Syntax refers to sentence structure or how the words and phrases are assembled into a sentence. Essentially, syntax is the rules or mechanics of language. Syntax deals with the relation that words have with one another in a sentence and making sure those words fit. The purpose of syntax is to clearly convey the writer’s thoughts.
Think of a jigsaw puzzle. Suppose that you’re down to the last piece of the puzzle, but it just won’t fit right! So, you jam it in forcefully then stand back and say you’re finished. When you look at it, the result is just not right. That’s poor syntax for your puzzle.
Consider these examples:
- Laura gave a letter to the mailman.
- To the mailman a letter Laura gave.
The first sentence has good syntax and is clear. The second has poor syntax. It’s understandable, but it’s cumbersome.
Some syntax notes [examples in brackets] include the following:
- Basic sentence structure includes a noun, verb, and object, usually in that order. [Susan kicked the ball.]
- An exclamation normally has the verb first. [Follow that cab!]
- Words must agree in their person, number, gender, case, mood, tense, and form. [The three of us is going to the movies. (three is plural yet is is singular); If one goes tonight, you’ll be out late. (one is in third person but you’ll is second person); “I went to the movie last week and I enjoy it. (went is past tense but enjoy is present tense)]
A common SAT or ACT question deals with agreement. Certain words in sentences are linked together and therefore need to agree in their format. The subject and the verb must agree, or the pronoun and antecedent must agree.
Agreement between subject and verb
A common mistake, and common test question, occurs between the subject and verb and centers on disagreement over singularity and plurality. Here, one word is in the singular but its link is plural. Simply put, if the subject is singular, the verb must be also. If the subject is plural, the verb must be also. Here is a general rule for making sure the subject and verb agree—nouns ending in s are plural, verbs ending in s are usually singular. A red-flag to look for would be two s’s, one on the subject and one on the verb. This is normally a no-no and shows disagreement. Also, having no s’s could likely show disagreement.
- Dogs runs. (Notice the two s’s. Dogs—subject is plural; runs—verb is singular)
- He play baseball. (Notice no s’s. He—subject is singular; play—verb is plural)
- Canoes tips over easily. (Canoes—subject is plural; tips—verb is singular)
- Dogs run. (Notice only one s for each example.)
- He plays baseball.
- Canoes tip over easily.
Agreement between pronouns and verbs
Just as the subject must agree with the verb, a pronoun (which replaces a verb) must likewise agree with the verb.
- They runs. (They—subject is a plural pronoun; runs—verb is singular)
- They tips over easily. (They—subject is a plural pronoun; tips—verb is singular)
- They run.
- They tip over easily.
The examples above shouldn’t seem difficult—they aren’t. But, there are a few tricky pronouns where the question of whether it’s in the singular or plural form may not be readily clear. For instance, consider the sentence: Everyone attends the game. The pronoun everyone is the subject, but is everyone singular or is it plural?
From this list, we can see that everyone is singular. Once we know that, simply make sure that the verb is also in the singular so that the subject and verb agree.
Compound subjects (and singular subject that look compound)
Compound subjects have two (or more) persons or things. Compound subjects joined by "and" are plural.
- My cat and dog are buddies. (The subject is cat and dog and it’s plural. Therefore the verb, are, is also in the plural form.)
Sometimes a compound subject joined by and refers to only one thing. In this case, the subject is singular.
- Biscuits and gravy is my favorite. (The subject is biscuits and gravy. It’s singular because biscuits and gravy is thought to be one thing. Therefore the verb is is also singular.)
When singular subjects are joined by or or nor, are singular.
- Either the courier or intern delivers the letters. (The subject courier or intern is singular. Therefore the verb delivers is in the singular form.)
- Neither weather nor traffic is a factor. (subject—weather nor traffic is singular; verb—is is also singular)
Sentence Improvement is one of the core categories of questions of the SAT Writing Section; it’s critical on the ACT as well. Sentences can be thought of as skyscrapers. They start with the foundation, then build themselves up. Looking only at the very top won’t tell us about the basic structure. Therefore, to improve sentences, it’s necessary to review them from the ground up.
It was stated earlier that there must be a subject and predicate (a noun and a verb) to make a complete sentence. For example, the shortest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, in both words and letters, is, “I am.” “I” is the noun/subject and “am” is the predicate/verb.
To locate the subject in the sentence, find the verb first. Then ask, “Who or what is in connection with the verb?” That’ll be the subject. For example: One of the students helped clean up. The verb is clean, and who was cleaning? It wasn’t the students, but one of the students. One is the subject.
Sometimes the subject is not stated in the sentence, it is just understood. This usually occurs in a request or command. Such as, “Walk over here.” Walk is the verb, but who is walking? It’s understood that the person being spoken to is the subject, as if to say, “You walk over here,” or, “Tom, walk over here.” In this sense, we said earlier that, “I am” is the shortest English sentence. Really, an even shorter sentence would be, “Go.” Go is the verb and the person spoken to is the subject.
Most sentences go beyond just a subject and a predicate. That is to say, most sentences are more complex than one such as, “Milk spoils.” Sometimes a sentence will have a subject and a verb, yet it still will not express a complete thought. Consider, “The tree looks.” It has both a subject and predicate, but it’s not a sentence. A complement completes the meaning started by the subject and/or verb, and therefore completes the sentence. I.e., “The tree looks healthy.” The word healthy is a complement. It completes the sentence by conveying a complete thought – a sentence requirement.
Complements can be broken down further, but that’s likely beyond the scope of this exam prep book. Let it suffice to say that a sentence must have subject, predicate, and convey a complete thought.
Direct and Indirect Objects
These are also basic elements of sentences. A direct object receives the action of the verb or shows the result. It answers the question, “What?” or “Whom?” An indirect object is a noun or pronoun that precedes the direct object and usually answers, “To whom?” (or “to what?” or “for what?”). Direct and indirect objects are never in a prepositional phrase.
Consider the sentence above, “Laura gave a letter to the mailman.” Find the verb and subject. The verb (V) is “gave.” Ask yourself, “What’s receiving the action of the verb?” Or, “What is actually being given or handed?” A “letter” is being given. “Letter” is the direct object (DO). For an indirect object, you may ask, “To whom?” and answer “the mailman.” True, except remember, direct and indirect objects are never in a prepositional phrase. Since “to the mailman” is a prepositional phrase, there is no indirect object.
If the sentence had been worded as, “Laura gave the mailman a letter,” then the breakdown would’ve been: V=gave, S=Laura, DO=letter, and IO=mailman. There now is a direct object (mailman) because (1) it answers the question, “To whom?”, (2) it precedes the direct object and (3) it’s not in a prepositional phrase.
Another practice sentence might be: “The alumni awarded the essay winner five hundred dollars.” V=awarded, S=alumni, DO=dollars, IO=winner