Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. While it’s certainly possible to use English effectively without understanding the rules of syntax or parts of speech, it is much easier to understand how to craft beautiful sentences once you understand how the parts relate to each other. A simple way to remember syntax is to think of the pieces like parts of a play!
Syntax as a Play
Subjects = Actors
Verbs = Action & Dialogue
Objects = Props
Adjectives = Costumes
Adverbs = The Stage & Setting
Prepositions = Stage Directions
The white goose sheltered her gosling under her wing.
Actor = goose
Action = sheltered
Prop = gosling
Costumes = the, white, her
Stage Direction = under
Stage= (under) her wing
As you can see, the elements of syntax can refer to single words or groups of words. For our purposes, the individual parts of speech of each word matter less than their function in terms of syntax.
It is also possible for an entire clause to play one of these roles as well! When this happens, it will be marked by a dependent clause marker.
When I arrived at the beginning of class
Actor = I
Action = arrived
Prop = N/A
Costumes = N/A
Stage/Direction = at the beginning of class
As a dependent clause, this must function as actor, prop, costume, or stage within a larger clause. The choice of dependent clause marker will tell you which role it is playing. Here, it’s an adverb because it tells us about the time setting of the actors/action:
The professor had already started her lecture when I arrived at the beginning of class.
And just like in a play, things must appear on stage in their proper order. Think of it this way: actors only appear on stage after they’ve put on their costumes, and we only really pay attention to props or setting when actors interact with them on stage. Sentences are the same way.
In English, almost all parts of speech in a typical sentence interact with the word to their right. →
white → goose → sheltered → her → gosling
Adjectives, however, also have something called “Adjective Order,” which determines the natural order of categories of adjectives. Certain categories of information are placed closer or further away from the noun they modify.
Big brown cow ≠ Brown big cow
Adverbs and Adverb Phrases
Most adverbs, unlike the other parts of speech, interact with the word or words to their left.
sheltered ← under her wing
When placed in this order, there is no need to separate any of the parts of the sentence from each other. Their placement in the sentence conveys all the necessary information. However, if we move any of the parts to another spot in the sentence, we start needing punctuation.
Under her wing, the white goose sheltered her gosling.
We place the comma after the adverb phrase to indicate that the information there does not describe the goose but her action (sheltering her gosling).
When I arrived at the beginning of class, the professor had already started her lecture.
In the original form of that sentence, we only noticed the stage (the time of my arrival) after we saw the professor begin her lecture. In that case, the scene was seamless. Now, however, we notice the stage and then have to wait for the action to begin.
This same principle is why transition words and phrases are so powerful. All transitions are adverbs and, like all adverbs, they connect to something that came before.
I normally do not like cheese. I really like brie however.
I normally do not like cheese. However, I really like brie.
With a clear understanding of these principles, you can create a wide variety of sentence structures in English. There are certainly more principles governing English punctuation, but this system will help resolve the majority of punctuation errors made by undergraduate students.
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