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What is Syntax? Posted by on Aug 31, 2017 in English Grammar, English Language

“When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.”

The way you order your words when you speak or write is important. You want everyone to understand you. When Yoda, of Star Wars fame, speaks it isn’t always easy to instantly comprehend his meaning because his syntax is a bit odd. Or, as he might say, “Odd his syntax is.”

The word syntax comes to us from the Ancient Greek word syntaxis, which means to put in order. The people who study syntax are called syntacticians. Although syntacticians used to be called grammarians, because syntax is a form of grammar study, don’t think that syntacticians are like the grammar police, always correcting syntax. While they may correct syntax when asked, the syntactician is more concerned with why words are ordered in a particular way.

English, like many languages, has a sentence structure which commonly places the subject before the verb, and the verb before the object. I am typing on my keyboard. I (subject), typing (verb), keyboard (object). For all the thousands of words in the English language, there is always a grammatically proper way to arrange them to form a sentence. If you rearrange that order, thereby altering the conventional sentence structure, there needs to be a reason. That is syntax.

But, hold on. Grammar rules, such as never end a sentence with a preposition, may also lead to problems. Suppose I said, “With whom did you share your lunch?” That is a grammatically correct sentence, but it most certainly isn’t how people talk in the real world. Almost everybody would instead say, “Who did you share your lunch with?”  A playwright or novelist would almost certainly use the more natural sounding word order over the linguistically preferred one. Syntax is about finding the right word order for the sentence, not necessarily the grammatically perfect order.

In literature, an author must choose a voice for each character, including the narrator. This is even true of poetry. If you’ve ever heard the term poetic license, it means that a poet has used unconventional syntax to achieve the desired result. Poets often rearrange word order to give their work added meaning and color. Shakespeare scrambled the common word order of subject, verb, object to adhere to his preferred rhyming method, iambic pentameter, but also to add emphasis to certain words within the phrase he was writing. When he sees Juliet in her window, Romeo says:

But, soft. What light through yonder window breaks?

Tis the east, and Juliet the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief,

That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

There is nothing conventional about that word order, but we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we?

A syntactician would explore why the syntax has been altered to accommodate the structure of the text. What does Star Wars creator George Lucas gain from having Yoda speak the way he does? In fact, Yoda’s syntax adds much to his character.

Yoda is a 900-year-old Jedi Master, a mystic. To have him speak in what sound like riddles, we are constantly reminded of his place in the universe. He comes from another time and place. And, to younger audiences, he also sounds as amusing as he looks. It is disarming, and easy to fool you into taking him less seriously than he should. So, when he leaps over a log brandishing his lightsaber, he surprises you. Which is exactly what he wants.

So, syntax is less about word order and more about the significance of the way a sentence has been assembled.

Understand better, you now do?

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