Understanding the basics of syntax is a commitment that writers make to themselves and to their readers. This commitment accomplishes two essential elements of writing: Writers know how to write effective syntax, and they know that effective syntax creates meaning. After all, syntax that creates meaning is the name of the game.
So, why is syntax the name of the game? Writers write syntactically all the time, but they may not know that syntax uses the grammatical rules of the language. This post is about syntax, and I hope that it informs writers about syntactical structures so that they are more conscious about how they use it in their writing. Here is Steven Pinker’s definition of syntax from his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century: “The component of grammar that governs the arrangement of words into phrases and sentences.”
Consider this scenario. As writers sculpt the written language of English in syntactical structures, they envision writing as an art form, knowing that the telling of their stories begins with structured sentences that then flow into paragraph-making, and this paragraph-making ends with the story’s resolution. All the while, writers match the ideas roaming in their heads with specific syntactical structures that communicate to readers, who in turn decipher this syntax to make meaning.
Suppose you are reading the opening sentence of a story. You are pulled into the story and allow the story to take over. You read the subsequent paragraphs. You do not lose interest after you have read three or five or twenty pages. What is going on?
Because you are a writer yourself, you are curious about why the story intrigues you. So, you return to the opening sentence and read it carefully. Then you read the opening paragraph and the paragraphs that follow. You notice how the writer has structured the syntax that builds the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the following paragraphs. The syntax and the content are matched—no extra words, no reiteration of words or phrases or clauses, no fooling around with extraneous information.
You begin to understand why you are so intrigued by the first sentence in this story and want to read more. You see that the syntactical structures that build off each other create meaningful connections, and these connections carry information to the next paragraph and so on. The writer has created meaning, and you absorb this meaning through the carefully constructed syntax that leads you to the interior of the story. You cannot stop reading.
In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker explains that “the code that translates a web of conceptual relations in our heads into an early-to-late order in our mouths, or into a left-to-right order on the page, is called syntax.” Thus, writers who can pull readers into their stories after readers have read only the opening sentence or first paragraph have succeeded in decoding the confluence of material in their heads and have transformed a string of words into meaningful syntax.
Experienced writers know when syntax burdens their writing, but they also know how to unburden it. They read draft after draft until their story is free of syntactical errors and contradictions in meaning, and they read their story out loud to hear its rhythm. Then they know that the syntax is working. They feel the flow, and only then are they satisfied.