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Syntax. The way a sentence or phrase is arranged. Includes: Word order Sentence length Sentence focus Punctuation. Syntax builds meaning and purpose.

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The way a sentence or phrase is arranged. Includes:

Word order

Sentence length

Sentence focus


syntax builds meaning and purpose
Syntax builds meaning and purpose
  • Good writers make decisions about syntax because they know that effective word order and sentence structure will help them build meaning, purpose and effect with readers.
  • It will help them establish themselves as ethically credible writers.
  • It will influence the readers’ emotions and interests.
types of sentences
Types of sentences
  • Writers choose to use simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences because they are particularly effective at the particular spot of the piece where they are used.

-The boy was worried about the test. (simple)

-The boy was worried about the test, and he studied for several hours. (compound)

-Because the boy was worried about the test, he studied for several hours. (complex)

-Because the boy was worried about the test, he studied for several hours, and his hard work paid off. (compound-complex)

length of sentences
Length of sentences
  • Writers choose to vary sentence lengths for an array of reasons: to build up an impressive accumulation of information, to pull a reader up short and make him or her take notice, to imitate the action of the piece, and so on.
  • Are the sentences telegraphic (shorter than 5 words in length), short (approximately 5 words in length), medium (approximately 18 words in length), or long and involved (30 words or more in length)?
  • What is the effect?

Gary Provost on the Rhythms of Sentence Length

This sentence has five words. This is five words too. Five word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the symbols, and sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

active versus passive voice
Active versus Passive Voice
  • Writers may use the passive voice purposefully, to disguise or withhold any sense of urgency, making it appear that things "just happen." Generally, writers use the active voice to make bold statements about "who is doing what to whom.“
  • Example: The boy threw the ball. (Active)

The ball was thrown by the boy.


CAVEAT:Unless striving for a particular effect, avoid the passive voice. Passivity adds verbosity.

active versus passive
Active versus Passive
  • The coolant pumps were destroyed by a surge of power.
  • A surge of power destroyed the coolant pumps.
  • The goalie was crouched low when he reached out his stick.
  • The goalie crouched low, swept out his stick, and hooked the rebound.
structural distinctions
Structural Distinctions
  • Loose sentence -- basic sentence with details added immediately at the end of the basic sentence elements.
    • Abraham Lincoln wept (basic sentence)
    • Abraham Lincoln wept, fearing that the Union would not survive if the southern states seceded. (loose sentence – sometimes called cumulative)
  • Loose sentences relieve tension and allow the reader to explore the rest of the sentence without urgency.
structural distinctions1
Structural Distinctions
  • Periodic sentence -- sentence in which additional details are placed before the basic sentence elements.
    • Abraham Lincoln wept. (basic sentence)
    • Alone in his study, lost in somber thoughts about his beloved country, dejected but not broken in spirit, Abraham Lincoln wept.

(periodic sentence)

  • Periodic sentences carry high tension and interest; the emphasis is delayed until the end.
structural distinctions2
Structural Distinctions
  • Inverted - The inverted order of a sentence is another way of writing a sentence in which the predicate appears before the subject.     Example – In the next room plays music.
  • Interrupted - The sentence is interrupted, usually with dashes.    

Example - In the next room music –my favorite song - plays.

syntax terms
Syntax Terms
  • Parallelism
  • Antithesis
  • Asyndeton
  • Anaphora
  • Epistrophe
  • Chiasmus
  • Polysyndeton
  • Anadiplosis
  • Zeugma
  • Rhetorical Question
parallel structure
Parallel Structure

When a passage, a paragraph, or a sentence contains two or more ideas that are fulfilling a similar function, a writer who wants to sound measured, deliberate, and balanced will express those ideas in the same grammatical forms--

words balance words,

phrases balance phrases,

clauses balance clauses,

and sentences balance sentences.

words balance words
Words Balance Words
  • He loved swimming, running, and playing tennis.
  • Exercise physiologists argue that body-pump aerobics sessions benefit a person's heart and lungs, muscles and nerves, and joints and cartilage.
phrases balance phrases
Phrases Balance Phrases

. . . and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. – Lincoln at Gettysburg

Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us.”- Malcolm X
loren eiseley unexpected universe
Loren Eiseley, Unexpected Universe

Man, for all his daylight activities, is, at best, an evening creature. Our every addiction to the day and our compulsion, manifest through the ages, to invent and use illuminating devices, to contest with midnight, to cast off sleep as we would death, suggest that we know more of the shadows than we are willing to recognize. ---

student example of parallel phrases
Student example of parallel phrases

With the scorching prairie fires, it came. With the surging floods, it came. With the defensive Indians, it came. With every step, death came to the wagon trains.

