What Is Syntax in English? – Definition, Rules & Examples

Photo of author

Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Syntax isn’t just some techy term your coder friend tosses around. It’s a set of principles that guides how we construct sentences in any language. Syntax helps us convey meaning, maintain clarity, and manage the musicality of our words to create grammatical sentences. So, sit tight as I explain the meaning of syntax and show you just how important it really is.

What Is a Simple Definition of Syntax?

What Is Syntax Definition Rules List of Examples

Basically, syntax is the branch of linguistics that focuses on arranging words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. It’s the rules of the road for language construction.

It helps us make sense of things like compound sentences, dependent clauses, compound-complex sentences and more.

Without syntax, our language would be nothing but a chaotic, incoherent mess. Just think of it as the glue that binds words together into coherent, meaningful sentences.

What Are the 4 Types of Syntax?

There are four types of syntax in English: declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory. Let’s break them down with some examples.

  • Declarative syntax: This is just your run-of-the-mill statement. “The cat is on the mat,” he said with absolutely no dramatic flair.
  • Interrogative syntax: This is where things get interrogative, inquisitive or downright nosy. “Is the cat on the mat?” you might ask with a note of intrigue.
  • Imperative syntax: Here, we go into command mode. “Put the cat on the mat,” you might demand, asserting your authority.
  • Exclamatory syntax: This is where sentences get emotional. “What a beautiful cat on the mat!” you’d exclaim, filled with admiration.

What Is the Rule of Syntax?

Syntax rules dictate how sentences should be constructed to ensure clarity and avoid ambiguity. The most basic rule is that a sentence must have at least a subject and a verb and should express a complete thought.

But syntax isn’t just about simple sentences. It also governs more complex structures, like “While I enjoy reading mystery novels, my brother prefers sci-fi books,” where a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses.

Syntax rules can also dictate word order. In English, the basic structure is subject-verb-object (SVO). So, “I love pizza” is syntactically correct, but “Pizza love I” is not. Unless you’re channeling Yoda, stick to the subject-verb-object pattern.

An Example of Syntax in Language

Consider these sentences: “The cat chased the mouse” and “The mouse chased the cat.” The same words are used here, but changing the syntax (word order) completely alters the meaning. This is syntax in action, determining the roles of “cat” and “mouse” in these scenarios.

Using English Syntax Sentence Structure

Let’s play a little game of Spot the Syntax Error and Fix the Syntax Error. Here are some sentences with poor syntax, and then rewritten with the rules of syntax applied. Take a look and see just how syntax comes into play to correct these statements.

  • Poor syntax: “Store I to went the.”
  • Correct syntax: “I went to the store.”
  • Poor syntax: “Books loves she reading.”
  • Correct syntax: “She loves reading books.”
  • Poor syntax: “Running is he fast very.”
  • Correct syntax: “He is running very fast.”

As you can see, correct syntax helps ensure clarity, aids understanding, and makes your sentences sound a lot less like a malfunctioning robot is speaking them.

Syntax vs. Diction: What’s the Difference?

Before we delve further into syntax, let’s first clear up any confusion between syntax and another language concept: diction. Both play key roles in expressing ourselves, but they perform different functions.

As I’ve already explained, think of syntax as how you arrange certain words and phrases to create well-structured sentences. It gives the rules and structure that make any language intelligible.

Look at this sentence: “I’m feeling rather peckish.” The syntax is the order of the words that make the sentence, well, make sense. If you arrange these words in any other way, the statement would be incoherent.

Then there’s diction. This is just the choice of words you use, and it’s all about intent and tone. Choosing to say “I’m famished” instead of “I’m feeling rather peckish” is all a matter of diction.

With its British slang and polite understatement, the latter has a different tone and conveys a different mood than the straightforward, somewhat dramatic former, even though both statements share the same message of being hungry.

Understanding Syntax Patterns

When you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a rhythm and common pattern to syntax that can change the meaning and overall tone of your sentences when writing.

  1. Subject + Verb: This is actually the most basic syntax pattern. It includes a subject (the doer of the action) followed by a verb (the action itself). “Cats purr.”
  2. Subject + Verb + Direct Object: This is when a direct object (the receiver of the action) is added. Example: “I love pizza.”
  3. Subject + Verb + Subject Complement: Here, a subject complement, which renames or describes the subject, is used. “Our neighbor is a doctor.”
  4. Subject + Verb + Adverbial Complement: Here, the pattern adds an adverbial complement that’s necessary to finish the sentence’s meaning. “She looks tired.”
  5. Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object: With this one, the verb has two objects. The indirect object comes first and is then followed by the direct object. “She gave him a gift.”
  6. Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Object Complement: In this pattern, an object complement is added to rename or describe the direct object. “We elected him president.”
  7. Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Adverbial Complement: This pattern adds an adverbial complement, which provides more information about where, when, how, why, or to what extent the action happened to a direct object. “She placed the books on the table.”

Syntax in Sentences

Grammarist Article Graphic V9 1200 PX 5

When you understand these syntax patterns, you can better recognize and use different types of sentence structures like these ones.

  • Compound sentences: When you have two or more independent clauses. “I love puppies, and I also like kittens.”
  • Complex sentences: Combining one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. The dependent clause won’t stand on its own. “Because my coffee was too hot, I couldn’t drink it.”
  • Compound-complex sentences: You’ll find at least two independent clauses and usually one dependent clause. “I want to work in a bakery, but I’m allergic to wheat, so I can’t.”
  • Loose or cumulative sentences: This is where the main point or independent clause comes first and is followed by dependent grammatical units. “I went to the park today, enjoying an ice cream and sunshine.”
  • Periodic sentences: The main point isn’t clear until you get to the end of the sentence. “Despite the horrible weather and heavy traffic, I still arrived on time.”
  • Balanced sentences: You’ll need two parts that are about the same length. “Buy a box of cookies and have a ton of fun.”
  • Parallel sentences: These use parallel structure, so the phrases or clauses should follow the same grammatical makeup. “Jane loves cooking, writing, and reading.”

Syntax Definition Explained 

Syntax is much more than a dry, academic term — it’s a set of rules that bring order to the chaos of language, guide how we construct sentences, and help us express a dazzling array of thoughts, ideas and emotions.

Whether you’re penning a novel or shooting off a quick text, remember that syntax is your trusty guide to clear and effective communication. Without syntax, our words would mean nothing!