What Is the Role of Syntax in Literature?

Ken Black

Syntax and literature are so important and dependent upon each other that the two cannot be separated. Syntax in literature gives the sum of the words meaning in a way that simply listing words never would. Syntax influences literature in a big way, because without proper syntax literature would simply not exist, nor would many of the subtleties that academics and casual readers alike love to ponder. In looking at syntax in literature, writers can use it in numerous ways to convey different meanings and provoke certain responses.

Syntax is how words are structured and placed.
Syntax is how words are structured and placed.

In order to look at the role of syntax in literature, it is first necessary to understand exactly what syntax is. Syntax is defined as as the structure and placement of words for the purposes of creating sentences. Usually, syntax does not concern itself with the placement of punctuation, though punctuation can help the reader determine where a certain emphasis is in the sentence. Such grammatical marks can help convey even deeper meaning than syntax alone.

Syntax in literature will help the reader determine who is speaking and the overall mood the author wishes to convey.
Syntax in literature will help the reader determine who is speaking and the overall mood the author wishes to convey.

By following the rules of language, syntax in literature helps convey meaning. Wording can help the reader determine who is speaking, and the overall mood of the author wishes to convey, in a logical fashion. Readers typically expect a certain syntax flow. In some cases, such as with E. E. Cummings, syntax provided a figurative canvas for poetic expression that intentionally broke the rules of the English language in order to create a unique look and feel. Poetry is one area in which syntax often differs from its usage in other written forms.

Without proper syntax, literature would simply be a list of words that conveyed no particular meaning. Some have likened literature without syntax to words in a dictionary. While the words all mean something, they are not put together in any way that conveys a deeper sense of meaning or mood.

In most literature, syntax takes a standard form that most can recognize. Despite this standard form, the author still has a great deal of leeway in developing sentences to create moods and convey thoughts. The author may choose longer sentences or shorter sentences. He or she may use larger words that flow or shorter words that help break up the passage. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Syntax in literature, at least in most forms of literature, begins with the typical construction of subject and verb. The subject and verb must agree, or be conjugated properly. In English, this usually involves putting an "s" or "ed" at the end of the verb, or simply leaving it alone. In other languages, verb forms can be much more complex and incorporate many different ending forms. These forms, in some languages, can be used to infer what the subject is, thus replacing the need to mention the subject in all cases; consequently when literary works are translated from one language to another, one of the great challenges is choosing syntactical structures in the target language that accurately represent the precise meaning found in the original.

Without syntax, it would be very difficult to read and comprehend a work of literature.
Without syntax, it would be very difficult to read and comprehend a work of literature.

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Discussion Comments


Syntax is one of the reasons that a decent translator is really worth their weight in gold. There have been plenty of times when I've been reading a book and basically you could tell that it was translated, just because the syntax was off.

It's almost impossible to completely keep the original meaning of the words without changing the way in which something is said, but a good translator can somehow make the something beautiful with the difference. I'll read it and think, wow this author has such an interesting way of conveying information, rather than that the author just never learned how to write English fluently.


@MrsPramm - You aren't wrong, but I think there is also a place for poetry that just comes out of the gut and happens to have strange line breaks. It doesn't always have to be all neat and put together so that every single word is dripping with meaning. I honestly don't think that E. E. Cummings wrote with that intention, I think that he just had a style and let the words flow according to that style.


I think it's very important not to be arbitrary when it comes to syntax, particularly in poetry. I think a lot of people put in line breaks just because they think it makes something sound poetical without considering the layers of meaning that manipulation of syntax can achieve.

Every time you change something from what is expected it gives a little jolt of emphasis to the reader. So if you write a poem and put a line break between two relatively unimportant words for no reason, you might be weakening your message.

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