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Syntax

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Syntax

Syntax. It's part of grammar that deals with the arrangement of words and the structure of sentences, and it's also a powerful rhetorical tool. It may not be as flashy as figurative language, as sarcastic as satire, or as theoretical as theme, but syntax is an important aspect of rhetoric that can—when used effectively—make or break an argument.

Syntax creates meaning, defines focus, affects tone, and reveals the intent of an author. Learn the ins and outs of syntax and you'll be unstoppable in your writing and rhetorical analysis.

Syntax Definition

While other elements of rhetoric involve the intent behind word choice and form, syntax goes into the technical side of language. Here's the full definition:

Syntax is the way that words are arranged into meaningful phrases, clauses, and sentences.

The features of syntax include:

  • the structure of sentences and paragraphs
  • the order words can take to form grammatical sentences
  • the way that words, phrases, clauses, and sentences affect each other's meaning

The adjective form of syntax is syntactic. You'll see this word throughout the explanation!

Syntax Examples

Sentences are just made out of words, right? How do the specific order and sentence structure create or change the meaning of sentences?

Creating Meaning

An important function of syntax is to make words make sense.

I do not have a way with words.

This is just a simple expression. But what if the word order was changed?

Not have I with words do a way.

The words are exactly the same, but now the order doesn't make sense and the phrases are all broken up. After one syntactic change, the sentence isn't grammatical anymore.

At its root, this is the purpose of syntax: to combine words in a meaningful way.

Changing the Focus

Another function of syntax is to define the focus of a sentence.

The focus of a sentence is the main point of the sentence, or the new information that the sentence provides.

In other words, the focus is the part of the sentence that's in the spotlight. Changing the syntax can shift the spotlight to other parts of the sentence.

I saw something I will never forget that day.

I saw something is the focus of the sentence: our attention is drawn to it.

That day, I saw something I will never forget.

The words and meaning of the sentence haven't changed. All that's different is the syntax. Now, the grammatical emphasis is on that day.

I will never forget what I saw that day.

After one more syntactic shuffle, now the focus is I will never forget. Again, the syntax is the only element of the sentence that's different, but the main point has shifted.

In these examples, the focus is at the beginning of each sentence. But the focus of a sentence doesn't always have to be at the beginning! The focus can take different positions in a sentence, and can also change depending on the context.

In poetry, syntax can be used more freely to change the flow of the lines. Changing the structure and order of the words can change the rhyme, meter, and expression of a poem.

Syntax Robert Frost Woods StudySmarter

Fig. 1. Syntax in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow. (lines 1-4)

This is the first stanza of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923) by Robert Frost. Take a look at that first line. A more natural way to say it would be I think I know whose woods these are, but Frost switched the order of the clauses. This syntactic switch allows the lines to rhyme and flow in an interesting way.

These are just some examples of the functions of syntax in language. Try and think of additional functions! Write out a sentence or two and switch around the order of the words and phrases. How is the sentence changed?

Analyzing Syntax

Sometimes syntactic choices can show an author's motivation and intended argument. Analyzing these syntactic choices can be a powerful tool in rhetorical analysis.

When analyzing syntax in a passage, look for these features, and ask yourself how they contribute to the meaning of the sentence.

Syntax William Shakespeare Macbeth StudySmarter

Fig. 2. Shakespeare made syntactic choices for Macbeth.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time; (Act V, Scene V)

What syntactic choices did Shakespeare make that affected this monologue from Macbeth (1623)? These are just a few examples:

  • The repetition of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and day to day, illustrates Macbeth's point that time keeps going on repetitively.
  • The commas (punctuation) and the separation of the lines (paragraphing) inform the way someone would read the lines out loud.
  • The stacked prepositional phrases from day, to day, to the last syllable, and of recorded time both elaborate on the main point of the sentence in more detail and add a spoken rhythm to the lines.

The next time you read a text, examine these features and try to figure out how the author uses them to affect the text as a whole.

Effect of Syntax on Tone

One of the major uses of syntax as a rhetorical strategy is to affect the tone of writing.

Tone is a rhetorical device that shows the attitude of an author towards a subject.

An author can manipulate the tone of a text by changing some of the syntactic features. Specifically, an author can follow older or newer syntax patterns to change the tone of a text.

An error occurred that I'm solely responsible for.

This is relatively basic and modern-sounding syntax. Specifically, using that as a relative pronoun and ending the sentence with the preposition for make the sentence sound relaxed and casual.

There has occurred an error, for which I am solely responsible.

This example sounds more formal, even while using the same words. The word order, especially in the clause for which I am solely responsible, follows older grammar and syntax rules that aren't often used anymore. These syntactic changes give the sentence a fancier and more formal tone.

Fun fact: we tend to make these syntactic changes to change our tone in different situations, even without thinking about it! Choosing a specific tone for a given context is called code-switching.

Differences Between Syntax and Diction

Another grammar concept that is similar to syntax is diction.

Diction is a grammar concept that refers to word choice in writing.

Remember, syntax has to do with the order of words, and how the words are put together to show meaning. Diction has to do with the specific word choice for a given context.

