April 25, 2016

Mini Lesson: Syntax Matters

Why does your editor nitpick where in a sentence you put each word? Because in English, syntax—the order in which words are put together to form phrases & clauses (sentences)—affects meaning.

Syntax wasn't quite as important in Latin, for example, where there was more fluidity in word placement because of the complicated structure of conjugation and declension—word endings helped convey precise meaning. But in English, moving a word around in a sentence can drastically change the meaning, or make a phrase entirely nonsensical.

In other words: syntax matters.

Let's take a look at an example of a lyric taken from the song "Payphone" by Maroon 5:
      "Even the sun sets in paradise.(Emphasis mine.)
Because this lyric says even the sun sets, it means that in paradise, everything sets—including the sun. Now, given the rest of the lyrics and the general idea of the song, we know that the intended meaning was to say "all good things come to an end." In other words, the sun sets everywhere, including in paradise. So this lyric should read:
      "The sun sets even in paradise."
By moving the word even, we can drastically change the meaning of the other five words. And by misplacing it, the lyrics imply almost the exact opposite of their intended meaning.

For another example, let's look at a great sentence that's been making the rounds online:
      She told him that she loved him.
Now, place the word only somewhere in the sentence. Got it? Now move it somewhere else. Did you see how the meaning changed?

In fact, by adding the word only, we can get 7 different meanings from the same words:
  1. Only she told him that she loved him.
  2. She only told him that she loved him.
  3. She told only him that she loved him.
  4. She told him only that she loved him.
  5. She told him that only she loved him.
  6. She told him that she only loved him.
  7. She told him that she loved only him.
Notice how, when reading, you automatically stress different words based on the placement of just that one. Because (say it with me): syntax matters. You don't want to end up with sentence #7 when you mean sentence #2.

So if you're going to be lax with syntax—e.g. to play with the speech mannerisms of your characters—be aware of how moving those words around will affect your meaning. And if you do want to break the rules, make sure you have a good reason to do so.

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