10 Varieties of Syntax to Improve Your Writing

By Mark Nichol

English is a remarkably flexible language in terms of syntax, because a simple statement can be rendered in so many ways. Take, for example, the statement “I went for a walk,” and consider all the ways you can attach the additional information included in the statement, “I saw a dinosaur.” Here are just some of the most basic of many variations in syntactical organization:

1. Write the statements as consecutive sentences: “I went for a walk. I saw a dinosaur.”

2. Add the second statement to the first as a dependent clause: “I went for a walk and saw a dinosaur.” (The second statement does not stand on its own.)

3. Add the second statement to the first as an independent clause: “I went for a walk, and I saw a dinosaur.” (The second statement stands on its own, which means it can be separated into two sentences, as in the first example.)

4. Begin the sentence with a dependent marker that turns the initial statement into a modifying phrase that expands on the second statement: “While I was walking, I saw a dinosaur.”

5. Begin with the second statement and reword the first statement as a modifying phrase that follows it: “I saw a dinosaur on my walk this morning.”

6. Insert a nonessential phrase, which must be bracketed by commas, one of two ways: Locate the phrase between a pair of independent clauses (but after the coordinating conjunction), each consisting of one of the two statements: “I went for a walk and, to my surprise, I saw a dinosaur.” (Notice that “to my surprise,” which can be omitted without altering the sentence’s meaning, modifies the second statement and so must follow and; note, too, that the comma preceding the coordinating conjunction can be omitted.)

Or, separate two statements with a nonessential phrase inserted before the coordinating conjunction: “I went for a walk, following my usual route, and I saw a dinosaur.” (Notice that “following my usual route,” which also does not alter the sentence’s meaning if it is omitted, modifies the first statement and so must precede and.)

7. Emphasize a nonessential phrase by bracketing it with em dashes to indicate an interruption of thought: “I went for a walk and — no, I was not hallucinating — I saw a dinosaur.” (Alternatively, to deemphasize the phrase, or for humorous effect, enclose it in parentheses.)

8. Insert an essential clause — one whose absence would alter the meaning the sentence — between two statements: “I went for a walk that followed my usual route and saw a dinosaur.”

9. Attach a variation of the second statement to the first, preceded by a semicolon when the second statement is an independent clause that is nevertheless closely associated with the first one: “I went for a walk; a dinosaur was grazing along my route.”

10. Separate two statements with a semicolon when the second statement is preceded by an adverb or an adverbial phrase, which requires a subsequent comma: “I went for a walk; unexpectedly, I saw a dinosaur along the way.”

It is this rich variety of word and phrase order and variation in punctuation that makes prose — fiction or nonfiction — readable. As you review your writing, make sure that you vary sentence structure among these and other constructions to create a pleasant reading experience devoid of lockstep syntax — questionable enough for a Dick-and-Jane reading level, and deadly for more sophisticated readers.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


15 Responses to “10 Varieties of Syntax to Improve Your Writing”

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    I think it’s the use of a number of these syntactic methods that helps bring your writing alive. If you look at your favourite authors, you’ll also see that different styles produce different effects at various points in a story.
    I once tried to read The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy and had to give up. For some reason, in that book, he chose to use a style that I felt, used predominantly the first style (No 1 above) you described, which made the book unreadable for me. Yet, for others, it’s a classic.

  • Jason

    These are all tricks I’ve learned over the last five years of writing a PhD thesis and they’re a great way to help people (like thesis advisors) who’ve made a commitment to reading upwards of 15,000 words in a sitting. Great post.

    Also, one of the worst writing habits I had coming into the thesis ordeal was writing sentences with so many dependent clauses they were practically impenetrable; tips 9 & 10 is a great way to wrestle such habits under control. Semicolons can be great for picking up extraneous clauses and coordinating the rest in a much smoother, more accessible way.

  • U. NARAYANADAS

    You have mentioned a ‘semicolon’ in examples 9 & 10. Can a colon be used instead?

  • Swamykant

    I loved the sixth point. Nice article 🙂

  • Wilma Acree

    Re #2: “And saw a dinosaur” is not a clause. A clause contains a subject and a verb. “I went for a walk and saw a dinosaur” is a simple sentence with a compound predicate (verb plus completer).

  • Ken K

    Good post.

  • Bob Kaplan

    Regarding #9, I’d always heard that semicolons should only be used to separate two sentences that have the same subject. Is this no longer a rule?

  • Kate Frishman

    It would be fun to use this article as the basis for a self-edit. While it certainly doesn’t make sense to alter the sentence structure arbitrarily, writing that sounds “dead” could be livened up easily this way.

  • Mark Nichol

    U:

    One function of a colon is to signal an explanation or expansion. But the sighting of a dinosaur on one’s walk is a subsequent, subordinate event as a result of going on the walk, not an explanation of the walk. If you wrote, “I went on a walk, because I wanted to see a dinosaur,” however, you could revise it to “I went on a walk: I wanted to see a dinosaur,” because “I wanted to see a dinosaur” explains the purpose of the walk.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bob:

    I’ve never heard of a semicolon being limited to this function. This post describes the uses of the semicolon.

  • shirley in berkeley

    ……or add a little drama: “If I had not gone for a walk that morning, I would never have seen the dinosaur.” The possibilities are endless.

  • Craig

    Thank you for this useful post.

    I recently began taking my writing technique more seriously, and this post addressed one of my struggles. I’m getting bogged down in my head with all of the syntactic (is that the right form?) options available. I wasn’t aware of what my brain was attempting.

    Perhaps, now that I’m cognizant of what it is I’m trying to do, I won’t get so frustrated.

    I suppose this information is rudimentary, and those who write well may find my predicament silly. But it’s been difficult for me, and if anyone has any advice on breaking through it, I’m willing to listen.

  • rajey

    its a nice thing for the people like me ,who want to improve our speaking as well as writing.

  • rajey

    actually I was in search of the right place from where I can get the perfect guidance for language improvement , I think now I got the perfect place

  • Rajey

    thanks a lot.

Leave a comment: