The Mysterious, Elusive Element of Syntax

Can a sentence be dramatic?  It all depends on the syntax,  and syntax is the key to all effective writing.

What exactly is syntax?  How can it help you to write more clearly?  And, how does it differ, if at all, from diction?

Let me explain…

Finding the answer to these questions takes a little digging.  A good dictionary definition provides some help.  One definition provided by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Ed., p. 1269, is that syntax means “…a connected or orderly system:  harmonious arrangement of parts or elements….”  That helps a little bit.  The same source provides another definition: “…the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)…”  That helps a little more.

So, how does all of this relate to clear writing?  Let’s find out.

Good syntax makes good sense.  It deals with the orderly arrangement of words in a sentence.  Diction, dealing with the selection of the right words, is to be distinguished. So, it can be said that words carry the meaning, the power, but syntax controls their effect on the reader.

We now have a better understanding of what syntax means, but we still need to know how it helps us to write more clearly and how to acquire it.

Syntax involves adding rhythm and color to your writing.  These are an indispensable part of clear writing, and should be as much a part of your writing as your heartbeat is to you.  Thus, there should be a beat to your writing much as a poet includes a beat to his/her lines.  As noted in “The Way To Write,” John Fairfax and John Moat, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, p. 66,  the poet Lord Byron used the thunder of horsemen as the backdrop for his epic poem, The Destruction Of Sennacherib:

“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”

The same little booklet, at p. 58, provides another example of what the authors believe is “spectacular” syntax in the following quote from an unidentified Hemingway novel:

“Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.”

The point to be made in all of this comes down to using the story teller as an example.  Everyone likes a good story.  Bob Sands, a well known copyrighter who writes for AWAI (American Writers And Artists, Inc.), emphasizes the point that good copywriting is made even better by a good story.  The order of words in the telling of the story is what provides the emphasis, the drama.  The drama makes the story.  An accomplished writer has a feel for the dramatic and can arrange his words to provide the best impact.

An inexperienced writer may struggle to write a sentence that provides the best effect on the reader.  But, once more experience is obtained, a writer will get a feel for the best order of the words.  This will result in clear meaning, logical presentation of information, and maximum effect on the reader.

A final example, what Messrs. Fairfax and Moat characterize as “superb” syntax, is provided by no less than Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,

Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more:  it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing…” (Id. p. 59).

A piece of writing that has no variety of sound is colorless and dull, like a landscape on a gloomy day.  But  colorful writing, on the other hand, is like a landscape you will find on a bright, sunny,  Spring day.

A gift for words may carry with it a gift for syntax.  The two may be the same.  But, as with other aspects of writing, the gift for syntax does not come gift-wrapped with a ribbon – it must be nurtured and developed, by guidance and constant practice.  By developing the ear, an accomplished writer has learned how to match the sound of his writing to the mood he would create.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under clear writing, Writing Improvement

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