What is Syntax and Why is it Important to Understand Language?

From Akorbi:

What is syntax?

Syntax is a term used by linguists to describe a set of principles and rules that govern sentence structure and word order in a particular language. In English, the general rule of syntax follows the subject-verb-object rule. The subject refers to the person or thing (a noun) performing the action, the verb describes the action being taken, and the object (another noun) refers to what is being acted upon (if anything).

More than 85% of the world’s languages put the subject first in a sentence, making it understood who or what performs the action. Many of the rest of the languages put the verb first, followed by the subject and the object.

Syntax may also include descriptive words such as adjectives and adverbs that add descriptions to nouns and verbs. Prepositions, like “to” and “above,” communicate the direction or placement of an object or subject.

Examples of Syntax in Various Languages

Every sentence in English breaks down to “subject-verb-object” no matter how long you make it.

“John cautiously drives the red car in the snow” shortens to “John drives the car.”

Spanish follows the same basic structure, except the noun and adjective are inverted. “Juan conduce con cautela el coche rojo en la naive.” The phrase “coche rojo” means “red car” in English, but in Spanish it reads as “car red.”

However, in both sentences it’s understood that the car is red as opposed to anything else because the word “red” is adjacent to the word “car.” That’s because of syntax rules that govern Spanish and English.

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Modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs, should be close to the noun or verb that they modify in the sentence. The relationship between a modifier and its referent can be clarified with commas or punctuation to ensure the correct meaning is communicated.

“The deft driver swerved his car to the right to avoid an accident just in time.”

You could change this sentence to, “The car’s driver swerved deftly to the right just in time to avoid an accident.”

Both sentences are grammatically and syntactically correct. However, the second sentence is more clear. He swerved just in time to avoid an accident.

Turning Syntax on Its Head

Have you ever heard Yoda from Star Wars speak? He turns syntax on its head by putting the subject towards the end of the sentence instead of the beginning.

“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not.”

Ordinarily, you say to someone, “You won’t look this good when you reach 900 years old.

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