What Is Syntax, and When Was It Murdered?

Syntax only appears to be dead. It’s actually hiding out, living a limited, muted existence inside university linguistic departments. As far as the world is concerned, it might as well be dead, though. When did you last hear the term used? Sixth-grade English class?

As an author, should you be concerned about syntax? Well, not really. Syntax is essentially the structure of sentences. Words have to come together in a certain order to make sense. If you can remember diagramming sentences in grade school, you are remembering studying syntax.

If you say “I only want to date her,” that’s different from saying, “I want to date only her,” and both are different in meaning from “Only I want to date her.” Same words, different order, three different meanings. The difference is the syntax.

Syntax is a subcategory of grammar. But unlike other aspects of grammar, which can be tricky, syntax comes naturally to native speakers of a language. It’s not something you usually have to think about.

The native speaker’s ear can detect when phrasing is completely off the mark—as in this sentence I read this morning, written by a person for whom English is a second language: “The article is about washing the brain.” (He meant “brainwashing.”)

So, break out tblog--what-is-syntaxhe bubbly. Syntax is one less thing in life you have to worry about. If your grammar and punctuation are in order, so is your syntax. If they aren’t, hire a qualified book editor, one trained to publishing industry standards, to bring your sentences up to snuff. Meanwhile, don’t sweat the syntax.

Jessi Rita Hoffman . . . book editing by an industry professional