

 


Melissa MacAulay is a freelance academic and non-fiction editor with a PhD in Philosophy. She can be reached at melissa.a.macaulay@gmail.com.

 

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