Syntax is the rules that govern language. It is concerned with various parts of speech and the way that words are used together. Some sentences are going to be simple with easy-to-understand words, while others are going to be harder to understand due to the way a writer arranges their words.

Syntax is directly related to diction as a way of determining how a sentence does and should sound. These two elements of language work together, but they play different roles. Diction refers to the meaning of words, while syntax is focused on how they’re arranged. The rules and parts of syntax are explored below, but it’s important to note that poetic verse is one of the most common places readers will find examples of writers playing around with syntactic patterns. It’s not uncommon to find a perfectly acceptable poetic line that wouldn’t work in a novel.

Basic Parts of Syntax

Some of the basics of syntax include:

  • Word order — the way words are arranged in a sentence (subject + verb + object).
  • The use of different sentences to express different ideas. A writer’s sentences should express separate thoughts, joined properly. If they aren’t, then the phrase is likely to be a run-on sentence.

Effects of Syntax

Syntax is an incredibly important part of writing. It’s used to produce a certain type of rhetoric and make prose or verse writing more pleasing to the ear. A variety of aesthetic effects can be achieved depending on how the writer changes their syntax around. Syntax can be used in the following ways:

  • To control the pace of a piece of writing.
  • It can make the reader move quickly or slowly through the stanzas/paragraphs.
  • It can influence 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 Example #1

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

This well-loved novel is written with short sentences and direct descriptions. Hemingway did not use complex syntax or flowery language. Scholars consider this to be a result of his training as a journalist. Consider these lines from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive, and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

It’s going to be hard for readers to get turned around while reading these lines. Hemingway uses simple words and phrases that make the narration incredibly clear. This is part of the reason why his novels are so well-loved. His syntax is an integral part of his style.

Syntax Example #2

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is well-known among contemporary readers for his complicated use of syntax. Consider the following lines as an example of more complicated syntax:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

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.

The language in these lines is far more poetic than that found in Ernest Hemingway’s writing. But that doesn’t make it more or less effective. Shakespeare uses this style of syntax in order to create a different atmosphere for the reader. It is far more magical and mysterious than the realistic, down-to-earth atmosphere of The Old Man and the Sea.