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Syntax in Literature: Examples & Usage

Romeo and Juliet as syntax in literature examples

Syntax is the arrangement of words to form a sentence . We can compose sentences in a variety of ways . How we arrange our sentences can affect how they're interpreted. For example, "The boy ran hurriedly," reads differently than, "Hurriedly, the boy ran." The difference may be slight, but the syntax in each sentence conveys a different meaning and, perhaps, a different mental image. Together, let's explore various syntax in literature examples.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

This is a great example of a writer who enjoyed complex syntax. Dickens often wrote lengthy sentences, separated by multiple commas and/or semicolons; you'll notice this entire passage is just a single sentence. He also liked to repeat patterns, also known as anaphora . He used "that every" to start three phrases in this one short excerpt.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Harper Lee was enjoying a little bit of repetition in this example of syntax. She followed a pattern of "what they (verb) for." Lee also repeated "for" at the end of each clause, employing the rhetorical device anaphora again.

She also chose to highlight the relationship between seeing and looking, and the (related but separate) relationship between hearing and listening. Is there a difference between hearing something and listening to something? What's the difference between seeing something and looking for something? Lee also opted to make this one, fluid line instead of two short, staccato lines.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world, except for a nice MLT: mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe.

There's nice complexity of this bit of prose. Goldman used a colon to introduce a list and even inserted an additional dependent clause thereafter. You'll also notice that more emphasis is put on this great sandwich with far more loving detail than the description of "true love" (which only consists of two words).

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.

Simple syntax can often reveal an everlasting aphorism . That is, even the simplest constructs can go on to become phrases that make a statement of wisdom.

Peter Pan by James Matthew Barrie

Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you'll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.

This is a nice, simple line, spoken with simple words. It takes on a childlike tone, reflective of childhood innocence and relative simplicity. Barrie, too, used a little repetition to help Peter emphasize how wonderful Neverland would be. While the second "never" isn't necessary for the meaning of the sentence, it adds more emphasis and adds to the childlike voice of the character.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The pigs begin living in the farmhouse, and rumor has it that they even sleep in beds, a violation of one of the Seven Commandments. But when Clover asks Muriel to read her the appropriate commandment, the two find that it now reads "No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets." Squealer explains that Clover must have simply forgotten the last two words.

The original Commandment read "No animal shall sleep in a bed." It was a way to separate the animals from the humans. But the pigs, as they rose to power, began to take on more and more human qualities, including sleeping in human beds. So, to justify that, they secretly changed the Commandment to add "with sheets.

Here, syntax is being used to illustrate mounting corruption. The simple addition of two words to the commandments shows that the pigs are taking more and more as their power increases.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Wouldn't it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true and we could live in them?

Sometimes, when sentiments are expressed in the form of a question, it makes the reader feel more involved in the story. Even though Jo is clearly making a statement about how she feels on the topic, phrasing it as a question gives it a more dreamlike, aspirational quality. We see an idealistic nature here.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?

Here we have another nice example of an interrogative sentence that evokes a feeling of inclusivity for the readers. Questions like this challenge readers to provide a suitable or adequate response, making them think, reflect, or analyze.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

What light from yonder window breaks?

William Shakespeare was the master of rhetorical devices . He painted scenes with complex, memorable prose. One of his favorite ways to play with syntax was to reverse the order in sentences by putting a verb at the end of the sentence, thus drawing more attention to the verb. The more conventional way to frame this same question would be, "What light is breaking from yonder window?" This doesn't make nearly as much of an impact.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

What's the use you learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and it ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?

Mark Twain had some fun with slang and nonstandard grammar in this example. This helped him develop a unique character voice . It tells us a little bit about the character as well as his feelings of frustration.

Star Wars by George Lucas

When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not, hmm?

Perhaps Shakespeare liked to change word order in his syntax. George Lucas surely repopularized this type of wordplay with the birth of Star Wars and the introduction of Yoda, a character who speaks almost exclusively with inverted sentence structure.

How to Use Syntax

Sometimes, authors play with syntax to evoke imagery, make the audience question what's happening, or even create a rhythmic pattern. An author's voice is often revealed in their use of syntax. Do they compose short, staccato sentences like Hemingway? Or, do they create superfluous prose like Dickens?

In fact, one of the best ways to write is to mix straightforward, simple sentences with a few complex sentences . It'll create a nice contrast. Syntax can reveal a character's voice. Does the main character use a lot of sentence fragments when they speak? Is their language stiff and formal? You can create sentence variety too by mixing declarative sentences (or statements) with interrogative and/or exclamatory sentences.