Diction can affect tone the same way syntax does. Check out this example:

Look back at the example of how syntax affects tone.

There has occurred an error, for which I am solely responsible.

We moved the words and phrases around to give the sentence a more formal tone. How could a change in diction change the tone even further?

There has transpired an egregious blunder, for which I am solely answerable.

Now the word order is the same, but switching out the words themselves has made the tone even more formal! We can take this in the other direction too:

A mistake happened that I may or may not have had a hand in.

Not only is the tone more casual, but also more evasive. The change in diction shows that the author doesn't take as much responsibility for the mistake.

Even though syntax is on the technical side of language rather than the more artistic side, it can still affect the meaning, argument, focus, flow, and tone of a text. The next time you analyze a text, pay special attention to the syntax, and you'll realize how powerful it can be!

Syntax - Key Takeaways

  • Syntax is the way that words are arranged into meaningful phrases, clauses, and sentences.
  • The main purpose of syntax is to combine words in a meaningful way.
  • Syntax can create meaning, change the focus of a sentence, and influence the flow of a poem.
  • To analyze the purpose of syntax in a passage, examine the syntactic features and ask yourself how they contribute to the meaning of the sentence.
  • Syntax refers to the arrangement of words and structure of sentences, and diction refers to word choice. Both can affect the tone of a text.

Frequently Asked Questions about Syntax

Syntax is the way that words are arranged into meaningful phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Examples of syntax include:

  • the structure of sentences and paragraphs
  • the order words can take to form grammatical sentences
  • the way that words, phrases, clauses, and sentences affect each other's meaning

Syntax involves the arrangement of words and the structure of sentences. Syntax creates meaning, defines focus, affects tone, and reveals the intent of an author.

Syntax has to do with the order of words, and how the words are put together to show meaning. Diction has to do with the specific word choice for a given context. 

Syntax is the part of grammar that deals with the arrangement of words and the structure of sentences.

Final Syntax Quiz

Question

What is the definition of syntax?

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Answer

Syntax is the way that words are arranged into meaningful phrases, clauses, and sentences.

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Question

What is syntax?

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Answer

Syntax is the way that words are arranged into meaningful phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Show question

Question

What are the functions of syntax?

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Answer

The functions of syntax include:


  • creating meaningful sentences, clauses, and phrases
  • defining the focus of a sentence
  • changing the rhyme, meter, and flow of a poem
  • manipulating the tone of a text

Show question

Question

What is the focus of a sentence?

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Answer

The focus of a sentence is the main point of the sentence, or the new information that the sentence provides.

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Question

True or false: The focus of a sentence has to be the first element of the sentence.

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Answer

False

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Question

What purpose does the syntactic feature of repetition serve in this stanza?


Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink

Paul Celan, Todesfuge (1948)

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Answer

This stanza can be interpreted multiple ways, but the repetition of we drink adds to the unsettling nature of this haunting poem.

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Question

What is the difference between syntax and diction?

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Answer

Remember, syntax has to do with the order of words, and how the words are put together to show meaning. Diction has to do with the specific word choice for a given context. 

Show question

Question

Is the difference in tone between these two sentences due to syntax or diction?


1. I don't know whether it was raining that day.


2. Whether it was raining that day, I know not.

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Answer

Syntax

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Question

Is the difference in tone between these two sentences due to syntax or diction?


1. I don't know whether it was raining that day. 


2. I am not aware whether there appeared any precipitation on that eve.

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Answer

Diction

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Question

What purpose does the syntactic feature of punctuation serve in this sentence?


Get. Out. Of. The. Car. Now.

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Answer

The period after every word Influences the way one would read the sentence out loud. It makes the sentence seem more intense and angry.

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Question

What purpose do these trailing phrases and clauses serve in this sentence?


I have to tell you this story about me and my dog the other day where we were walking and saw a porcupine in the yard, or maybe the neighbors' yard, walking across the street, or just in the street, and my dog started barking and scared the porcupine.

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Answer

This many clauses and phrases stacked together create a run-on sentence. It shows the rambling and possibly boring delivery of the sentence.

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Question

All of the following are functions of syntax except: 


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Answer

The structure of sentences and paragraphs. 


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Question

What is the main purpose of syntax?


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Answer

To combine words in a meaningful way. 


Show question

Question

True or false. Syntax affects the tone of a text, but diction does not. 


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Answer

True

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Question

What is tone in writing?


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Answer

Tone is a rhetorical device that shows the attitude of an author toward a subject. 


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Question

Identify the syntactic choices the writer made in this passage: 

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, 

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day 

To the last syllable of recorded time; (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1623, Act V, Scene V) 


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Answer

-Repetition

-Punctuation

-Paragraphing

-Stacked prepositional phrases

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Question

Which of the following is not a feature of syntax?


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Answer

Word choice 


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Question

What can syntactic switching impact?


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Answer

Word choice 


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Question

What is it called when you choose a tone for a specific context?


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Answer

Code-switching


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Question

What is paragraphing? Is it a syntactic feature?


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Answer

Paragraphing is the separation of lines. It is a feature of syntax. 

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