Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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Syntax Literary Definition:

” since feeling is first

who pays any attention

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you;’~.’

–e.e. cummings

When used correctly, syntax can be a powerful literary device. Famed 20th-century poet e.e. cummings, demonstrates a keen awareness of this fact in his works. The syntax is one tool that writers use to create meaning in their work. It refers to the conventions that dictate word order in a sentence and what constitutes a complete sentence in that language. Writers alter the syntax of their sentences according to the purpose of their work. In English, there are several main syntactic conventions:

  • To be considered complete, sentences in English must contain a subject, a verb and express a complete thought.
  • There should generally be one idea per sentence. Introducing a new idea requires some kind of punctuation to separate it (periods, commas, even semicolons, depending on how related the ideas are).
  • English word order, like that of many other languages, including French and Spanish, follow Subject Verb Object word order. e.e. cummings wrote ” the syntax of things” (s) ” will never wholly kiss ”(v) ” you” (o). If he had written ” You will never wholly kiss the syntax of things,” that would have dramatically altered the meaning of the sentence.
  • English sentences are made of two types of clauses: dependent and independent. Clauses, like sentences, require both a subject and a verb. An independent clause is one that can stand on its own; it does not need additional context to have a clear meaning. ” I like cake, and I like tea,” is an example of a sentence with two independent clauses. When considered alone, both ideas, ” I like cake” and ” I like tea,” make sense and contain meaning. On the other hand, dependent clauses rely on independent clauses to make sense and contain meaning. ” Because he took my cookie” contains some information (someone took a cookie), but it needs more information to fully make sense. The complex sentence ” I hit my brother because he took my cookie,” uses both an independent clause ” I hit my brother” and a dependent clause ” because he took my cookie” to create meaning. In the poem ”, since feeling is first,” the opening line is a dependent clause.
  • Syntax in writing is not restricted to word order or clauses. It also refers to a subject-verb agreement like ” I am a writer,” vs ” I is a writer,” for example; and when to use subjective or objective pronouns (also known as case), or reflexive pronouns. For example, ” Me (object pronoun) and Christi like to watch horror movies,” versus ” Christi and I (subject pronoun) like to watch horror movies.” Moreover, the sentence ” My baby can already feed herself,” utilizes the reflexive pronoun ” herself.” ” My baby can already feed her,” uses the object pronoun ” her” and is not as clear or precise a sentence.
  • The rules of syntax also apply to using tense and aspect in sentences to give readers a sense of time and duration of actions. Tense places the reader at a certain time, like ” We walked around the neighborhood yesterday.” Aspect gives us additional information like how long the action lasted or whether it was repeated. ” We were walking around the neighborhood all afternoon.’~.’

When writing, syntax can be manipulated to create different rhetorical or artistic effects. It can be used to give the piece of writing a sense of pace, mood or atmosphere. Modernist prose writer William Faulkner is famous for using extremely long sentences to reflect the circular thinking patterns of his characters. On the other hand, e.e., cummings is famous for using elements of syntax to create an atmosphere of playfulness/rebellion.

Syntax and Diction:

Syntax is not the only linguistic convention that writers can manipulate to enhance their work. But what is syntax in writing? As it applies to writing, syntax refers to sentence structure and word order. Although sentence structure is important in writing, word choice is also important. The words that a writer chooses for their work are known as diction. Vocabulary words tend to have multiple meanings and uses. What a word means, according to its dictionary definition(s), is what it denotes. The connections that a word causes the audience to make are what it connotes. Take the word ” progressive,” for example. What it denotes is a step-by-step process toward improvement. However, popular use can alter what a word connotes. Hearing the word ” progressive” might cause one person to think about their automotive insurance and cause another to turn on The Young Turks news organization.

The use of diction is a powerful way to cause readers to make connections and feel emotions while engaging with written language. Writers can use diction to keep their work-friendly and conversational (like cummings), or they can use formal diction to create work that is professional and carries authority. Textbooks and academic journals often employ formal diction to establish authority on their respective subject matters. Formal diction tends to use longer sentences along with more polite linguistic structures. Conversely, informal diction often uses shorter sentences and more casual vocabulary. Formal diction and complex syntactic structures like longer sentences with dependent and independent clauses often go hand-in-hand, as do informal diction and simpler syntax. So syntax in writing refers to the way a writer structures their sentences, and diction refers to the words a writer chooses to make up those sentences.

Syntax Examples:

There are many examples of writers using syntax in their published works to create tremendous effects. Many poets use syntactic tools and conventions to create rhythm, place emphasis on certain parts of the poem, or enhance the connection between words/ideas. This can be seen in ” since feeling is first,” where cummings literally place feelings before syntax to emphasize the dominance of emotion over grammatical constraints when writing poetry.

Charles Dickens is another famous writer who employs syntactic manipulation to contribute to the overall meaning and mood of his prose. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dickens writes:

” 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!”

Notice that this is one long sentence. Dickens connects clauses using commas and semicolons to express that the ideas expressed within them are related. The use of punctuation also gives the sentence a rhythm. Furthermore, since modern syntactic convention favors shorter, punchier sentences, the length of this sentence connotes an old-fashioned tone. Long sentences can also be used to describe something in great detail, which Dickens does when describing the great city he entered by night. Had Dickens chosen to separate these sentences, the connection between the city, its secrets and the beating hearts which contain them might not have been so powerful.

Lesson Summary

The use of syntax is not relegated to creative writing. Instead, sentence structure is a vital component of any written communication. Writers can arrange the syntax according to the purpose of their writing. In addition to syntax, writers also choose specific vocabulary words to express their ideas. The specific word choice a writer employs in their work is called diction. Diction, like syntax, can be formal or informal. When writing a cover letter, it is wise to choose formal diction and conventional syntax to present oneself in a manner that is professional, coherent, straightforward and clear. When writing a poem or a text message, however, all bets are off; one’s syntax can be open-ended, sentence structure can be unexpected, and diction can be formal, informal, figurative or straightforward. Syntactical considerations include sentence structure, punctuation usage and creative elements like similes and metaphors.

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