In line with sentence variety, consider again the inversion used by Shakespeare and Star Wars. It changed how we reacted to the line. "What light is breaking from yonder window?" is changed to "What light from yonder window breaks?" Likewise, "When you reach nine hundred years old, you will not look as good," is changed to, "When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not, hmm?"

These alterations can change how an audience reacts to the sentiments being shared. Yoda turned a statement into a question, creating a more thought-provoking and memorable line. Make a Splash with Syntax

And there you have it. Literary giants like to play around with word order and sentence arrangement, or syntax, and so can you. Make a splash with syntax. The more excitement you add, the more you'll develop your author voice.

If you're looking to create thoughtful syntax in any of your creative writing, check out Get Creative: How to Write a Short Story . It'll help you pull everything together, from setting the scene, to developing memorable characters. Until then, happy writing!

Syntax Definition

Syntax is a set of rules in a language. It dictates how words from different parts of speech are put together in order to convey a complete thought.

Syntax and Diction

Examples of syntax in literature, syntax in poetry.

The general word order of an English sentence is Subject + Verb + Object . In poetry, however, the word order may be shifted to achieve certain artistic effects, such as producing rhythm or melody in the lines, achieving emphasis, and heightening connection between two words. The unique syntax used in poetry makes it different from prose . Let us consider the following examples of syntax:

Example #1: Beyond Decoration (By P. J. Kavanagh)

Example #2: lycidas (by john milton).

“Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves, With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown, And all their echoes mourn”

Syntax in Prose

Syntax affects the nature of a prose text as well. It enhances its meanings, and contributes toward its tone. Quickness, decisiveness, and speed are added to a text by using short phrases , clauses , and sentences. Whereas, in a text where the subject matter is serious, requiring contemplation, long, convoluted sentences are used to slow down the pace of a prose text. The two syntax examples below show a distinct use of syntax:

Example #3: The Joy Luck Club (By Amy Tan)

“That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved.”

Example #4: A Farewell to Arms (By Ernest Hemingway)

“They left me alone and I lay in bed and read the papers awhile, the news from the front, and the list of dead officers with their decorations and then reached down and brought up the bottle of Cinzano and held it straight up on my stomach, the cool glass against my stomach, and took little drinks making rings on my stomach from holding the bottle there between drinks, and watched it get dark outside over the roofs of the town.”

Syntax in Shakespeare

Writing all of his plays and sonnets in iambic pentameter , Shakespeare habitually reversed the general order of English sentences by placing verbs at the ends of the sentences.

Example #5: Romeo and Juliet (By William Shakespeare)

 “What light from yonder window breaks?”

Example #6: Richard III (By William Shakespeare)

“And all the clouds that lower’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

Function of Syntax

To convey meaning is one of the main functions of syntax. In literature, writers utilize syntax and diction to achieve certain artistic effects, like mood, and tone. Like diction, syntax aims to affect the readers as well as express the writer’s attitude .

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Literary Syntax

definition literature syntax

Syntax in literature defines the arrangement of words and sentences that are placed together. It determines how words from different parts of speech can be put together to convey a thought. Syntax also defines the way in which sentences are supposed to be composed to give complete meaning.

 What is Syntax in Literature?

The rulebook of literature is known as grammar. It tells us where to include punctuations, capitalize proper nouns and so forth. Syntax however is the proper utilization of these rules in literature.

Syntax is the grammatical placement of words and phrases to form meaningful sentences. It is a set of rules that helps a person understand and make sense of a sentence. Sentences can be composed in a variety of ways. The arrangement of sentences in literature can change the way in which they are interpreted.

 For example:

‘She continued dancing gracefully.’

‘Gracefully, she continued dancing.’

These two sentences have a slight difference. The syntax in each case however gives a different meaning and perhaps, a different image. 

Hence, the usage of sentences and words in literature can convey different meanings based on the way they are arranged. In many cases, the usage of words in a sentence in a particular way gives meaning to it. It may not be the case when we change the placement of the words.

Syntax in a Sentence:

Usually in sentences, the syntax follows a simple subject-verb-object format. However, it is also used by authors to create different effects in sentences depending on the requirement. Syntax is an important tool used to create rhythmic, rhetoric or questioning effects in sentences.

definition literature syntax

 In sentences, we often use clauses. A clause is a group of words that consists of a verb and a subject. This verb and subject have a relation. This relation may or may not allow the clause to behave as an independent sentence. There are two types of clauses. They are independent and dependent clauses. The syntax of a clause states that it can form a complete sentence if the clause is independent. A dependent cannot do so.

