Definition of Syntax

Syntax is the arrangement of words into a sentence that make sense in a given language. Syntax also refers to the rules and principles that govern sentence structure in a language, i.e., how words and phrases may be joined. Syntax therefore is not a strictly literary device, but instead is part of every utterance and written line, and even the majority of thoughts. Though linguists have looked for syntactical rules that are universal in every language, it is now clear that there is no “natural way” to express a thought. Syntax varies widely in different languages.

The word syntax comes from the Ancient Greek word syntaxis, which means to arrange or put in order.

Difference Between Syntax and Diction

Syntax and diction are both equally integral parts of the formation of meaning into sentences. However, diction refers to the meanings of the words used while syntax refers to the arrangement of words. An author must make choices of both diction and syntax to properly convey a certain voice, and the two concepts together create a unique style for the author. One tip for remembering the difference is that “dictionary” begins with “diction,” both associated with the meanings of words.

Common Examples of Syntax

As stated above in the definition of syntax, every proper grammatical sentence or utterance is an example of syntax. Here are some examples of how syntax governs English.

  • Agreement: She is a person. versus She am a person.
  • Case: He took me to the restaurant. versus He took I to the restaurant.
  • Reflexive pronouns: I bought myself a new shirt. versus I bought my a new shirt.
  • Word order: We ate fish for dinner. versus For dinner ate we fish.

Note again that these are all very specific to English. Other languages may have similar syntactical phenomena, but different applications and possibilities. For example, in German there must be agreement between the gender of the word “the” with the noun—either der, die, or das. German also allows for many different word order possibilities than English. The example of “For dinner ate we fish” would actually be an acceptable word order in German.

Significance of Syntax in Literature

Syntax is clearly quite necessary in literature, and yet writers often take more liberties with syntax than other language users. Poets are especially known for playing with syntax, rearranging words into unusual orders. Syntax has also changed over time, and what was once common is now obscure, such as the form “wert thou” instead of “were you.” Literature has thus helped linguists study syntax across cultures and time periods, leading to greater understanding of how people think.

Examples of Syntax in Literature

Example #1

Love will not be constrain’d by mastery.
When mast’ry comes, the god of love anon
Beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free.

(The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)

This syntax example comes from a translation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. Indeed, even though it is modernized it still carries hints of the Middle English syntax. For example, we can see the agreement of the subject “the god of love” and the verb “beateth.” The final line has an unusual arrangement of words: “Love is a thing as any spirit free.” However, Chaucer has still chosen an arrangement that makes sense to an English-speaking reader. He is saying that love is like a free spirit, but in a more poetic way.

Example #2

ARIEL: Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

(The Tempest by William Shakespeare)

This example of syntax comes from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The first line “full fathom five thy father lies” is a unique inverse of what a person might say in normal speech—“Your father is buried at sea five fathoms down.” The way the Shakespeare wrote it, however, creates both alliteration of the “f” sound as well as assonance between “five” and “lies.” This arrangement also puts the stress on almost every syllable, making it sound very rhythmic and strong. The rest of the excerpt contains interesting syntactical choices, such as the inverse arrangement in “Of his bones are coral made.” Shakespeare’s syntax is a key part of what makes his works so poetic and so memorable.

Example #3

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.
‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.
‘No, you wouldn’t have.’
‘I might have,’ the man said. ‘Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.’

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway was famous for his short, declarative sentences. He rarely even used adjectives and almost never used adverbs. In this famous story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” an unnamed man and girl sit talking. The entire story seems very straightforward, and yet there is a very serious subtext. Hemingway’s choice to use the most basic construction of sentences belies the seriousness of the subject about which the man and girl are speaking.

Example #4

Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power … that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.

(1907 letter from Marcel Proust to his friend Georges de Lauris)

Compare the syntax of this letter with Hemingway’s syntax in Example #3. While Hemingway was known for short and simple sentences, Marcel Proust’s works were famously obtuse and ornate. This letter that Proust wrote to a friend after the death of the friend’s mother is indicative of his syntactical style. He writes of more abstract concepts in longer sentences that contain several clauses. However, it is just as easy to understand his meaning as in the Hemingway example.

Example #5

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)

As like many poets, Walt Whitman bends the rules of straightforward syntax to create more interesting lines. For example, the third line in this poem uses an interesting word order: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Of course, in this example, he means, “belongs to you as well,” but has transformed the usage just enough to make this line stand out to the reader. Throughout his long poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman continues to play with syntax so that his lines require more thought and contain more beauty.

Test Your Knowledge of Syntax

1. Choose the correct syntax definition from the following statements:
A. The study of word order.
B. A universal language that all people understand.
C. Rules that govern sentence structure in a given language.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which syntactical phenomenon explains why the following sentence in English is incorrect?

She like cookies and ice cream.

A. Agreement
B. Case
C. Word order
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following line:

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

Based on the previous examples, would you guess this is syntax from Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Proust? 
A. Shakespeare
B. Hemingway
C. Proust

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″] Answer: B is the correct answer. This is the final line from “Hills Like White Elephants.” [/spoiler]