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The secrets of syntax (Part 1)

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 2, 2009, page 16)

"In the beginning was the word. But by the time the second word was added to it, there was trouble. For with it came syntax . . ."
John Simon, Paradigms Lost

Syntax, says the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.), is "the order of words in which they convey meaning collectively by their connection and relation." Or, in simpler terms, word order in a sentence.

But is syntax truly order . . . or disorder? At the root of the "trouble" that John Simon warns of is the fact that English syntax is an impressively mobile thing. Ask any poor soul who’s trying to learn the language. There’s a standard word order, yes, but then come the variations, and there are lots of them.

Subject, verb, object

If you were lucky (though it probably seemed less than lucky at the time), you had standard English syntax drilled into you from a young age. For many, "subject, verb, object" is a childhood mantra right up there with "two plus two is four," "rock, paper, scissors" and "eat your vegetables." Standard syntax looks like this:

You (S) have broken (V) [my heart. (O)]

This word order is like an old sweater: familiar, comfortable, easy to slip into when there’s no reason to get fancy. And standard syntax is practical: the more complex the content of a sentence, the better off you are sticking to the dependable word order. But becoming aware of the different sentence patterns out there will only make you more versatile. It will help you tailor your style to different content and readers and produce prose that’s fresh, crisp and attention-getting.

Inversion

Inversion is the technique of placing the usual elements of a sentence (subject, verb, object) in an unusual order. The result is a shift in emphasis.

[My heart (O)] you (S) have broken (V).

This inverted sentence emphasizes the writer’s heart in a way the original didn’t, so much so that we almost expect "heart" to be contrasted with something else.

My heart you have broken; my resolve you have cemented.

Inverting a sentence is a great way to draw readers into something intriguing or unexpected.

On the hill above us, a mile away, stands a white walltent and a little below it four small bivouac tents: Bear Camp. (Edward Abbey)

In the bread pan on the counter sat a fat white cat.

Inversion is one of the simplest ways to vary syntax, but also one of the most dramatic, so it’s best reserved for material that can handle some extra flair: literary, creative, dramatic or promotional documents, or material that’s read for entertainment as much as for content.

Passive voice

Passive voice is a little like inversion. The object of the sentence (the receiver of the action), which usually ends a sentence, begins it instead, and the subject (the doer of the action) switches to last place or disappears entirely.

[My heart (receiver)] has been broken by you (doer). OR

[My heart (receiver)] has been broken.

Passive voice is more an inversion of meaning than a true inversion of syntax. That’s because the grammatical subject of the sentence ("heart") is still at the beginning of the sentence and is still followed by the verb. In other words, standard word order prevails. Yet the emphasis and the "feel" of the sentence are different because the receiver of the action is parked up front.

Long the pariah of syntax, passive voice can actually hold its own, and sometimes even shine, in the right situation. For example, passive voice can’t be beat when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action rather than the doer, or when the doer is unknown or unspecified.

The fire at the school was started sometime between midnight and 4:00 a.m.

Money will be raised to repair the damaged classrooms and to replace the grammar texts that were apparently used as fuel.

Separation of subject and verb

A subject and its verb are usually an inseparable pair, but a little distance between them now and again can add a spark to their connection. Inserting details between the subject and its verb, as a kind of interruption, emphasizes the subject and builds anticipation as the reader waits patiently for the verb.

You (S), [love of my life, moon in my heaven,] have broken (V) my heart.

English clockmaker John Harrison (S), [a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision timekeeping,] devoted (V) his life to this quest. (Dava Sobel)

A word of caution: separation is best for shortish sentences and content that’s easy to understand. If your sentence is long or the material complex, keep the subject and verb together so that the main meaning emerges quickly and the ideas are easy to follow.

Undesirable separation
A new factory (S) to produce chemicals for the OPAS system, which enables large manufacturers of business forms to make carbonless copy paper as part of their own manufacturing process, began to operate (V) late last year.

Subject and verb reunited
Late last year, a new factory (S) began producing (V) chemicals for the OPAS system, which enables large manufacturers of business forms to make carbonless copy paper as part of their own manufacturing process.

Isolation

Separating a subject from its verb, as we’ve seen, tends to highlight the subject by setting it apart. Isolating any word or phrase (not just the subject) by setting it apart from the rest of the sentence is a syntactic technique that captures readers’ attention. Isolation is most common, and usually most effective, at the beginning or end of a sentence.

My heart: you warmed it, you coddled it, you broke it like an egg.

Ruben said something in a hurried whisper, made rather an impressive gesture over his head with one arm, and, to say it as gently as possible, died. (Katherine Anne Porter)

Ellipsis

Another way to create emphasis, not to mention distinctive rhythm, is to leave out a word or phrase that’s necessary to the grammar of a sentence but not its sense. Ellipsis, as this technique is known, often involves omitting a verb.

My heart is broken, my future destroyed.

To which charge the other party in the doomed relationship might respond:

To err is human, to forgive divine. (Alexander Pope)

Which might lead to sentences about broken crockery or heirlooms . . . but that’s another article.