What is Syntax, and Why Does it Matter in Writing and Speaking?

guy_edits_syntaxIf you haven’t heard my definition of grammar, here it is:

Grammar encompasses the words we choose, how we string them together, and how we punctuate them to give them meaning.

The stringing-words-together part is called syntax: the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences.

Why should you pay attention to syntax? Because the order of your words can be critical to making your message clear.

Consider these examples from a variety of online sources. You’ll find the original sentence, what’s wrong with it in terms of syntax, and a rewrite.

original: Tune in to see what she has done to reach millennials on Saturday at 9 a.m.

Is she going to reach millennials on Saturday at 9 in the morning? Or if you tune in at 9 on Saturday morning, will you learn how she has reached (in the past) millennials?

rewrite: Tune in on Saturday at 9 a.m. to see what she has done to reach millennials.

 

original: The night before, Teachout had emailed the people who’d R.S.V.P.’d for the event with a homework assignment.

(If you don’t know what R.S.V.P / RSVP means and why it matters, please visit this link.)

Did people RSVP for the event by submitting a homework assignment? Or did Teachout respond by sending a homework assignment to those who had RSVP’d for the event?

rewrite: The night before the event, Teachout sent a homework assignment to those who had registered.

 

original: The airlines have announced that people who want to travel with service or emotional-support animals must now submit signed documents that their companions are trained, necessary for their well-being, and fully vaccinated 48 hours before their flights.

Do people have to have their traveling pet fully vaccinated within 48 hours of takeoff? Or do they have to submit documents 48 hours before their flight that their pet is trained and fully vaccinated?

rewrite: The airlines have announced that people who want to travel with service or emotional-support animals must submit signed documents 48 hours before their flight confirming that their pets are trained, are necessary for the passenger’s well-being, and are fully vaccinated.

 

original: The visiting nurse recommended that Ben go to the emergency department. Ben’s son-in-law, Michael, was contacted because his daughter was out of town.

Whose daughter was out of town, Ben’s or Michael’s? And why did it matter?

rewrite: The visiting nurse recommended that Ben go to the emergency department. Because Ben’s daughter was out of town, the nurse contacted Ben’s son, Michael, to transport him.

 

original: Because their child was born out of wedlock, he was supposedly given up for adoption by an aristocratic family.

Was the out-of-wedlock child born into an aristocratic family, who then gave the child up for adoption? Or did an aristocratic family adopt a child born out of wedlock?

rewrite 1: Because their child was born out of wedlock, he supposedly was given up so he could be adopted by an aristocratic family.

rewrite 2: Because the child of an aristocratic family was born out of wedlock, he was supposedly given up for adoption.

And here’s the grand slam (forgive my baseball analogy for a golf tournament), which I found in coverage of the 2018 Masters Tournament.

 

original: Reed seized control with a pair of eagles on the back nine, two big pars and a 5-under 67 that gave him a three-shot lead over McIlroy as he goes for his first major in the city where he led under-manned Augusta State to two NCAA titles.

For starters, this sentence is 47 words long. Yikes!

Another problem: The “he” following McIlroy does not make clear whether “he” is McIlroy or Reed.

rewrite: Reed seized control with a pair of eagles on the back nine, two big pars, and a final 5-under-par score of 67. That finish gave him a three-shot lead over McIlroy. Reed was going for his first major championship in the city where he led under-manned Augusta State to two NCAA titles.

I asked a seasoned golfer friend to review my rewrite. He didn’t think “par” was necessary with 5-under-par. Nor did he think “championship” was necessary with major championship.

If this were a story in a golf magazine, I might agree. But because it was reported for a general audience (which includes me, a non-golfer), I considered “par” and “championship” necessary for clarity and completeness.

Syntax is an element of grammar that is critical to clear writing and speaking. Never assume that your first draft is perfect.

Whether for your job, for a school assignment or for pleasure, allow time between writing and rereading (preferably aloud) your work.

For something of high importance, have a friend or colleague read your phrasing to check for word choice, word order, and how you’ve punctuated your message.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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