Syntax: Definition and Examples

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In linguistics, syntax refers to the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. It's the concept that enables people to know things like adjectives generally come before the nouns they describe (green chair), how to start a question with a question word (What is that?), that 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, will do), and so on.

Key Takeaways: Syntax

  • Syntax is the proper order of words in a phrase or sentence.
  • 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. 

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 carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place," wrote Anthony Burgess in "Enderby Outside" (1968).

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. Syntax is one of the major components of grammar.

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.

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).

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, and the prepositional phrase (in wild, multicolored flip-flops) starts with a preposition (in).

The rules of how to order words help the language parts make sense.

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 that spoken or written sentence. If something is written using a very high level of diction, it's written very formally, for example, a paper published in an academic journal or a lecture given in a college classroom. Speaking to friends and texting have a low, or informal, level of diction.

Jim Miller emphasized, "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." ("An Introduction to English Syntax." Edinburgh University Press, 2002)  

Formal written works or presentations would likely also have more complex sentences and industry-specific jargon, as 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. 

"[T]he odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be," Douglas Coupland wrote in "Generation A." "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.” (Random House Canada, 2009)

Types of Syntax (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: The girl ran. Structure: Subject-verb.
  • Compound sentence: The girl ran the marathon, and her cousin did, too. Structure: Subject-verb-object-conjunction-subject-verb.
  • Complex sentence: Although they were tired after the marathon, the cousins decided to go to a celebration at the park. Structure: Dependent clause-subject-verb-object.
  • Compound-complex sentence: Although they weren't fond of crowds, this was different, they decided, because of the common goal that had brought everyone together. Structure: Four clauses, dependent and independent.

Syntax Variations and Distinctions

Syntax has changed some over the development of English through the centuries, noted author Jean Atichison. "The proverb Whoever loved that loved not at first sight? indicates that English negatives could once be placed after main verbs." ("Language Change: Progress or Decay?" 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 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

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.

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:

  • She removed the index card from the old recipe box.

The verb is removed and the object is index card.

Another example, including a transitive phrasal verb:

  • Please look over my report before I turn it in.

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.