10 Varieties of Syntax to Improve Your Writing
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.
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