For example:

‘More than ice cream, he likes to eat pastries.’

In this sentence, ‘ he likes to eat pastries’ is an independent clause. On the other hand, ‘ more than ice cream’  is a dependent clause.

Simple sentences:

The syntax of simple sentences follows a simple basic structure. It is in the form of subject-verb-object . A subject is a person or thing that is being discussed. A verb is an action that is being performed by the subject. An object is a person or thing that is receiving the action.

All these sentences follow the pattern of subject, verb, and object.

Compound sentences:

A compound sentence is a sentence made up of two independent clauses . When the sentence is broken down, the clauses make a complete meaning on their own. In a compound sentence, these clauses are joined together by coordinating conjunctions. These could be ‘and, but, or, nor, yet, so’ etc. They could also be connected by a comma or a semicolon.

Complex sentences:

A complex sentence is a sentence that is a combination of both dependent and independent clauses . This is a type of sentence that is improved from the simple subject-verb-object format . The dependent clause provides an extra bit of information to the sentence.

In all the above sentences, the dependent clause provides additional information. It provides support to the statement of the independent clause. 

Compound-Complex sentences:

A compound-complex sentence is a sentence that comprises at least two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses . It is like a mixture of both a compound and a complex sentence.

Syntax Examples:

definition literature syntax

Here is an example of the difference in sentence formation due to syntax.

In each of these cases, the position of one word changes the tone of the sentence. Although each sentence is grammatically correct, the image that each sentence provides is different. This is usually done to make the writing more interesting. It is also used to emphasize certain points. This makes the writing more colorful and reader-friendly.

Many times, changing the position of words in a sentence doesn’t give rise to a meaningful sentence. In fact, the sentence becomes meaningless.

For example:-


definition literature syntax

In both these cases, just by changing the position of the words, the second sentence becomes meaningless.

            For example:-

The first part of this sentence says that you should be in control of your day-to-day activities. You should be the one to decide what to do with your time.

The second part replicates the fact that you go with the flow of your work. It says that you do not control what you are doing. It is often associated with people having a lot of work that does not have enough time in the day. It shows that you do the work ‘given’ to you and do not choose the work you ‘want’ to do. In such a situation you are being controlled by the work you receive in a day.

             For example:

The second case gives us a sentence where the required punctuation is not used. It makes the statement rushed and vague. The sentence over here seems dull. The impact should have on the reader also reduces. 

Let us see a simple error caused due to word choice through an example:

In the first case, it is not clear as to ‘who doesn’t like whom very much’. Thus utilizing pronouns unnecessarily can create confusion. This will not allow the words of the writer to reach the readers.  

Thus the syntax plays an important role in the message that a sentence conveys to the reader.

Syntax with Active Voice and Passive Voice:

A literary syntax helps us in understanding whether a sentence is in active or passive voice.

In active voice, the ‘subject’ performs the action on the ‘object’  and is mentioned first. It follows the sequence of the subject, then the action, and lastly the object.

Most sentences use an active voice when written.

In passive voice, the sentence is restructured in such a way that the ‘subject’ is receiving the action. Taking the cases from above, let us write the sentences in passive voice.

We don’t prefer using the passive voice as much because its usage sometimes leads to confusion.

However, there are certain instances where passive voice is used. It could be for the following reasons: 

How to improve Syntax:

To understand a given sentence, the reader must process, store and combine a variety of syntactic and word meaning information. The ability to monitor relations between words in a sentence is known as ‘Syntactic awareness.’ To build syntactic awareness, we need enough exposure to both oral and written language. This helps in improving the quality of syntax used in sentences.

The syntax can also be improved if the quality of language used is increased. Better usage and quality of the language used will greatly improve the syntax. Hence, this will increase the ease with which a reader can comprehend sentences.

 Significance of Syntax in Literature:

Syntax is an essential part of literature. It allows writers to take liberty in the way they want to form sentences. It allows them to play with the position of words in a sentence to bring out different expressions. 

Moreover, syntax itself has changed over time. What was once commonly used is now hazy and unclear. Words like ‘thou’, ‘art’, and ‘wert’ are not used anywhere anymore. Instead, we use ‘you’, ‘are’ , and ‘ were ’. 

