Syntax in Literature: Examples & Usage

Syntax is the arrangement of words to form a sentence. We can compose sentences in a variety of ways. How we arrange our sentences can affect how they're interpreted. For example, "The boy ran hurriedly," reads differently than, "Hurriedly, the boy ran." The difference may be slight, but the syntax in each sentence conveys a different meaning and, perhaps, a different mental image. Together, let's explore various syntax in literature examples.

Romeo and Juliet as syntax in literature examples Romeo and Juliet as syntax in literature examples

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

This is a great example of a writer who enjoyed complex syntax. Dickens often wrote lengthy sentences, separated by multiple commas and/or semicolons; you'll notice this entire passage is just a single sentence. He also liked to repeat patterns, also known as anaphora. He used "that every" to start three phrases in this one short excerpt.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Harper Lee was enjoying a little bit of repetition in this example of syntax. She followed a pattern of "what they (verb) for." Lee also repeated "for" at the end of each clause, employing the rhetorical device anaphora again.

She also chose to highlight the relationship between seeing and looking, and the (related but separate) relationship between hearing and listening. Is there a difference between hearing something and listening to something? What's the difference between seeing something and looking for something? Lee also opted to make this one, fluid line instead of two short, staccato lines.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world, except for a nice MLT: mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe.

There's nice complexity of this bit of prose. Goldman used a colon to introduce a list and even inserted an additional dependent clause thereafter. You'll also notice that more emphasis is put on this great sandwich with far more loving detail than the description of "true love" (which only consists of two words).

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.

Simple syntax can often reveal an everlasting aphorism. That is, even the simplest constructs can go on to become phrases that make a statement of wisdom.


Peter Pan by James Matthew Barrie

Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you'll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.

This is a nice, simple line, spoken with simple words. It takes on a childlike tone, reflective of childhood innocence and relative simplicity. Barrie, too, used a little repetition to help Peter emphasize how wonderful Neverland would be. While the second "never" isn't necessary for the meaning of the sentence, it adds more emphasis and adds to the childlike voice of the character.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The pigs begin living in the farmhouse, and rumor has it that they even sleep in beds, a violation of one of the Seven Commandments. But when Clover asks Muriel to read her the appropriate commandment, the two find that it now reads "No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets." Squealer explains that Clover must have simply forgotten the last two words.

The original Commandment read "No animal shall sleep in a bed." It was a way to separate the animals from the humans. But the pigs, as they rose to power, began to take on more and more human qualities, including sleeping in human beds. So, to justify that, they secretly changed the Commandment to add "with sheets.

Here, syntax is being used to illustrate mounting corruption. The simple addition of two words to the commandments shows that the pigs are taking more and more as their power increases.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Wouldn't it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true and we could live in them?

Sometimes, when sentiments are expressed in the form of a question, it makes the reader feel more involved in the story. Even though Jo is clearly making a statement about how she feels on the topic, phrasing it as a question gives it a more dreamlike, aspirational quality. We see an idealistic nature here.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?

Here we have another nice example of an interrogative sentence that evokes a feeling of inclusivity for the readers. Questions like this challenge readers to provide a suitable or adequate response, making them think, reflect, or analyze.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

What light from yonder window breaks?

William Shakespeare was the master of rhetorical devices. He painted scenes with complex, memorable prose. One of his favorite ways to play with syntax was to reverse the order in sentences by putting a verb at the end of the sentence, thus drawing more attention to the verb. The more conventional way to frame this same question would be, "What light is breaking from yonder window?" This doesn't make nearly as much of an impact.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

What's the use you learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and it ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?

Mark Twain had some fun with slang and nonstandard grammar in this example. This helped him develop a unique character voice. It tells us a little bit about the character as well as his feelings of frustration.

Star Wars by George Lucas

When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not, hmm?

Perhaps Shakespeare liked to change word order in his syntax. George Lucas surely repopularized this type of wordplay with the birth of Star Wars and the introduction of Yoda, a character who speaks almost exclusively with inverted sentence structure.


How to Use Syntax

Sometimes, authors play with syntax to evoke imagery, make the audience question what's happening, or even create a rhythmic pattern. An author's voice is often revealed in their use of syntax. Do they compose short, staccato sentences like Hemingway? Or, do they create superfluous prose like Dickens?

In fact, one of the best ways to write is to mix straightforward, simple sentences with a few complex sentences. It'll create a nice contrast. Syntax can reveal a character's voice. Does the main character use a lot of sentence fragments when they speak? Is their language stiff and formal? You can create sentence variety too by mixing declarative sentences (or statements) with interrogative and/or exclamatory sentences.

In line with sentence variety, consider again the inversion used by Shakespeare and Star Wars. It changed how we reacted to the line. "What light is breaking from yonder window?" is changed to "What light from yonder window breaks?" Likewise, "When you reach nine hundred years old, you will not look as good," is changed to, "When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not, hmm?"

These alterations can change how an audience reacts to the sentiments being shared. Yoda turned a statement into a question, creating a more thought-provoking and memorable line.

Make a Splash with Syntax

And there you have it. Literary giants like to play around with word order and sentence arrangement, or syntax, and so can you. Make a splash with syntax. The more excitement you add, the more you'll develop your author voice.

If you're looking to create thoughtful syntax in any of your creative writing, check out Get Creative: How to Write a Short Story. It'll help you pull everything together, from setting the scene, to developing memorable characters. Until then, happy writing!