Syntax is directly related to diction as a way of determining how a sentence does and should sound. Some of the basics of syntax include word order, subject-verb agreement, and the use of different sentences to express different ideas.
Definition of Syntax
The word “syntax” comes from the Greek meaning “coordination” and “ordering together.” It is the rules that govern how words are arranged in a sentence. It’s different in every language and is one of the most important and direct ways writers convey meaning.
When uses English syntax, there are a few basic rules that are helpful to keep in mind. But, just because these are the “rules” doesn’t mean that authors don’t sometimes disregard them. It’s always interesting to consider how not doing one of these things might change a sentence.
English sentences should have a subject and verb, which are used to express a complete thought. A sentence fragment doesn’t do this. Additionally, the sentences should express separate thoughts, joined properly. If they aren’t, then it’s likely to be a run-on sentence.
The next rule is concerned with the use of the subject-verb-object pattern. This is used in other languages as well. Lastly, dependent clauses, explained more below, should have a subject and verb but don’t need to express a complete thought. Rules always change, especially in poetry. Poetic verse is one of the most common places readers will find examples of writers playing around with the subject-verb-object pattern of lines.
When attempting to make sense of syntax, understanding the four different English-language sentence types is helpful. They are:
- Simple: the most basic sentence. It is made up of one independent clause. For example, “The cat ran out of the house.”
- Compound: contains two or more independent clauses joined by conjunctions. For example, “The cat ran out of the house, so the dog barked.”
- Complex: contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause. These are joined with a subordinating conjunction (although, because, so, etc.) For example, “The cat ran out of the house because the dog barked.”
- Compound-complex: this last sentence form contains multiple independent clauses and one dependent clause (at least). For instance: “After the cat ran out of the house, the dog barked, and the neighbors called the cops.”
Examples of Syntax in Literature
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The following quote can be found in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. This novel was published in 1929 and is a first-person narrative. It follows Frederic Henry, who serves in the ambulance corps. Here are a few lines that demonstrate Hemingway’s use of syntax:
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
In this passage, readers should note the way that Hemingway uses fairly simple language and many easy-to-read sentences. His use of syntax means readers can move through the lines quickly.
Explore Ernest Hemingway’s poetry.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.
These lines are addressed to Ferdinand, who supposedly just experienced his father’s death. The lines allude to the fact that anything below five fathoms was irretrievable during Shakespeare’s time. These lines show how a writer can alter the traditional subject, verb, object agreement of sentences in order to make them sound more poetic.
Why Do Writers Use Syntax?
Syntax is an incredibly important part of writing. It’s used to produce a certain type of rhetoric or make prose or verse writing some more pleasing to the ear. A variety of aesthetic effects can be achieved depending on how the writer changes their syntax around. It’s also used to control the pace of a piece of writing. It can make the reader move quickly or slowly through the stanzas/paragraphs. It also influences the mood. When writers use syntax to their advantage, they can also create a specific atmosphere in a piece. For example, long run-on sentences are going to have a different effect than short, choppy ones.
Syntax and Diction
These two elements of language are connected. But, they play different roles. Diction refers to the meaning of words, while syntax is focused on how they’re arranged. A writer might choose to use colloquial diction, including words that are commonly used in everyday conversations, or they might choose abstract diction, something that’s more common in poetry.
Syntax is the way that words are arranged in a sentence in accordance with a language’s grammatical rules.
Syntax is fundamental to language. It governs how writers create sentences and, when broken, presents readers with interesting alternatives.
Writers use syntax whenever they put words to paper. It directs the way that words are arranged in sentences and the way sentences interact with one another.
Every language has its own rules when it comes to syntax. In English, sentences should have a subject and verb and convey a complete thought. The sentences should also be connected appropriately in order to avoid run-on and sentence fragments.
A syntax error is the error in the syntax of characters.
Related Literary Terms
- Formal Diction: used when the setting is sophisticated. This could be anything from a speech to a paper submitted to a journal.
- Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
- Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.