Using English Syntax to Enhance Your Writing

There was nothing passive about her aggressionThe effective use of English syntax in your writing can change everything. Using syntax well is not just about how you write and punctuate a sentence, it is about how the sentence is put together and constructed. Yes, a grammatically correct sentence is great, but it is the well-crafted sentence that makes a massive difference to the reader.

Confused? Let’s start by taking a look at the difference between syntax and grammar.

The difference between syntax and grammar

If you’re not quite sure what grammar is, then you should start by reading our article: What is grammar and why is it important?

Prescriptive grammar involves a set of rules that speculate the way in which language should be written and punctuated to follow agreed conventions. In a sense, grammar doesn’t add enhanced meaning to your sentences; it simply prescribes the form that should be used. Syntax is concerned with how a sentence is worded and structured and involves the type of sentence used (declarative, interrogative, exclamatory, imperative); the order in which the words appear (passive, active); and the length of the sentence (long, short).

If my written English is grammatically correct why do I need to be concerned with syntax?

There is a distinct difference between writing that is grammatically correct and writing that is interesting to read. Syntax adds meaning and vibrancy to your sentences, where grammar simply ensures that the rules of language are followed within that sentence. This is also, essentially, the difference between professional editors and proofreaders. An editor will make your writing more interesting, while a proofreader will just check for mistakes.

Let’s look at an example:

His long-held wish was to walk slowly through the tortuous mountain paths that his grandfather had carved out of the earth many years ago.

Syntax would refer to the sentence being declarative: stating a wish that the boy had. It would also refer to the length of the sentence and the way it is constructed in a manner that mimics the long, twisted paths in the mountain, and the long time the boy had been wishing to walk them.

Grammar would refer to the need to ensure that the infinitive is not split: “to walk slowly” rather than “to slowly walk”, and would necessitate correct subject-verb agreement.

A well-crafted sentence can make all the difference to a reader. It can convey the writer’s message more clearly and more effectively. Careful syntax is the difference between a messy, meandering piece of writing and a crisp, powerful piece of writing.

Editing for syntax

There are a number of things that you should think about when editing for syntax:

Picture of the number oneIs the meaning of the sentence clear?

This should be the first question you ask when scrutinizing your English syntax usage. The problem you will have answering it, concerns the fact that you wrote the material yourself in the first place and, as such, you may think that the meaning is clear when quite often it isn’t. Just because an idea or meaning is clear in your own head does not mean that the reader will interpret it in the same way. Let’s look at an example:

The young girl hit the man with a broom.

Is the young girl using the broom to hit the man, or is she hitting a man who is holding a broom?

Another area that can cause great confusion is the misuse of punctuation marks. Our “Dear John Letter” perfectly illustrates how a few misplaced punctuation marks can make a world of difference to the meaning of a written communication.

When editing a document, you need to look beyond the grammar alone and consider how your reader may interpret your writing. If there is scope for unintended confusion, reword it or improve the punctuation.

Picture of the number twoDoes the sentence contain repetition?

One thing that many writers are guilty of is over-emphasizing a single point, and they often do this by repeating the same information using different words. For example:

James was really scared; he was really frightened.

The second sentence part of this sentence, “he was really frightened” is completely unnecessary because the reader has already been informed that James was scared. Many people are guilty of this type of repetition when they are composing their written documents because they are emptying their heads onto the paper or screen and are trying to emphasize the points they want to get across. If you have a tendency to do this, it is important that you recognize the impact it can have on the quality of your writing and look for repetitious words or phrases during the editing phase.

Picture of the number threeHow does the sentence/paragraph end?

Many people understand the importance of ending each line or stanza in a poem with the correct word, maybe because it needs to rhyme or because they want to make an impact. However, very few people extend this understanding to their syntax and written prose and fail to recognize the importance that the last word has on making an impact. For example:

In a fit of rage, Mary threw down the towel that she was cleaning Peter’s brow with.

The use of the word “with” at the end of the sentence has very little impact on the reader. However, if we reengineer the sentence we can achieve something much more powerful:

Mary stopped cleaning Peter’s brow and threw down the towel in a fit of rage.

This is much more dramatic and punchy and will ignite the reader’s emotion much more than the first version.

It’s not just the sentence that needs to end appropriately because syntax is more than just looking at isolated sentences. We also need to consider the paragraph as a whole and consider the way in which the sentences work together. A paragraph should contain one idea or encapsulate one part of the action and the sentences contained within this paragraph should help to build this idea. When editing your work, you should consider how the sentences within the paragraph are interacting with one another and whether the order of them effectively achieves the aim of your communication.

Picture of the number fourIs the sentence active or passive?

Many people will tell you that writing in passive voice is ineffective. This is not actually the case, and there are occasions where it is actually more suitable to write in passive voice than it is to write in active voice. See our article on English grammar rules for more information. However, what is important is that the voice used within a document is appropriate to the communication intentions. If, for example, you want to communicate the fact that the action is happening at arm’s length,  passive voice is perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, if you want to inject energy and directness into your writing, then sentences that are written in the active voice will be much more powerful.

Picture of the number fiveDoes this sentence create the effect I want?

Great writing stretches far beyond writing grammatically correct sentences. Great writing involves considering how these sentences can be best used to invoke a response from the reader through the use of appropriate syntax. For example, you may wish to create tension. One method of doing this is through using short, fragmented sentences. Alternatively, if you’re looking to portray a sense of unorganized chaos or confusion, long sentences that contain many clauses will be more beneficial.

Using English syntax to enhance your writing is not something that will come naturally to you. You will need to edit your work with the explicit intention of assessing how your sentences are constructed and what they communicate to the audience. If you think you could benefit from some help, check out our proofreading services now.

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