Literature has thus helped linguists understand the course of change that syntax has undergone through history. This can help understand how people think. It has also helped in understanding the syntax used in different cultures.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

(Moby-Dick by Herman Melville)

definition literature syntax

Syntax in Poetry:

The general syntax of an English sentence follows the order of subject, verb, and then object. However, due to the freedom provided by syntax in literature, the order can be shifted to create artistic effects. These could be due to the following reasons:

            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)

            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)

definition literature syntax

 Syntax vs Diction:

Syntax and diction are closely related to one another. Diction refers to the choice of words used in a particular situation. Syntax on the other hand determines how these words will be used to form a meaningful sentence. It is quite often to see a complex diction requiring a complex syntax to use in a sentence. Hence the combination of both of these elements helps develop a  tone, mood, and atmosphere in a poem or text. This brings out the interest in readers to understand a sentence by improving the language used.


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Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, var cid='2639408223';var pid='ca-pub-3251641771602819';var slotid='div-gpt-ad-literarydevices_com-box-2-0';var ffid=1;var als=1001%1000;var container=document.getelementbyid(slotid);container.style.width='100%';var ins=document.createelement('ins');ins.id=slotid+'-asloaded';ins.classname='adsbygoogle ezasloaded';ins.dataset.adclient=pid;ins.dataset.adchannel=cid;if(ffid==2){ins.dataset.fullwidthresponsive='true';} ins.style.display='block';ins.style.minwidth=container.attributes.ezaw.value+'px';ins.style.width='100%';ins.style.height=container.attributes.ezah.value+'px';container.appendchild(ins);(adsbygoogle=window.adsbygoogle||[]).push({});window.ezostpixeladd(slotid,'stat_source_id',44);window.ezostpixeladd(slotid,'adsensetype',1);var lo=new mutationobserver(window.ezaslevent);lo.observe(document.getelementbyid(slotid+'-asloaded'),{attributes:true}); syntax, definition of syntax, difference between syntax and diction, common examples of syntax, significance of syntax in literature, examples of syntax in literature.

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.
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)

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)

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)

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.

Test Your Knowledge of Syntax

She like cookies and ice cream.
‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

Syntax is the rules that govern language. It is concerned with various parts of speech and the way that words are used together.

Syntax is directly related to diction as a way of determining how a sentence does and should sound. Some of the basics of syntax include word order, subject -verb agreement, and the use of different sentences to express different ideas.  

Explore Syntax

Syntax definition and examples

Definition of Syntax  

The word “syntax” comes from the Greek meaning “coordination” and “ordering together.” It is the rules that govern how words are arranged in a sentence. It’s different in every language and is one of the most important and direct ways writers convey meaning.  

Syntax Rules  

When uses English syntax, there are a few basic rules that are helpful to keep in mind. But, just because these are the “rules” doesn’t mean that authors don’t sometimes disregard them. It’s always interesting to consider how not doing one of these things might change a sentence.

English sentences should have a subject and verb, which are used to express a complete thought. A sentence fragment doesn’t do this. Additionally, the sentences should express separate thoughts, joined properly. If they aren’t, then it’s likely to be a run-on sentence .  

The next rule is concerned with the use of the subject-verb-object pattern. This is used in other languages as well. Lastly, dependent clauses, explained more below, should have a subject and verb but don’t need to express a complete thought. Rules always change, especially in poetry. Poetic verse is one of the most common places readers will find examples of writers playing around with the subject-verb-object pattern of lines.  

Sentence Types

When attempting to make sense of syntax, understanding the four different English-language sentence types is helpful. They are:  

Examples of Syntax in Literature  

A farewell to arms by ernest hemingway  .

The following quote can be found in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. This novel was published in 1929 and is a first-person narrative. It follows Frederic Henry, who serves in the ambulance corps. Here are a few lines that demonstrate Hemingway’s use of syntax:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

In this passage, readers should note the way that Hemingway uses fairly simple language and many easy-to-read sentences. His use of syntax means readers can move through the lines quickly.  

Explore Ernest Hemingway’s poetry .  

The Tempest by William Shakespeare  

This quote can be found in Act I Scene 2 of The Tempest. It is sung by Ariel, one of the most unusual of Shakespeare’s characters. These lines make up the second stanza :

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: Ding-dong. Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.

These lines are addressed to Ferdinand, who supposedly just experienced his father’s death. The lines allude to the fact that anything below five fathoms was irretrievable during Shakespeare’s time. These lines show how a writer can alter the traditional subject, verb, object agreement of sentences in order to make them sound more poetic.  

Read William Shakespeare’s poetry .  

