What is Syntax?

In his 1985 book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing with Style and Power, Gary Provost demonstrated what happens when a writer experiments with syntax:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

What is Syntax?

Syntax is the study of the rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences, specifically word order. It refers to sentence structure and the variation of phrases and clauses, which the author manipulates for a variety of reasons:

  • to fit the occasion or situation,
  • to reach an audience,
  • to achieve a purpose.

Provost’s sample illuminates the power of syntax to achieve all three goals. He begins with a string of simple sentences to situate the reader in a comfortable atmosphere. Yet, to maintain engagement, and avoid the monotony of repetition, he introduces a compound sentence with, “I vary the sentence length, and I create music.” Ultimately, his purpose is to achieve an appreciation for syntactical variety, conducting the reader to recognize the harmonic balance of the simple and short amidst long and complex.

The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The three common ways to analyze syntax are:

  1. Sentence length
  2. Sentence type
  3. Sentnece order

Sentence length

When I teach “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, I focus on the syntax of the first stanza. Here it is:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The first sentence is 5 1/2 lines long. The second sentence contains only five words. Why? Why would the poet make the second sentence noticeably shorter, especially as the culminating sentence of the stanza?

This can be reinforced by examining “Ozymandias.”

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The first sentence, with colons, commas, and semi colons, spans 11 lines. The second sentence is three-words long. Why? Surely it is not accidental or coincidental. Long sentences, when well written, advance steadily down a well-worn path of understanding. Shelly begins the sentence by introducing a frame tale. The poem begins with, “I met a traveler from an antique land/ Who said…” It proceeds to recount the story of the traveler, who describes a broken statue with a cold, commanding face and an arrogant inscription on the pedestal. The long sentence ends with, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair,” reinforcing a central idea in the poem, the hubris of Ozymandias. Yet, he slams the breaks with that three-word sentence, “Nothing beside remain.” It presents a stark contrast, as the size of the broken statue is made minuscule in comparison to the desolate landscape. But it also shows how short-lived Ozymandias’s legacy was. Nothing beside remains.

If students can recognize the juxtaposition of length, and see the thematic consequences of the syntactic shift, they can achieve a deeper understanding of the poem.

Sentence Type

The three basic types of sentence are declarative sentences (which are statements), interrogative sentences (which are questions), and imperative sentences (which are orders).

Declarative — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Effect –Austen’s first sentence exemplifies the way in which declarative sentences often carry a tone of authority. In claiming that a single man “must be in want of a wife,” the narrator reveals that the reverse is also true: a single woman, whose socially prescribed options are quite limited, is in (perhaps desperate) want of a husband.

Interrogative — “What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?” —Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971)

Effect — Interrogative sentences put the reader on notice they they must be participants in the text. Unlike declarative statements, which presuppose complicit acceptance, interrogative sentences force the reader into thought, sometimes even doubt.

Imperative — “Call me Ishmael.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Effect — Is this a declarative sentence? Is it imperative? While it does blur the lines, the sentence contains a sudden intimacy as it commands us in a powerful way. This imperative establishing a story told in the first person, yet it may hint at an unreliable narrator. In ordering the reader to call him Ishmael,  it raises doubt if that is his real name or a pseudonym.

Sentence Order

The general word order of an English sentence is subject+verb+object. The majority of sentences follow this format, so breaks from it may be significant.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare inverts the subject-verb-object order when he writes, “What light from yonder window breaks?” instead of using a common expression “What light breaks from yonder window?”

While Shakespeare often inverted word order to effectively place the metrical stress wherever he needed it most, this inversion marks the most enduring scene in the play — the balcony scene.

 

More fun with syntax:

 

  • Jean Preisler Melek

    Thanks for sharing, Brian. I love Provost’s example. I think you’re missing a word or something in the last sentence of this post.