clauses balance clauses
Clauses balance Clauses
  •           I had always marveled at the Bellerbys. They seemed to me to be survivors from another age and their world had a timeless quality. They were never in a hurry; they rose when it was light, went to bed when they were tired, ate when they were hungry and seldom looked at a clock. --- James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small
carl sagan cosmos
Carl Sagan, Cosmos

They remind us that human have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a job, that knowledge is a prerequisite to survival.

parallelism in the book of ruth
Parallelism in The Book of Ruth

Where thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.

sentence balance sentence
Sentence balance sentence

Don’t knock parallelism.  It sings.  It excites.  It works.

the use of parallel structure
The Use of Parallel Structure

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call. . . The Twilight Zone.

-Zicree, 1989

  • It is a poetic and rhetorical device in which normally unassociated idea, words, or phrases are placed next to one another, creating an effect or surprise and wit.
  • Example “The apparition of these faces in the crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough”.
  • Michael Owen, "One of ours[,] over there" for the Northern Rock, stares balefully at himself lying prone and in agony on the front page of The Guardian sport section.
  • A related scheme involving balance is antithesis, in whichparallelismis usedto juxtapose words, phrases, or clausesthat contrast. With antithesis, a writer tries to point out to the reader differences between two juxtaposed ideas rather than similarities.
  • Antithesis is often used by writers to express conflict.
antithesis of words
Antithesis of words

Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to noneandbelongs to all.

neil armstrong american astronaut antithesis
Neil Armstrong, American Astronaut antithesis

“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

antithesis of phrases
Antithesis of phrases
  • To err is human, to forgive divine.
  • It was the wretchedness of slavery and the blessedness of freedom.
charles dickens a tale of two cities
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . .

antithesis for clauses
Antithesis for clauses

Brutus: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

euphemism dysphemism
  • Euphemism- The substitution of an offensive term with one that is considered less offensive (dysphemism= opposite).

Living together = shacking up

Freedom fighter = terrorist or guerilla

Pro-choice = murderer or baby killer

Pro-life = brainwashed conservative

schemes involving omission
Schemes Involving Omission
  • Ellipsis is any omission of word(s), the meaning of which is provided by the overall context of the passage. An artist’s instinct is intuitive, not rational…aesthetic, not pragmatic.
  • Asyndeton is the deliberate omission of conjunctions between words, phrases, and related clauses. (usually before the last item in a list—hurried rhythm) “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Asyndeton builds urgency.
anaphora repetition
Anaphora / Repetition

The repetition of the same group of words at the beginning of successive clauses.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields . . . (Winston Churchill)

martin luther king i have a dream
Martin Luther King, “I have a Dream”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day the state of Mississippi, a statesweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed. . .

I have a dream. . .

If you want to be important, wonderful! If you want to be recognized, wonderful! If you want to be great, wonderful! But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” MLK Jr.
epistrophe repetition
Epistrophe / Repetition

It is repetition of the same group of words at the end of a clause, sentence, or verse.

  • What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.“

Remember the day I borrowed your brand new car, and I dented it?

I thought you’d kill me, but you didn’t. And remember the time I dragged you to the beach, and you said it would rain, and it did? I thought you’d say, “I told you so,” but you didn’t. Do you remember the time I flirted with all the guys to make you jealous and you were? I thought you’d leave me, but you didn’t. Do you remember the time I spilled strawberry pie all over your car rug? I thought you’d hit me, but you didn’t.

And remember the time I forgot to tell you that the dance was formal, and you showed up in jeans. I thought you’d drop me, but you didn’t. Yes, there were lots of things you didn’t do. But you put up with me, and you loved me, and you protected me.There were lots of things I wanted to make up to you when you returned from Vietnam. But you didn’t. (1982, 75-76)

example from the tell tale heart by poe
Example From “The Tell Tale Heart” by Poe

I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key with gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observation of the men—but the noise steadily increased. (1938, 306)

  • Another scheme that looks a great deal like antithesis is chiamus(Key-ah-mus). It is a repetition of words, in successive clauses, in reverse grammatical order.
    • You can take the kid out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the kid.
another example
Another example

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy).


