Monday, October 26, 2009

Guest Post: Syntax Part 1 with Brittany Laneaux

Good morning all. Today Brittany Laneaux (an amazing freelance editor) is our guest and she has written some helpful notes for us about syntax. You can also check out Brittany's new blog on which she will write posts every Monday to help us with the craft of writing. Also, don't forget that the contest ends tomorrow at 3:02 p.m. CST. Enter now for your chance to win a cool prize.

Syntax Part One
Syntax is far from just a grammatical term, but people have a difficult time seeing what significance it has in their writing or even how much it can affect meaning in their writing. True masters of the language have learned to manipulate syntax in such a way that it not only shows the meaning behind your writing, but it can even be physically illustrated in your sentences.

Let’s start at the beginning: Syntax is simply sentence structure. Now bear with me if this is too elementary, but we all have to start somewhere. A simple sentence is exactly what it is called…simple. Phrases (prepositional, participial, infinitive, etc…) are added to your simple sentence to include details and to make the sentence more interesting. Syntax is the way you write these phrases and where you choose to place them.

For example, I am going to break down a sentence from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

Sentence: But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away.
Simple sentence: George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand.
Phrase (Type, just for those of you wondering, Adjective Prepositional): that had thrown the gun away

Where this phrase is placed changes the meaning of the sentence and, therefore, makes certain implications when considering the meaning of the overall story. In this case the phrase is used as an adjective to modify the word “hand” suggesting that it was the “hand” that was responsible for whatever was done with the gun. George, to whom the hand belonged, was not responsible for his own actions.

However, if the sentence was written “George, who had thrown the gun away, sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand,” the sentence would vilify George, not the hand. It would suggest that George knew what he was doing and was conscious of his actions. Written this way, the sentence also conveys a sense of regret or disbelief.

Where you choose to place phrases plays a part in what the sentence is actually saying, so be aware and be creative. Don’t be afraid to play with your sentence, moving things around to create different meanings and emphasis.

I’ll leave you something to chew on…

Here is a great example sentence from “Snow” by Julia Alvarez where she plays with phrases.

Simple Sentence: We rented a small apartment.

Sentence with phrases: “Our first year in New York we rented a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look peculiar, like dolls in mourning.”

Regina here. Thank you Brittany for your post. Visit her blog.  
photo: smoorenburg


  1. Thanks for this, Regina and Brittany! Always good to keep in mind.

  2. Wes- You concern me.

    L.T. Host- Thank you. I know I constantly need to be reminded of old stuff & learn new things.

  3. Regina & Brittany- thanks for an insightful post. The elementary portion was written just for me.

    Thanks ladies, I am headed to look at Brittany's blog.

    Happy writing!

  4. Tamika- thank you. It was written for me too! I often get caught up on elementary phrases, like, "what does that mean again?"

  5. Thanks to both of you! Great post, and so helpful.

  6. On my way over to check out Brittany's blog. Thank you, Regina, for featuring her as your guest! (LOVING the new name, btw!)

  7. Beth- thank you & I appreciate the comment on the name; I was nervous about choosing a new one, but I really wanted something that fit me more.

  8. I like this post! My head is swirling with all the things I have to rememeber once my draft is done and I go back to edit.

  9. I'm thankful for my editor and proof reader, without whom I would have a diamond in the rough and not a polished gem.

    Stephen Tremp

  10. Well done Brittany! Thank you too Regina. =)

  11. This is simple but important and often overlooked. Great post.