Syntax is the order or arrangement of words and phrases to form proper sentences. The most basic syntax follows a subject + verb + direct object formula. That is, "Jillian hit the ball." Syntax allows us to understand that we wouldn't write, "Hit Jillian the ball."
The real joy in syntax comes with the ability to compose sentences in a variety of different ways. We can rearrange adjectives and adverbs, insert phrases, and more. Let's take a look at syntax in writing examples.
One way to explore syntax is to know your clauses. There are independent and dependent clauses. An independent clause is one that can stand alone and form a complete sentence. A dependent clause, however, cannot stand on its own.
For example, "Hurrying to the door, she picked up her purse and ran." In this sentence, "hurrying to the door" is the dependent clause and "she picked up her purse and ran" is the independent clause. Let's take a look at these clauses becoming full sentences with the right syntax.
Remember our basic construct of subject + verb + direct object? These are called simple sentences. It's a nice way to start when you're just learning the English language. There's the subject (person or thing being discussed), verb (action-giver), and direct object (receiving the action of the verb). Here are some examples:
- I enjoy college.
- Work pays the bills.
- Hurricanes are scary.
- The sky is pink.
- The dog loves her owner.
The syntax in these lines is fine. They're grammatically correct. But, what if we could dazzle up our syntax a little? Let's take a look at a more detailed construct.
One of the best ways to improve our syntax is to move beyond the simple sentence. This brings us to complex sentences. These are sentences that contain a subordinate clause. A subordinate clause is an additional bit of information. This means complex sentences come together by combining a dependent clause (incomplete sentence/subordinate clause) and an independent clause (complete thought).
Let's expand the simple sentences above to create a new kind of syntax:
- Even though it's ridiculously expensive, I enjoy college.
- Work pays the bills, whether you like it or not.
- In the south of Florida, hurricanes are scary.
- The sky is pink, especially in the romantic city of Paris.
- Ever since she rescued her, the dog loves her owner.
Of course, the syntax of a sentence is more than the addition of a clause or two. How could it be that easy when the English language has so many rules (and exceptions)? On that note, it's important to note the difference between syntax and grammar.
Grammar is the rulebook. Grammar tells us to punctuate a sentence, capitalize proper nouns, and so forth. Syntax, however, is the application of the rules. It's how we combine all those rules to compose clear constructs. Here are three ways to improve the syntax in your writing.
One of the best ways to keep your syntax clear is to write in the active voice. This means the subject is carrying out the action of the sentence. The active voice avoids muddled language. For example:
Hiking up the Andes, he drinks a bottle of water.
This line is written in the present tense using the active voice. That's good. What you want to avoid is something like this:
Hiking up the Andes, a bottle of water is drunk by him.
In addition to the unnecessary awkwardness of the passive voice, this sentence also implies that the bottle of water was one doing the hiking. Applying the rules of voice to your syntax allows you to write in a clear and present tense, free from an excess of helping verbs.
This refers to your use of singular and plural words. If your subject is plural, then the rest of your sentence should be too. The same goes for singular instances. Let's take a look:
The club members love riding their bikes together.
Here, we have a plural subject that matches its verb. You wouldn't write:
The club members loves riding their bikes together.
You also wouldn't write:
The club member love riding his bike.
In these examples, you can see how syntax is the application of the rules. The rules tell us the difference between singular and plural words. Syntax allows us to apply them with clarity and precision.
In an effort to be clear, we sometimes tiptoe around redundancy. For example, you wouldn't want to write:
Due to his overwhelming fear, he frightfully tethered the ship to the post.
When trying to paint a picture for a reader, it can be tempting to overemphasize. But, proper syntax allows us to paint a vivid scene with our clauses, numbers, and active voice. The line above can be transformed into something like:
Overwhelming fear complicated the simple task of tethering his boat to the dock.
Of course, this sentence can be re-written in many different ways. Therein lies the beauty of syntax. It allows us to apply the rules, find our own voice, and engage readers in our own unique way.
The truth of the matter is, the more we get directly to the point, the more our syntax will improve. Additional clauses and phrases are great. They bolster our writing with refreshing details. Just remember to provide a good mix of simple and complex sentences. This will create an even flow in your writing.
As you continue your studies, you may find syntax and diction are often intermingled. However, the two are quite different. Syntax is the arrangement of words to form a sentence; diction refers to word choice. For example, will you say "the blue sapphire" or "the cerulean sparkler"? For more on the topic, enjoy these Diction Examples.