Grammar What Is Syntax? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

What Is Syntax?

The capacity to write, read, speak, and hear expressive language is exclusive to human beings: There is no other ability like it among Earth’s living creatures.

To use this system of communication, we must have an ordered, understood structure of linguistic elements: a syntax that allows us to deliver and receive patterns of words with logic and meaning.

The word syntax comes from the Middle French sintaxe or the Late Latin syntaxis, which originates from the Greek syntassein (syn- + tassein, “to arrange”). Merriam-Webster online identifies 1548 as the year of the word’s first known use as it applies to arranging words to form units such as phrases, clauses, and sentences.

For native speakers of a language, syntax is something picked up and perceived by nature as we adapt to our environment. While early in life we might not be aware that we are working with a grammatical syntax, we know if something sounds right or “off.”

Consider the following sentences:

The leaves will soon fall from the tree in the backyard.

The teens at the beach are riding the waves on their boogie boards.

Have you ever been on a flatboat on a bayou?

You can readily interpret these sentences because of their syntax. Let’s look at them again with a different syntactical system from the one we agree on:

Fall in the backyard will soon from the tree the leaves.

Their boogie boards on riding the waves the teens at the beach are.

A flatboat you on been ever a bayou on have?

Without understood syntax, we have nonsense.

Syntax: Beginning With the Basics

Because of our syntax, we know which words to use to start a question, how to treat dependent and independent clauses, and how and where to use prepositional phrases. While the guidelines governing syntax address many facets of English, the following are examples of some of the most basic and common that we apply.

A complete sentence requires a subject and a verb. The subject is usually first in order except for in a question.

The girl ran.

The birds flew over the mountain.

Are they interested in the bake sale?

The recipient (direct object) of a verb’s action follows the verb. (transitive verb)

Jacob owns the store.

Josephine bought a new table.

The village has several churches.

A subject complement describing the sentence subject likewise follows the verb. (intransitive verb)

The flowers are pink.

Caterpillars become butterflies.

The turkey in the oven smells delectable.

An indirect object in a sentence either precedes the direct object or follows it in a prepositional phrase.

Tim owes us [indirect object] a ride [direct object] in his helicopter.

Marcella gave Marie [indirect object] her pudding recipe [direct object].

Marcella gave her pudding recipe [direct object] to Marie [object of preposition].

Adjectives typically appear before the nouns they modify.

Natalie is wearing black slacks and a white blouse.

How many pink houses are in John’s neighborhood?

Have you heard that song about tainted love?

When Syntax Shifts Order

We’ve identified that proper syntax lets us understand one another. We also can use it to achieve different meanings within our established system of guidelines.


Only Spider Man can climb that skyscraper wall.

Spider Man can climb only that skyscraper wall.

Spider Man can only climb that skyscraper wall.

Here we have three similar sentences, but their syntax gives us three different meanings.

Only Spider Man can climb that skyscraper wall.
No individual other than Spider Man can climb the wall.

Spider Man can climb only that skyscraper wall.
Spider Man cannot climb anything but the wall.

Spider Man can only climb that skyscraper wall.
Spider Man can do nothing other than climb the wall.

As long as we understand the syntax we are modifying, we can adjust it to make our writing more interesting and stylistic as well. Compare the following sentences:

I have moved through the misty meadow at the first light of morning.

At the first light have I moved through the misty meadow of morning.

Both sentences include the same words and information, but their syntax presents differing style. Where the first sentence applies conventional syntax, the second moves a prepositional phrase (at the first light) and the sequence of the subject and auxiliary verb (I, have) to lend a subtle sense of voice.

Syntax vs. Diction

An understanding of syntax includes how it differs from diction. Where syntax is the established order of linguistic components, diction concerns a writer’s choice of words.

For example, in the U.S., the American South has often been recognized for its colorful diction. Through the years, Southern sayings have included distinctive expressions such as “bless your heart,” “worn slap out,” and “over yonder.”

In the U.S. Northeast, as another example, diction has featured “grinder” for a submarine sandwich, “wicked” for “very” or “extremely,” and “down cellar” for “basement.” (For more insight into varying U.S. regional speech, see our post The Diversity of American English Dialects.)

Alternately, a government, legal, or academic report will often contain language chosen for its acute formality and, in some cases, its jargon. This language too embodies forms of diction.

Related Topics

Becoming Savvy with Sentence Structures: Part One
Becoming Savvy with Sentence Structures: Part Two
Becoming Savvy with Sentence Structures: Part Three

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