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The syntax is the grammar, structure, or order of the elements in a language statement. (Semantics is the meaning of these elements.) Syntax applies to computer languages as well as to natural languages. Usually, we think of syntax as “word order.” However, the syntax is also achieved in some languages such as Latin by inflectional case endings. In computer languages, syntax can be extremely rigid as in the case of most assembler languages or less rigid in languages that make use of “keyword” parameters that can be stated in any order.

In linguistics, syntax (/ˈsɪntæks/) is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences (sentence structure) in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes. The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.

One basic description of a language’s syntax is the sequence in which the subject (S), verb (V), and object (O) usually appear in sentences. Over 85% of languages usually place the subject first, either in the sequence SVO or the sequence SOV. The other possible sequences are VSO, VOS, OVS, and OSV, the last three of which are rare.

The syntax is basically about what word comes before and after another word; in other words, it’s part of the larger subject of grammar. The syntax is often an issue in poetry, and it’s usually discussed in connection with diction—that is, the poet’s choice of words.

“Syntax” refers to the rules that govern how words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. The term “syntax” comes from 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.

    • A syntax is a tool used in writing proper grammatical sentences.
    • Native speakers of a language learn correct syntax without realizing it.
    • The complexity of a writer’s or speaker’s sentences creates a formal or informal level of diction that is presented to its audience.

Hearing and Speaking Syntax

The 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 the 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-colour, 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, multicoloured 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, multicoloured flip-flops”). The object (“the race”) follows the verb “ran”, and the prepositional phrase (“in wild, multicoloured 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 is informal, meaning they have a low level of diction.

“It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because the 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.”

(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.

Types of Sentence Structures

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.

Simple sentence: Subject-verb structure (“The girl ran.”)

Compound sentence: Subject-verb-object-conjunction-subject-verb structure (“The girl ran the marathon, and her cousin did, too.”)

Complex sentence: Dependent clause-subject-verb-object structure (“Although they were tired after the marathon, the cousins decided to go to a celebration at the park.”)

Compound-complex sentence: Four clauses, dependent and independent structures (“Although they weren’t fond of crowds, this was different, they decided, because of the common goal that had brought everyone together.”)

Syntax Variations and Distinctions

Syntax has changed some over the development of English through the centuries. And not all people speak English in 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.”

Beyond Syntax

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.

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δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.