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What Is Syntax? Learn the Meaning and Rules, With Examples

Updated on April 29, 2022Grammar

Syntax in English is the arrangement of words and phrases in a specific order. If you change the position of even one word, it’s possible to change the meaning of the entire sentence. All languages have specific rules about which words go where, and skilled writers can manipulate these rules to make sentences sound more poignant or poetic. 

When it comes to language, syntax is an advanced topic, which can make it difficult to understand. In this guide, we discuss the basic rules and types of syntax so you can communicate effectively, including some syntax examples. First, let’s start with a more thorough syntax definition. 

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What is syntax in linguistics?

Not to be confused with syntax in programming, syntax in linguistics refers to the arrangement of words and phrases. Syntax covers topics like word order and grammar rules, such as subject-verb agreement or the correct placement of direct and indirect objects. 

Syntax is essential to understanding constituency, the term for multiple words acting as a single unit. In long and complex sentences, constituency is necessary to determine the hierarchy within the sentence, particularly with sentence diagramming

Just how important is syntax in English? Changing the placement of a word often changes the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes the change is minor, useful for writers who like nuance and subtext, but sometimes the change is more significant, giving the entire sentence a whole new interpretation. 

To see for yourself, look at the syntax examples below. Notice how moving the word only changes the meaning of the entire sentence. Keep in mind that only can be an adjective or an adverb; adjectives modify the nouns that come after them, and adverbs modify the verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs that come after them.   

Only Batman fights crime. 

Meaning: Batman is the only person who fights crime. No one except Batman fights crime, not even Superman. 

Batman only fights crime. 

Meaning: Fighting crime is the only thing Batman does. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t shower—fighting crime is all he does. 

Batman fights only crime. 

Meaning: Batman doesn’t fight anything except crime. He doesn’t fight Alfred or Robin; he doesn’t fight the dry cleaner if they accidentally stain his shirt. Crime is the only thing he fights. 

The basic rules of syntax in English

If you want to get technical with the English language, there are dozens of rules about syntax you can study. However, these can get confusing, and some require an expert understanding of English, so below we list only the five basic rules of syntax in English, which are enough for constructing simple sentences correctly. 

1 All sentences require a subject and a verb. However, imperative sentences (commands) do not need to include their subject because it’s assumed to be the person the sentence is directed at. 

2 A single sentence should include one main idea. If a sentence includes two or more ideas, it’s best to break it up into multiple sentences.

3 The subject comes first, and the verb comes second. If the sentence has objects, they come third, after the verb.

4 Subordinate clauses (dependent clauses) also require a subject and verb. Below we explain more about how to use subordinate clauses in sentence structure.

5 Adjectives and adverbs go in front of the words they describe. If there are multiple adjectives describing the same noun, use the proper adjective order, known as the “Royal Order.” 

Learning these fundamentals is the first step in understanding syntax. After that, you’ll be able to tackle more advanced topics, like the types of syntax. 

Types of syntax: 7 syntactic patterns with syntax examples

Before we get into sentence structures, let’s discuss syntactic patterns. In English, syntactic patterns are the acceptable word orders within sentences and clauses. Depending on what kinds of words you want to use, such as indirect objects or prepositional phrases, there is a specific order in which to place them all. 

We’ve already talked about subjects and verbs, as well as direct objects and indirect objects, on our blog, but before we get to the syntactic patterns, we first need to explain complements and adverbials

Complements are words or phrases that describe other words in a sentence or clause. The difference between complements and other modifiers is that complements are necessary for the meaning of a sentence and cannot be removed. 

There are three types of complements: subject complements, object complements, and adverbial complements. Subject complements describe the subject (That test was hard.), object complements describe the object (That test made me angry.), and adverbial complements describe the verb (That test took longer than usual.)

Adverbials aren’t always complements, however. While adverbial complements are necessary for a sentence’s meaning, another kind of adverbial, modifier adverbials, can be removed without changing the meaning. Adverbials are usually composed of single adverbs (We ran quickly.), prepositional phrases (We ran in the park.), or noun phrases that relate to time (We ran this morning.).

Be careful not to confuse adverbials with adverbial clauses, which are more involved and include their own subjects and verbs. 

Now let’s look at the seven types of syntactic patterns so you can make proper sentences and clauses with whatever words you want. 

1 Subject → verb

The dog barked. 

This is the standard syntactic pattern, including the minimum requirements of just a subject and verb. The subject always comes first. 

2 Subject → verb → direct object

The dog carried the ball. 

If the verb is transitive and uses a direct object, the direct object always goes after the verb. 

3 Subject → verb → subject complement

The dog is playful. 

The subject complement comes after the verb. Subject complements always use linking verbs, like be or seem

4 Subject → verb → adverbial complement

The dog ate hungrily. 