Why Do Writers Use Syntax?  

Syntax is an incredibly important part of writing. It’s used to produce a certain type of rhetoric or make prose or verse writing some more pleasing to the ear. A variety of aesthetic effects can be achieved depending on how the writer changes their syntax around. It’s also used to control the pace of a piece of writing. It can make the reader move quickly or slowly through the stanzas /paragraphs. It also influences the mood . When writers use syntax to their advantage, they can also create a specific atmosphere in a piece. For example, long run-on sentences are going to have a different effect than short, choppy ones.  

Syntax and Diction  

These two elements of language are connected. But, they play different roles. Diction refers to the meaning of words, while syntax is focused on how they’re arranged. A writer might choose to use colloquial diction , including words that are commonly used in everyday conversations, or they might choose abstract diction , something that’s more common in poetry.  


Syntax is the way that words are arranged in a sentence in accordance with a language’s grammatical rules. 

Syntax is fundamental to language. It governs how writers create sentences and, when broken, presents readers with interesting alternatives. 

Writers use syntax whenever they put words to paper. It directs the way that words are arranged in sentences and the way sentences interact with one another. 

Every language has its own rules when it comes to syntax. In English, sentences should have a subject and verb and convey a complete thought. The sentences should also be connected appropriately in order to avoid run-on and sentence fragments. 

A syntax error is the error in the syntax of characters.

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What Is Syntax? Learn the Meaning and Rules, With Examples

Matt Ellis

Syntax in English is the arrangement of words and phrases in a specific order. If you change the position of even one word, it’s possible to change the meaning of the entire sentence. All languages have specific rules about which words go where, and skilled writers can manipulate these rules to make sentences sound more poignant or poetic. 

When it comes to language, syntax is an advanced topic, which can make it difficult to understand. In this guide, we discuss the basic rules and types of syntax so you can communicate effectively, including some syntax examples. First, let’s start with a more thorough syntax definition. 

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What is syntax in linguistics?

Not to be confused with syntax in programming, syntax in linguistics refers to the  arrangement of words and phrases. Syntax covers topics like word order and grammar rules , such as subject-verb agreement or the correct placement of direct and indirect objects. 

Syntax is essential to understanding constituency , the term for multiple words acting as a single unit. In long and complex sentences , constituency is necessary to determine the hierarchy within the sentence, particularly with sentence diagramming. 

Just how important is syntax in English? Changing the placement of a word often changes the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes the change is minor, useful for writers who like nuance and subtext, but sometimes the change is more significant, giving the entire sentence a whole new interpretation. 

To see for yourself, look at the syntax examples below. Notice how moving the word only changes the meaning of the entire sentence. Keep in mind that only can be an adjective or an adverb ; adjectives modify the nouns that come after them, and adverbs modify the verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs that come after them.   

Only Batman fights crime. 

Meaning: Batman is the only person who fights crime. No one except Batman fights crime, not even Superman. 

Batman only fights crime. 

Meaning: Fighting crime is the only thing Batman does. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t shower—fighting crime is all he does. 

Batman fights only crime. 

Meaning: Batman doesn’t fight anything except crime. He doesn’t fight Alfred or Robin; he doesn’t fight the dry cleaner if they accidentally stain his shirt. Crime is the only thing he fights. 

The basic rules of syntax in English

If you want to get technical with the English language, there are dozens of rules about syntax you can study. However, these can get confusing, and some require an expert understanding of English, so below we list only the five basic rules of syntax in English, which are enough for constructing simple sentences correctly. 

1 All sentences require a subject and a verb . However, imperative sentences (commands) do not need to include their subject because it’s assumed to be the person the sentence is directed at. 

2 A single sentence should include one main idea. If a sentence includes two or more ideas, it’s best to break it up into multiple sentences.

3 The subject comes first, and the verb comes second. If the sentence has objects, they come third, after the verb.

4 Subordinate clauses (dependent clauses) also require a subject and verb. Below we explain more about how to use subordinate clauses in sentence structure.

5 Adjectives and adverbs go in front of the words they describe. If there are multiple adjectives describing the same noun, use the proper adjective order , known as the “Royal Order.” 

Learning these fundamentals is the first step in understanding syntax. After that, you’ll be able to tackle more advanced topics, like the types of syntax. 

Types of syntax: 7 syntactic patterns with syntax examples

Before we get into sentence structures, let’s discuss syntactic patterns . In English, syntactic patterns are the acceptable word orders within sentences and clauses . Depending on what kinds of words you want to use, such as indirect objects or prepositional phrases, there is a specific order in which to place them all. 