“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”-JFK

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

“The world is divided into governments who own the people, and people who own the government.”-Churchill

  • It is the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses. The repeated use of "nor" or "or" emphasizes alternatives; repeated use of "but" or "yet" stresses qualifications; repeated use of “and” gives the impression of infinity . . . a sense of endlessness
    • We have not power, nor influence, nor money, nor authority. . .
    • And him?" and he said, "I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right," and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and
an example
An example

And Ali, gloves to his head, elbows to his ribs, stood and swayed and was rattled and banged and shaken like a grasshopper at the top of a reed when the wind whips, and the ropes shook and swung like sheets in a storm. . .

Norman Mailer

  • Anadiplosis (a-nuh-duh-PLOH-suhsis the repetition of the last word (or phrase) from the previous line, clause or sentence at the beginning of the next.
    • Mental preparation leads to training; training builds muscle tone and coordination; muscle tone and coordination, combined with focused thinking, produce athletic excellence
Never steal, cheat, lie, or drink-

But if you must steal, steal away

from bad company.

If you must cheat, cheat death.

If you must lie, lie in the arms of

the one you love.

And if you must drink, drink in

the good times.


Polyptoton (po-lip-to-ton) is the repetition of words with the same root.

With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder. —John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II 2.1.37


It is the use of one subject with two (or more) verbs, a verb with two (or more) direct objects that have different meanings, two (or more) subjects with one verb, and so forth. The main benefit of the linking is that it shows relationships between ideas and actions more clearly.

  • He stole both her car and her heart that fateful night.
  • Fred excelled at sports, Harvey at eating, Tom with girls.
advertisement for dove chocolate
Advertisement for Dove Chocolate

Hold hands firmly, hearts gently.

rhetorical question
Rhetorical Question
  • For if we lose the ability to perceive our faults, what is the good of living on? --Marcus Aurelius
homer simpson s rhetorical question
Homer Simpson’s rhetorical question

Mother Simpson: [singing] How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?Homer: Seven.Lisa: No, dad, it's a rhetorical question.Homer: OK, eight.Lisa: Dad, do you even know what "rhetorical" means?Homer: Do I know what "rhetorical" means?

  • Several words in a phrase begin with the same or similar sounds.

…to have and to hold…

pride of place

cool as a cucumber

climax ordering
Climax Ordering
  • Three or four items in a series, with the greatest emphasis at the end.

“In twenty campaigns, on one hundred battlefields, around one thousand campfires…” - General Douglas MacArthur

climax ordering1
Climax Ordering

This is one planet in a solar system of nine, floating around in a galaxy of billions.

  • Punctuation reinforces meaning, constructs effect, and – of particular interest to students of writing -- expresses the writer’s voice.
  • To shape voice, consider:
    • The Semicolon (;)
    • The Colon (:)
    • The Dash (--)
    • The Parentheses ()
the semicolon
The Semicolon

The semicolon gives equal weight to two or more independent clauses in a sentences

  • It can reinforce parallel ideas: “E.T., don’t phone home; it’s too expensive.”El Paso Herald-Post
  • It imparts equal importance to both (or all) of the clauses: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . .” Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
the colon
The Colon
  • The colon directs the reader’s attention to the words that follow.
  • It is also used if between independent clauses if the second summarizes or explains the first.
  • A colon sets the expectation that important, closely related information will follow; words after the colon are emphasized.

The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm: I wondered if these years would ever operate between us as a bridge.

James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”

The “chasm” of the first clause is connected to the “bridge” of the second clause, and the possibility of reconciliation for the characters is raised through the syntax.

the dash
The Dash
  • The dash marks a sudden change in thought or tone, sets off a brief summary, and often adds drama.

“But the show’s most famous motto – “Live long and prosper!” – proved to be downright prophetic.” Michael Logan, TV Guide

  • It may be used to elaborate on a previously stated idea, often changing the meaning of the sentence. In fact, many times good writers will use a dash to create an anomaly, a departure from the expected.

“In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people -- the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”

the parentheses
The Parentheses
  • The parentheses are used to whisper a witty aside to the reader.
  • Parentheses can make a remark seem more confidential.

“Tourists...swarm all over the Statue of Liberty (where many a resident of the town has never set foot), they invade the Automat, visit radio stations, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and they window shop.” --E.B.White

“In a trice (which, in Bangladesh, is two and a half hours) we were back in our hired cab.” --P.J. O’Rourke

the grammatical rhythms of good writers sing and sometimes shout
The grammatical rhythms of good writers sing and sometimes shout!

They march. They skip. They paint. They float like the song of a sparrow on a midnight summer breeze. Writers beat rhythms of musical syntax as backgrounds to ideas of joy, love, and anger. In every genre from science fiction to journalism, they use the subtle cadences of structure to emphasize




adapted from

Marcie Belgard

Hanford High School

Richland, Washington 99354