Syntax is a set of rules in a language. It dictates how words from different parts of speech are put together in order to convey a complete thought.
Syntax and Diction
Syntax and diction are closely related. Diction refers to the choice of words in a particular situation while syntax determines how the chosen words are used to form a sentence. Most often than not, adopting a complex diction means a complex syntactic structure of sentences and vice versa. In combination, syntax and diction help writers develop tone, mood and atmosphere in a text along with evoking interest of the readers.
Syntax in Poetry
The general word order of an English sentence is “Subject+Verb+Object”. In poetry, however, the word order may be shifted to achieve certain artistic effects such as producing rhythm or melody in the lines, achieving emphasis, heightening connection between two words etc. The unique syntax used in poetry makes it different from prose. Let us consider the following examples of syntax:
In casual conversations, we can simply say, “I cannot go out” to convey our inability to go out. P J Kavanagh’s in his poem Beyond Decoration does not rely on merely stating a prosaic “I cannot go out”. Rather, he shifts the syntax and says “Go out I cannot”, which lays a much stronger emphasis on the inability to go out conveyed by the word “cannot”.
Similarly, Milton shifts words in his poems frequently. Let us analyze lines from his poem Lycidas:
“Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn”
The modified word order in the above lines is Object+Subject+Subject Complement+Verb.
Syntax in Prose
Syntax affects the nature of a prose text as well. It enhances its meanings and contributes toward its tone. Quickness, decisiveness and speed are added to a text by using short phrase, clauses and sentences. Whereas, in a text where the subject matter is serious that requires contemplation, long, convoluted sentence are used to slow down the pace of a prose text.
“That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved.”
(The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan)
“They left me alone and I lay in bed and read the papers awhile, the news from the front, and the list of dead officers with their decorations and then reached down and brought up the bottle of Cinzano and held it straight up on my stomach, the cool glass against my stomach, and took little drinks making rings on my stomach from holding the bottle there between drinks, and watched it get dark outside over the roofs of the town.”
(A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway)
The two syntax examples above show a distinct use of syntax. Amy Tan uses short sentences to communicate in a powerful and concise manner. Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, uses long and complex structures to emphasize the laziness of his character.
Syntax in Shakespeare
Writing all of his plays and sonnets in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare habitually reversed the general order of English sentences by placing verbs at the end of the sentences.
In Romeo and Juliet, he writes,
“What light from yonder window breaks?” instead of using a common expression “What light breaks from yonder window?”
In Richard III, he deliberately reverses the word order of a sentence,
“and all the clouds that lowered upon our house buried in the deep bosom of the ocean.” into “And all the clouds that lower’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
Function of Syntax
To convey meaning is one of the main functions of syntax. In literature, writers utilize syntax and diction to achieve certain artistic effects like mood, tone etc. Like diction, syntax aims to affect the readers as well as express the writer’s attitude.