We’ve already talked about subjects and verbs, as well as direct objects and indirect objects , on our blog, but before we get to the syntactic patterns, we first need to explain complements and adverbials . 

Complements are words or phrases that describe other words in a sentence or clause. The difference between complements and other modifiers is that complements are necessary for the meaning of a sentence and cannot be removed. 

There are three types of complements: subject complements, object complements, and adverbial complements. Subject complements describe the subject ( That test was hard . ), object complements describe the object ( That test made me angry .), and adverbial complements describe the verb ( That test took longer than usual . )

Adverbials aren’t always complements, however. While adverbial complements are necessary for a sentence’s meaning, another kind of adverbial, modifier adverbials, can be removed without changing the meaning. Adverbials are usually composed of single adverbs ( We ran quickly . ), prepositional phrases ( We ran in the park . ), or noun phrases that relate to time ( We ran this morning . ).

Be careful not to confuse adverbials with adverbial clauses , which are more involved and include their own subjects and verbs. 

Now let’s look at the seven types of syntactic patterns so you can make proper sentences and clauses with whatever words you want. 

1 Subject → verb

The dog barked. 

This is the standard syntactic pattern, including the minimum requirements of just a subject and verb. The subject always comes first. 

2 Subject → verb → direct object

The dog carried the ball. 

If the verb is transitive and uses a direct object, the direct object always goes after the verb. 

3 Subject → verb → subject complement

The dog is playful. 

The subject complement comes after the verb. Subject complements always use linking verbs , like be or seem . 

4 Subject → verb → adverbial complement

The dog ate hungrily. 

Like subject complements, adverbial complements come after the verb (if there are no objects). Be careful, because single adverbs can sometimes come before the verb; however, these are not complements . If you’re not sure whether an adverb is a complement or not, try removing it from the sentence to see if the meaning changes. If you find that removing it does change the meaning, it’s an adverbial complement.

5 Subject → verb → indirect object → direct object

The dog gave me the ball. 

Some sentences have both a direct object and an indirect object. In this case, the indirect object comes right after the verb, and the direct object comes after the indirect object. Keep in mind that objects of prepositions do not follow this pattern; for example, you can say, The dog gave the ball to me .

6 Subject → verb → direct object → object complement

The dog made the ball dirty. 

Object complements come after the direct object, similar to other complements. 

7 Subject → verb → direct object → adverbial complement

The dog perked its ears up. 

When the sentence uses both a direct object and an adverbial complement, the direct object comes first, followed by the adverbial complement. In this syntax example, up is the adverbial complement because it describes how the dog perked its ears. 

Types of syntax: 4 sentence structures with syntax examples

The syntactic patterns above can be used to form stand-alone sentences and individual clauses within a sentence. Both independent and subordinate clauses can be mixed and matched to form advanced sentences, which is ideal if you want to learn how to write better sentences . 

There are only four types of sentence structures, which represent different combinations of independent and subordinate clauses. 

1 Simple : Includes the minimum requirements for a sentence, with just a single independent clause. 

We go to the beach in summer. 

2 Complex : An independent clause combined with one or more subordinate clauses.

We go to the beach in summer when school is finished. 

3 Compound : Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon .

We go to the beach in summer, but my cat stays home.

4 Compound-complex : Two independent clauses combined with one or more subordinate clauses. 

We go to the beach in summer, but my cat stays home because he doesn’t own a swimsuit. 

We recommend using a variety of sentence structures to improve your paragraph structure . Using the same sentence structure over and over in a paragraph is technically acceptable, but it can be a little boring for the reader. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider syntax early on, even when writing an outline . 

What’s the difference between syntax and diction?

Syntax is often confused with another aspect of language called diction . While the two have some things in common, they are distinct concepts. 

Diction refers to word choice. For example, you might describe a room as “clean,” or you might call it “spotless.” Both words have similar meanings, but with a tiny difference that can affect the reader’s understanding of that room. 

Syntax, on the other hand, is about the arrangement or order of the words. There’s less choice involved, and there are more restrictions based on grammar rules. 

Diction is a writing tool that directly affects writing style . For example, the author Mark Twain is famous for using simple, everyday words, while the author James Joyce is known for using longer, more sophisticated words. 

Syntax also affects style, in particular, sentence structure and sentence length. Just like some authors are known for using simple or elaborate words, some authors are known for using simple or elaborate sentences. Furthermore, in sentences with multiple clauses, authors can choose which clauses come first and which come last, influencing how the reader interprets them. 

