Syntax: a path to better analysis, better writing

Very often, in commentaries and other analysis, students bring up the term, ‘syntax’ but seldom have much to say about it.  If you pay a little attention to figuring out what it is and how writers use it, you could really raise your game in both analysis, and yes, your own writing.

First, let’s get straight the simplest definition of what we mean when we talk about syntax.  It’s simply the way words are arranged in a sentence.   ‘Arrangement’ suggests writers have some choice in the sequence and it also means that it can matter to both the beauty and the impact of the sentence.

One of the most common purposes of rearranging the subject-verb-object/complement is surprise for the reader–not to the point of having to re-read because meaning is not clear–but to elicit increased attention, even some delight or pleasure in the variation.  And examiners are among the people who are likely to be both surprised and possibly delighted by students who have acquired a skill of re-arranging the normal sentence order.

What are some good practices to note and to imitate?  We’ll take these one at a time over the next months so you should have plenty of opportunity to both observe them and try them out  One that writers — and you–can use to provide some variety in your sentences is to deviate from the expected word order mentioned above: placing an object, or a complement (an adjective or adverb) at the beginning of a sentence.  Here are a couple by Elizabeth Hardwick, the first about Hedda Gabler :

‘Alone, what would Hedda do? Nothing, perhaps.’

Or on Sylvia Plath:

‘Love for her children, what about that?’

‘She is capable of anything–that we know.’

These are variants on the simple placements like “The rocks with mica, that’s what we were looking for,’ or ‘Fearless, it has to be said he always has been since childhood,’ that we are likely to come up with in spoken language. While it’s not a kind of play with syntactical order you want to use too often in your critical writing, it may be that be that an occasional ‘The Jazz Age, that’s what Fitzgerald was aiming to convey,’ or ‘Sheer terror, the effect that was hoped for but not quite achieved for readers of Frankenstein.’   And noting such inversions and their effects when you are analysing style in commentaries can be a better address of syntax than what one often sees.

The possibilities of what we can do by focusing on syntax are greater than these. Some other directions we can take them will appear in the next entry:  ‘Syntax 2.’  In the meantime, try playing with versions of inversion. Look for them in the texts you’re reading, try changing the subject and keeping the same word order. Many good writers will tell you they learned to write by imitating what they admired.

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