Like subject complements, adverbial complements come after the verb (if there are no objects). Be careful, because single adverbs can sometimes come before the verb; however, these are not complements. If you’re not sure whether an adverb is a complement or not, try removing it from the sentence to see if the meaning changes. If you find that removing it does change the meaning, it’s an adverbial complement.

5 Subject → verb → indirect object → direct object

The dog gave me the ball. 

Some sentences have both a direct object and an indirect object. In this case, the indirect object comes right after the verb, and the direct object comes after the indirect object. Keep in mind that objects of prepositions do not follow this pattern; for example, you can say, The dog gave the ball to me.

6 Subject → verb → direct object → object complement

The dog made the ball dirty. 

Object complements come after the direct object, similar to other complements. 

7 Subject → verb → direct object → adverbial complement

The dog perked its ears up. 

When the sentence uses both a direct object and an adverbial complement, the direct object comes first, followed by the adverbial complement. In this syntax example, up is the adverbial complement because it describes how the dog perked its ears. 

Types of syntax: 4 sentence structures with syntax examples

The syntactic patterns above can be used to form stand-alone sentences and individual clauses within a sentence. Both independent and subordinate clauses can be mixed and matched to form advanced sentences, which is ideal if you want to learn how to write better sentences

There are only four types of sentence structures, which represent different combinations of independent and subordinate clauses. 

1 Simple: Includes the minimum requirements for a sentence, with just a single independent clause. 

We go to the beach in summer. 

2 Complex: An independent clause combined with one or more subordinate clauses.

We go to the beach in summer when school is finished. 

3 Compound: Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon.

We go to the beach in summer, but my cat stays home.

4 Compound-complex: Two independent clauses combined with one or more subordinate clauses. 

We go to the beach in summer, but my cat stays home because he doesn’t own a swimsuit. 

We recommend using a variety of sentence structures to improve your paragraph structure. Using the same sentence structure over and over in a paragraph is technically acceptable, but it can be a little boring for the reader. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider syntax early on, even when writing an outline

What’s the difference between syntax and diction?

Syntax is often confused with another aspect of language called diction. While the two have some things in common, they are distinct concepts. 

Diction refers to word choice. For example, you might describe a room as “clean,” or you might call it “spotless.” Both words have similar meanings, but with a tiny difference that can affect the reader’s understanding of that room. 

Syntax, on the other hand, is about the arrangement or order of the words. There’s less choice involved, and there are more restrictions based on grammar rules. 

Diction is a writing tool that directly affects writing style. For example, the author Mark Twain is famous for using simple, everyday words, while the author James Joyce is known for using longer, more sophisticated words. 

Syntax also affects style, in particular, sentence structure and sentence length. Just like some authors are known for using simple or elaborate words, some authors are known for using simple or elaborate sentences. Furthermore, in sentences with multiple clauses, authors can choose which clauses come first and which come last, influencing how the reader interprets them. 

However, because syntax has more grammar rules to follow, it tends to be more uniform among writers compared to diction. 

Syntax in literature

In the hands of a skilled writer, syntax can make the difference between a bland sentence and a legendary quote. Combining syntax with certain literary devices, like antithesis, chiasmus, or paradox, can help anyone make their writing stand out. Just look at these famous syntax examples from literature. 

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In this famous passage, Dickens matches the syntax in multiple clauses to establish a connective comparison between events past, present, and future. 

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

The syntax in Thoreau’s excerpt may be peculiar, but it’s written this way to emphasize just how important truth is. Consider how the sentiment would have less impact if it were reversed: “Give me truth rather than love, than money, than fame.” 

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

One of the best applications of syntax for writers is parallelism, or using the same structure for different phrases. As this passage from Lee shows, parallelism allows for direct comparisons and also sounds poetic. 

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” 

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Shakespeare here uses antithesis in his syntax to emphasize the difference between a wise man and a fool. 

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

—Douglas Adams, The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

As long as you deliberately choose which clauses come in what order, syntax can be used to subvert expectations and surprise readers with an unpredictable meaning.

Syntax FAQ

What is syntax in linguistics?

In linguistics, syntax is the arrangement or order of words, determined by both the writer’s style and grammar rules. 

How does syntax work?

Most languages have a predetermined order for the types of words in a sentence, but there is still enough freedom for creativity and the writer’s own unique style. 

What are the different rules of syntax?

Syntax in English sets forth a specific order for grammatical elements like subjects, verbs, direct and indirect objects, etc. For example, if a sentence has a verb, direct object, and subject, the proper order is subject → verb → direct object.

What are the different types of syntax? 

While there are specific rules for word order within a clause or sentence, the writer is still free to choose different types of syntax to order the words and clauses. For example, one could write a compound sentence containing two independent clauses or two simple sentences containing one independent clause each. 

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