However, because syntax has more grammar rules to follow, it tends to be more uniform among writers compared to diction. 

Syntax in literature

In the hands of a skilled writer, syntax can make the difference between a bland sentence and a legendary quote. Combining syntax with certain literary devices , like antithesis, chiasmus, or paradox, can help anyone make their writing stand out. Just look at these famous syntax examples from literature. 

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In this famous passage, Dickens matches the syntax in multiple clauses to establish a connective comparison between events past, present, and future. 

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

The syntax in Thoreau’s excerpt may be peculiar, but it’s written this way to emphasize just how important truth is. Consider how the sentiment would have less impact if it were reversed: “Give me truth rather than love, than money, than fame.” 

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

One of the best applications of syntax for writers is parallelism , or using the same structure for different phrases. As this passage from Lee shows, parallelism allows for direct comparisons and also sounds poetic. 

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” 

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Shakespeare here uses antithesis in his syntax to emphasize the difference between a wise man and a fool. 

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

—Douglas Adams, The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

As long as you deliberately choose which clauses come in what order, syntax can be used to subvert expectations and surprise readers with an unpredictable meaning.

In linguistics, syntax is the arrangement or order of words, determined by both the writer’s style and grammar rules. 

How does syntax work?

Most languages have a predetermined order for the types of words in a sentence, but there is still enough freedom for creativity and the writer’s own unique style. 

What are the different rules of syntax?

Syntax in English sets forth a specific order for grammatical elements like subjects, verbs, direct and indirect objects, etc. For example, if a sentence has a verb, direct object, and subject, the proper order is subject → verb → direct object.

What are the different types of syntax? 

While there are specific rules for word order within a clause or sentence, the writer is still free to choose different types of syntax to order the words and clauses. For example, one could write a compound sentence containing two independent clauses or two simple sentences containing one independent clause each. 

definition literature syntax

Writing Explained

What is Syntax? Definition, Examples of English Syntax

Home » The Writer’s Dictionary » What is Syntax? Definition, Examples of English Syntax

Syntax definition: Syntax is the grammatical structure of words and phrases to create coherent sentences.

What is syntax?

What does syntax mean? Syntax is the grammatical structure of sentences. The format in which words and phrases are arranged to create sentences is called syntax.

Let’s look at an example of how a sentence can be rearranged to create varied syntax.

Examples of Syntax in a Sentence:

what is a syntax meaning

A writer will vary sentence syntax to make writing more interesting or to emphasize a particular point.

Words and phrases must follow English rules for correct arrangement and coherent sentences.

Syntax vs. Diction: What’s the Difference?

Syntax and diction are different concepts in grammar and in literature.

What is syntax? Syntax is the arrangement of words that make a sentence.

What is diction? Diction is word choice.

define sytanx in literature

Each of these sentences has the same syntax. Each sentence follows the structure of subject-verb-adverb. However, each sentence uses different diction (word choice).

The following examples have similar diction but different syntax.

Each of these sentences has the same diction. Each sentence uses the same four words. However, each sentence has different word order to create different syntax.

In other words, diction and syntax focus on different things. Diction focuses on word choice, while syntax focuses on the order and structure of those words.

Proper Syntax in English Sentences

Examples of syntax literary definition

Below are a few examples of different types of syntax in English. Each of these examples has different syntax.

Simple sentences follow a subject-verb format.

Simple Syntax Examples:

Compound sentences have more than one subject or verb.

Compound Syntax Examples:

Complex sentences contain a subordinating clause.

Complex Syntax Examples:

Compound-complex sentences contain two independent clauses and more dependent clauses.

Compound-complex Syntax Examples:

Read more on English sentence structure .

Parallel Structure in Sentences

example of syntax define

In English, parallel structure is most often an issue when creating a series list. Therefore, we will look at an example of appropriate parallel structure through lists.

Correct example:

In this example, three gerunds are used (running, jumping, hiking) to create the grammatically correct list.

Incorrect example:

In this example, “to run” and “jumping” and “hiking” are not parallel. “To run” is an infinitive and “jumping” and “hiking” are gerunds . This sentence is grammatically incorrect and this sentence does not have proper syntax.

Summary: What is Syntax in Literature?

Define syntax : the definition of syntax is,

Definition and Examples of Syntax

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Hearing and Speaking Syntax

Types of Sentence Structures

Syntax variations and distinctions, beyond syntax.

