The Writing Rope: Syntax

Syntax is one of the five strands of Joan Sedita’s Writing Rope. Syntax is a grammar skill, and an important one. It helps us know the order in which words go in a sentence. It also helps us to understand the literal (and often non-literal) meaning of what we hear and read. Syntax helps us make meaning of words and how they are used.

Syntax Rules

Many of us may not be consciously aware of the rules of English syntax. They are the conventions that dictate what “correct“ communication looks and sounds like. Other languages have different syntax, which explains why learning a new language is difficult and goes beyond translating isolated words. Because English syntax is quite different from most other languages, it can be one of the harder languages to learn for non-native speakers.

Here are a few examples of English syntax rules:

  • Sentences should follow a subject-verb-object sequence in order to sound most natural

  • Independent clauses and dependent clauses both require a subject and a verb, but independent clauses contain a complete thought, while dependent clauses don’t

  • Avoid run-on sentences by giving each new idea its own sentence

Some rules of syntax are relatively simple, while others are more complicated. Teaching students parts of speech and their order within sentences is usually straightforward. Teaching students to effectively compose different types of clauses can take a lot of time and effort.

One of the most confusing aspects of syntax rules is that authors break them. While teachers generally don’t make a point of teaching this in foundational writing classes, authors can and do take liberties with the rules of syntax. For example, it is very common to find single word sentences in novels. While these sentences are usually not syntactically correct, it is a technique many authors use in their writing to have a specific effect. Any student (or English language learner) who comes across this technique may find it confusing when trying to learn English language conventions.

Syntactic Awareness

Syntactic awareness is the ability to understand the relationship between words and how their order affects their meaning. It applies to the processes of reading, writing and oral communication. It is important in developing and strengthening skills in all three areas. Children most commonly develop syntactic awareness through exposure to written and spoken language as early as birth. It is later reinforced through explicit instruction in how language is structured.

Exercises That Build Syntactic Awareness

  • Sentence anagrams – These are sentences with scrambled words. Students must use their knowledge of syntax to put the words in the correct order.

  • Matching questions with their answers – When given a question, students match the answer that best fits with the question. For example, a “who” question will have an answer containing a person or group.

  • Sentence elaboration – Students are given a simple sentence and expand upon it by adding adjectives, adverbs, clauses, and anything that makes the sentence more robust and detailed.

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