Syntax (SIN-tacks), from the ancient Greek for “arrangement,” refers to the way a writer or speaker chooses to order their words. It’s an aspect of grammar, a general term for all the rules and best practices for effective writing.
Syntax and Diction
These are both components of grammar; where syntax is the order of words, diction refers to the words themselves. Both the specific words a writer chooses and the order they choose to put them in impact the way their writing is understood.
Here are two sentences with the same diction but different syntax:
- “Georgia excitedly related the puppy story while we drank coffee.”
- “While we drank coffee, Georgia related the puppy story excitedly.”
Based on the organization, the information relayed can have different impacts. Because the first sentence ends on the coffee drinking, it reads as if that action is what the writer wants to put the focus on. In the second sentence, the words are rearranged so that the sentence ends with the puppy story being told. Thus, the emphasis is put on the storytelling; one might even expect to hear the actual story after this sentence.
Here are two sentences with different diction but similar syntax:
- “The distracted driver parked his car a little crookedly.”
- “The obnoxious driver parked his car haphazardly.”
The sentences describe the same scene with nearly identical syntax, but because of the diction, they give two different impressions. The first sentence is more forgiving in tone than the second one.
Syntax, Active Voice, and Passive Voice
With active voice, the subject of a sentence performs an action on an object. For example, in “The parents left their children with a babysitter,” the subject The parents perform the action left on the object their children. In passive voice, the object comes first; “The children were left with a babysitter by their parents.” Typically, writers use active voice because it’s considered the stronger, clearer option. However, there are certain reasons (primarily stylistic) why a writer may choose to write in passive voice.
Examples of Syntax in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Henry V
Shakespeare frequently wrote in passive voce, as he does here:
It was our selfe thou didst abuse.
Elizabethan English allowed for more syntactic leeway than the modern ear would deem appropriate, and Shakespeare took full advantage of this. This could have been to facilitate rhyme or meter, two poetic devices that nearly all of his work employed, or just to make his words more memorable.
2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Snowflakes”
Periodic sentences, which intentionally place the main point at the end of the sentence, were popular during Longfellow’s time. Here, he utilizes this syntactic technique to create tension:
Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
3. Thylias Moss, “The Culture of Glass”
Contemporary poetry tends to be more conversational, often flowing into stream of consciousness, so it tends to use more informal syntax. Here, Moss makes frequent use of passive voice:
The future of fortunes is manufactured revelation
of a snow globe: when the right someone gets his hands
on such a world, that world is shaken to pieces, the glass
is tapped in the aquarium, semitransparent arowanas remain
inexplicable, a tapper’s desire breaks out: oh to become glass,
Further Resources on Syntax
The Frankfurt International School offers a guide on English syntax.
ThoughtCo offers a similar analysis of syntax.