Syntax in the English Language: Definition, Examples, and 3 Ways to Use Syntax Effectively

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 13, 2019 • 4 min read

Syntax is the set of rules that helps readers and writers make sense of sentences. It's also an important tool that writers can use to create various rhetorical or literary effects.



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What Is Syntax?

The word “syntax” comes from the Ancient Greek for “coordination” or “ordering together.” In spoken and written language, syntax refers to the set of rules that determines the arrangement of words in a sentence. Along with diction, it is one of the key ways writers convey meaning in a text. Learn more about diction here.

4 Essential Rules of Syntax in the English Language

The rules of syntax can be quite complex and vary greatly by language (as well as by time period and place). Depending on the language you are speaking or writing in, these rules might be very restrictive, or quite flexible.

When it comes to English syntax, there are four baseline rules to keep in mind:

  1. A complete sentence requires a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought. This is also called an independent clause. A sentence without a subject and a verb is considered a fragment.
  2. Separate ideas generally require separate sentences. A sentence containing multiple independent clauses that are improperly joined is considered a run-on sentence.
  3. English word order follows the subject-verb-object sequence. (It’s usually the same in French and Spanish.)
  4. A dependent clause contains a subject and a verb—but it doesn’t express a complete thought.
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4 Sentence Types in the English Language

The English language is extraordinarily flexible when it comes to building sentences. At the same time, all sentences in English fall into four distinct types:

  1. Simple sentences. Simple sentences consist of a single, independent clause. For example: “The girl hit the ball.”
  2. Compound sentences. Compound sentences consist of two or more independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. The coordinating conjunctions are “but,” “or,” and “so.” For example: “The girl hit the ball, and the ball flew out of the park.”
  3. Complex sentences. Complex sentences consist of an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses joined by a subordinating conjunction. Some subordinating conjunctions are “although,” “because,” “so,” “that,” and “until.” For example: “When the girl hit the ball, the fans cheered.”
  4. Compound-complex sentences. Compound-complex sentences consist of multiple independent clauses as well as at least one dependent clause. For example: “When the girl hit the ball, the fans cheered, and the ball flew out of the park.”


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3 Ways to Use Syntax in Literature

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Besides being critical to conveying literal sense, syntax is also one of the key tools writers use to express meaning in a variety of different ways. Syntax can help writers:

  • Produce rhetorical and aesthetic effects. By varying the syntax of their sentences, writers are able to produce different rhetorical and aesthetic effects. How a writer manipulates the syntax of their sentences is an important element of writing style.
  • Control pace and mood. Manipulating syntax is one of the ways writers control the pace and mood of their prose. For example, the writer Ernest Hemingway is known for his short, declarative sentences, which were well-suited to his terse, clear style of writing. These give his prose a forceful, direct quality.
  • Create atmosphere. By contrast, Hemingway’s fellow story writer and novelist William Faulkner is famous (or infamous) for his meandering, paragraph-long sentences, which often mimic the ruminative thinking of his characters. These sentences, which often ignore the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, help create an atmosphere as much as they convey information.

That said, all writers vary their sentence structure from time to time. Using a variety of sentences is one of the key ways writers engage and maintain their readers’ interest.

2 Syntax Examples in Literature

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To get a sense of some of the ways writers use syntax to express meaning, it’s worthwhile examining a few famous examples from literature.

  1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (1851). Melville begins with this famous line: “Call me Ishmael.” This first line—one of the most famous in literature—is short and direct. The sentences that follow, though, are significantly more sophisticated. In the fourth sentence, Melville uses a number of dependent clauses (“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth,” “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” and so on) to create a sense of anticipation.
  2. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Tolstoy’s novel begins: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is actually two simple sentences joined by a semi-colon. Tolstoy could easily have just written them as separate sentences, but by joining them into one sentence he shows that these two thoughts are related and balanced.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how syntax works essential to good writing. Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

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