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:~: Saturday, May 05, 2007 :~:

Syntax Basics, Part 1

I apologize for posting late, but I have the flu and yesterday I was responsible for pulling off the school's annual talent show. Okay, I was responsible for the kids I delegated that task to, but still . . .

So what is syntax? Yeah, yeah, we've all heard the English student joke -- it's what the church charges sinners. Nope, sorry. Syntax, as scary as it can be to a roomful of ninth graders, is simply the arrangement of words and phrases into sentences. Sentence structure. No real biggee, right? Everyone knows how to write a sentence. My ninth graders always want to know, "Why do we have to look at this? It's just sentences."

Wrong. It's not just sentences. Syntax is an important facet of a writer's style, affecting everything from pacing to fluidity. So how do you analyze syntax, in your own work or another author's?

First, you need a piece of writing with a minimum length of fourteen sentences -- you can do more, of course, but fourteen seems to work well for showing patterns. Also, it's not an overwhelming amount of data to analyze once you're finished. (Oh, forgot to mention -- you want this to be a piece of narrative -- this doesn't work as well with dialogue, although I've seen students do it).

For my advanced comp students, I have them first analyze a favorite author's syntax before tackling their own. Some suggested authors: Stephen King ("The Last Rung on the Ladder" works well), Ray Bradbury (fantastic loose sentences), Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Toni Morrison, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates. Anyone works. If you like a particular author's style, choose a piece of her writing to analyze.

Got your piece to be analyzed? Great. Now, download the syntax chart. Fill out each section of the chart. Special features might include figurative language, passive voice, imagery, functional fragment, inverted structure -- anything that jumps out at you. Under the verbs column, list every verb in the sentence, whether it is the main verb or the verb in a subordinate clause. Count the number of words per sentence (we'll use this later). Finished? Now, look at the chart. What do you see?

Leave your answers in the comments section, and I'll be back later today to talk about Part 2 -- Using the chart to analyze your own use of syntax.



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