Syntax – how to understand it

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Syntax – definition

syntax Syntax is the grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence.

redbtn It concerns both word order and agreement in the relationship between words.

redbtn Syntax is primarily concerned with structure of sentences.


redbtn The following statements follow normal English word order:

The cat sat on the mat.
My old brown leather suitcase.

redbtn The following statements do not follow normal English word order:

The cat on the mat sat.
My brown leather old suitcase.


redbtn Word order is very important in English, because the language is no longer inflected. That is, individual words do not have endings to show which parts of speech they represent.

redbtn Changes to conventional synatx are often used to create dramatic, poetic, or comic effect.

redbtn For instance, poets and song lyricists often change syntactic order to create rhythmic effects:

“I’ll sing to him, each spring to him
And long for the day when I’ll cling to him,
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.”


redbtn NB! “To boldly go …” is STAR TREK’s famous syntactic inversion [and split infinitive].

redbtn A normal sentence in English usually contains at least three elements: subject, verb, and object.

Subject Verb Object
The cat eats the goldfish
John likes football
Mary chose the wallpaper

redbtn Every language has rules of syntax, and to the linguist the essential rules are descriptive. They are the rules which underpin the life of the language and which are extremely slow to change.

redbtn These are not to be confused with the presecriptive ‘rules’ of traditional grammar [For instance, ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’].

redbtn An example of a descriptive rule of English syntax is that in the imperative in English, the verb takes the initial position in the sentence, usually directly before the noun which is the object.

Put those books on the table.
Take the lid off after half an hour.
Remove all packaging before heating the soup.
Isolate the switch in case of fault.

redbtn It is important to make a distinction between grammar and syntax, and to realise that syntax is a component of grammar.

redbtn The term ‘grammar’ refers to the whole structure of the language including the naming of its parts, its rules of tense, and its sound system. It is a comprehensive term.

redbtn Syntax only refers to the relationship between the grammatical components of language in use. In other words it is the nature, quality or type of relationship between terms in any given statement which is the province of syntax.

redbtn The construction of the passive voice is a syntactic issue, as it involves word order. The following statement is in the passive voice:

A woman was run over in central London today by a vehicle travelling at high speed.

redbtn If we transfer this to the active voice, we have:

A vehicle travelling at high speed ran over a woman in central London today.

redbtn The semantic content is similar in the two statements, but the emphasis is changed according to whether it is expressed as active or passive.

redbtn The difference between the two versions is dependent on the positioning of the subject and the object in the sentence. In the passive version, the object takes the initial position. This is a syntactic principle.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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