Why Study Grammar (Syntax Apologetics)

I’m going to skip semology for the time being because I can’t find my notes and, while I am trying to give myself a quick refresher on it, I don’t believe in chatting up anything without consulting a cheat-sheet.

Why know syntax? Isn’t grammar to a native speaker relatively easy? Perhaps –  but perhaps the English language leaves a little to be desired in casual clarity, or we couldn’t get as many jokes about the dangerous Man-Eating Chicken:

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Perhaps when it comes to writing, it was best said by an honest elephant:

“I meant what I said,

And I said what I meant.

An elephant’s faithful

One-Hundred Percent.” ~Horton the Elephant (Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss)

What does that have to do with writing? Afterall, you don’t always have reliable narrators and in certain genres, it’s more than okay to mess with readers. Writing, can mimic real life, but it isn’t the same – even if you’re going for natural non-fiction events, if you’re going on a fact-by-fact basic, there can be room for interpretation if you’re not careful. For example, if we were talking and I made a mistake in an item’s name, you’d probably know what I was talking about, especially if I was holding onto it. (I might, for example, call my puppy a “baby” because he’s a baby-dog – but that’s incorrect from a point of view of someone not there – if I say I’m holding my ‘baby’ or ‘thing’ on the phone, you have no idea what I’m talking about on the other end of the line. With short stories and novels, all your readers have to look into your world is what you tell them, so you need to be clear about what you’re getting at. If you were to call me up and ask what I’m up to, and I say, “Oh, not much, just feeding my new baby some kibble.” You might want to call child-family services on me. Of course, in real life, you’d ask questions and if we were in person, I might have enough body language to get my meaning across to you – books tend to be finished products when they get out to readers, so it’s best that you don’t have to explain what you meant way after the fact.  

I find with writing, often times, things like satire can go completely undetected if not made adamantly clear (this is referred to as Poe’s Law). I’m not suggesting you dumb down your prose and we all develop sarcasm font, but I am suggesting that when you’re going through your writing and you’re trying to improve the prose, you’re focusing on being clear about what you mean – and while I think the nature of prose is far more open to interpretation then other forms of medium – you can utilize syntax as a tool to help you keep track of your ideas, even if you’re writing a very complicated story.

Now, if you’ve seen flow-charts for syntax and are getting nervous, I’m going to say I very seldom chart things anymore, except out of my own interest when I’m reading someone else’s work. It’s effectively training wheels for me – now that I know how to ride a bike, I don’t need them any more, but when I move towards a different style of prose (or a new bike) it might not hurt to review the basics before I hop on and assume I can race.

I can’t speak for everyone, but with no false modesty, when I write, it can be a bit of a mess – in addition to being a pantser, I’m a chunkster. I have an idea for a scene, and I focus on getting it out rather than waxing lyrical. That scene might have a different outcome, become omitted, or told from another perspective entirely, but I like having scenes to work with to build up my story.  This means in addition to me probably changing voices several times to get it right, I might be facing issues with tense, perspective, and style. Once I have a rough working draft, I can acknowledge my subject matter, and go through the novel and ask myself several questions, and for me, the most important is: What function does this scene hold? That is the essence of macro-editing; when you go and make big decisions (Do I want them to live happily ever after, or for him to run off with his ex-girlfriend thus symbolizing blah blah blah…). Micro-editing is where you look at each individual sentence for clarity. So as my manuscript goes from an incoherent mess to something trying to flow in consistency, I can start to question each individual sentence on a functional level.

For me, understanding syntax is metaphoric to understanding what the story is about. Eventually, I have to look at the manuscript from what I’ve written, and start to make sense of the story. That isn’t to say that if I make an executive decision, I’m bound to it afterwords – although I can attest to falling into the trap of continuously editing a segment and never moving forward from a piece – but consider the simplicity of a sentence. Subject predicate complement. Subject (Frodo) Predicate (destroyed) Complement (the one ring). Subject (Lucy) Predicate (went through) Complement (the wardrobe). Subject (Anakin) Predicate (turned to) Complement (The Dark Side).  Of course your stories are more complicated – my apologies for these spoilers you probably already know – Frodo failed when he got to Mount Doom. Lucy’s adventures just started when she went through the wardrobe. Anakin’s story wasn’t complete when he turned to the dark side – but these very simple sentences indicate the story as a whole.

You have your subject – it can be a generic noun (a dog) or proper noun (my dog Dodger) it can be an idea (Courage) it can be a place (the lake) it can be a time (early Renaissance). Effectively, this can represent your story – you have something that is our focus. This can be a conflict – the American Civil War, that can be a subject. I’ll bold the subject in the following sentences:

Dodger ran after the ball.

Courage is fleeting when faced with adversity.

That isn’t to say that the subject always comes first in the sentence – for example, let’s take a passive sentence:

The lake is where I like to be during my holidays.

Why is the subject I rather than, the lake? Let’s rewrite that sentence into an active format:

I like to be at the lake during my holidays.

The subject is the thing the sentence is all about. I didn’t say “The lake is blue.” Or “The lake is busy with vacationing people.”  Who likes to be at the lake? I do. The sentence is about the narrator enjoying the lake during the holidays. I could have said “I don’t like to vacation at the lake.” The subject is still about what the narrator (“I”) like to, or prefer not, to do.

Now, this can get more complicated and can have multiple subjects in a sentence (Bob, Sally and their friend, a  Garden Gnome named Stu went to the store.) I’m going to go into more sentence detail next week. It is even possible to have an implied subject without it existing in the sentence, usually this exists as an extension of dialogue. (Throw it!)

Next is the predicate – this is effectively what happens, definable as the modifier of the subject. Sometimes, nothing happens – if I didn’t lose my notes on semology, you would already know that sometimes, your thing merely is on the condition of being. For example, the color blue exists – you can show me a blue crayon, but the idea of blue is something that is more than all the blue items in the universe dumped together in a blender and put on puree. Blue exists independently of all the blue in that hypothetical blender. However, for the sake of this article and trying to keep things relatively simple, let’s run with the idea that the predicate is what acts on the subject – that something occurs. Subject ran. Subject was destroyed. Subject is getting bored with examples of predicates. As you can probably guess, your predicates are almost always verbs, and like subjects, there can be multiples (Sally sighed and tapped her foot before she left the store.) but let’s keep things simple for this week.  

Finally we take the complement – this, tying in with the predicate, sometimes is implied. The smallest complete sentence in the English language is “I am.” No complement, but it is unnecessary. Complement is the result of the action. Subject predicate conclusion. This could be “My dog ran to my friend’s dog.” Or “The renaissance was a time of great learning.”

Now, those of you who have already studied syntax know that my “Time of great learning” can be dissected further – so you’ll have to tune in next week when I start to use terms such as adverbs, preposition and adjuncts, and I’ll start to dissect the work from some of my fellow Worlds of the Imagination Writers.  In the meantime, you can learn more about syntax here. 

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why Study Grammar (Syntax Apologetics)

  1. A good topic! I love the reference link you left.
    🙂

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