In linguistics , "syntax" refers to the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases , clauses , and sentences . The term "syntax" comes from the Greek, meaning "arrange together." The term is also used to mean the study of the syntactic properties of a language. In computer contexts, the term refers to the proper ordering of symbols and codes so that the computer can understand what instructions are telling it to do.

Syntax is one of the major components of grammar . It's the concept that enables people to know how to start a question with a question word ("What is that?"), or that adjectives generally come before the nouns they describe ("green chair"), subjects often come before verbs in non-question sentences ("She jogged"), prepositional phrases start with prepositions ("to the store"), helping verbs come before main verbs ("can go" or "will do"), and so on.

For native speakers, using correct syntax is something that comes naturally, as word order is learned as soon as an infant starts absorbing the language. Native speakers can tell something isn't said quite right because it "sounds weird," even if they can't detail the exact grammar rule that makes something sound "off" to the ear. 

"It is syntax that gives the words the power to relate to each other in a sequence...to carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place" (Burgess 1968)

Syntactic Rules 

English parts of speech often follow ordering patterns in sentences and clauses, such as compound sentences are joined by conjunctions (and, but, or) or that multiple adjectives modifying the same noun follow a particular order according to their class (such as number-size-color, as in "six small green chairs"). The rules of how to order words help the language parts make sense.

Sentences often start with a subject, followed by a predicate (or just a verb in the simplest sentences) and contain an object or a complement (or both), which shows, for example, what's being acted upon. Take the sentence "Beth slowly ran the race in wild, multicolored flip-flops." The sentence follows a subject-verb-object pattern ("Beth ran the race"). Adverbs and adjectives take their places in front of what they're modifying ("slowly ran"; "wild, multicolored flip-flops"). The object ("the race") follows the verb "ran", and the prepositional phrase ("in wild, multicolored flip-flops") starts with the preposition "in".

Syntax vs. Diction and Formal vs. Informal 

Diction refers to the style of writing or speaking that someone uses, brought about by their choice of words, whereas syntax is the order in which they're arranged in the spoken or written sentence. Something written using a very high level of diction, like a paper published in an academic journal or a lecture given in a college classroom, is written very formally. Speaking to friends or texting are informal, meaning they have a low level of diction.

"It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users."Jim Miller (Miller, 2008)

Formal written works or presentations would likely also have more complex sentences or industry-specific jargon. They are directed to a more narrow audience than something meant to be read or heard by the general public, where the audience members' backgrounds will be more diverse.

Precision in word choice is less exacting in informal contexts than formal ones, and grammar rules are more flexible in spoken language than in formal written language. Understandable English syntax is more flexible than most. 

"...the odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be. Other languages don't work that way. French?  Dieu!  Misplace a single le or la and an idea vaporizes into a sonic puff. English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.” (Copeland, 2009)

Types of sentences and their syntax modes include simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and compound-complex sentences. Compound sentences are two simple sentences joined by a conjunction. Complex sentences have dependent clauses, and compound-complex sentences have both types included.

Syntax has changed some over the development of English through the centuries. "The proverb  Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?  indicates that English negatives could once be placed after main verbs" (Aitchison, 2001). And not all people speak English in exactly the same way.  Social dialects  learned by people with common backgrounds—such as a social class, profession, age group, or ethnic group—also may influence the speakers' syntax. Think of the differences between teenagers' slang and more fluid word order and grammar vs. research scientists' technical vocabulary and manner of speaking to each other. Social dialects are also called "social varieties." 

Following proper syntax doesn't guarantee that a sentence will have meaning, though. Linguist Noam Chomsky created the sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," which is syntactically and grammatically correct because it has the words in the correct order and verbs that agree with subjects, but it's still nonsense. With it, Chomsky showed that rules governing syntax are distinct from meanings that words convey.

The distinction between grammar and syntax has been somewhat disrupted by recent research in  lexicogrammar , which takes the words into account in grammar rules: For example, some verbs (transitive ones, that perform an action on something) always take direct objects.   A transitive (action) verb example:

The verb is "removed" and the object is "index card." Another example includes a transitive phrasal verb:

"Look over" is the phrasal verb and "report" is the direct object. To be a complete thought, you need to include what's being looked over. Thus, it has to have a direct object.

Additional References

Kortmann, Bernd.  Adverbial Subordination: a Typology and History of Adverbial Subordinators Based on European Languages . Mouton De Gruyter, 7 Aug. 2012.

Watch Now: What is Grammar?

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