Syntax: School House Review

Upon rechecking my references, I was curious to find that many schools of thought on the subject of grammar and syntax simply have their subject, and the rest of the sentence stands to modify it, therefore, a complement is oftentimes irrelevant. I was taught complements exist or are implied, but keep in mind that there are numerous schools of thought on the matter.  Because this is more or less a lesson for writing rather than the study of language, I’ll keep things the way I was taught for my stylistics class, but I will simplify.

While the existence of lawyers proves that clauses are subject to interpretation, I find that a better understanding of syntax helps to solidify the sentence’s meaning. Before we can start to identify what parts of the sentence are modifying which words, let’s go over the different parts of the sentence – some, like nouns, are easy to understand – it is a person, place or a thing. At the end of this refresher, I’ll identify most of the components of a sample paragraph from Graeme Brown’s “The Pact” – and next week, I’ll continue to discuss syntax by showing what words effect and modify which parts of the sentence, and chart syntax the way I was taught. Once again, there are multiple ways to do syntax – so if you see it different somewhere else, don’t freak out. Also, I’ve modified and simplified this for a fast and easy way of understanding language for the purposes of clean writing, rather than being 100% accurate. That being said, if I’m making a mistake, please call me on it.

Nouns – Person, Places, or Things.  I touched on these briefly last week – basically, something you can touch, an activity in general, or an idea. Running, for example is an activity – it’s a noun, much like a war or a specific war, to run, is an example of a verb. Now, nouns can be broken into numerous categories (concrete noun, proper noun, abstract noun) for the sake of keeping things simple, the only thing I’m going to subdivide nouns into is into pronouns.

Pronouns – these take the places of nouns. You have to be careful with these placeholders, on account that it’s easy to sometimes confuse if there are multiple subjects. For example:

“Can I send Bob and Mary to the store?” Stu asked.

Sally thought a moment before saying, “Wait until Lisa and Ingrid return, and then send them.”

In normal dialogue, this would be fine – you could emphasize ‘them’ as to mean “Send Lisa and Ingrid.” However, without the tonality that is explicitly expressed, Sally’s dialogue is unclear as to what two people she wants to send to the store. Of course, if we were to change Mary’s gender (we’ll say she’s now magically Marty) you could replace the pronouns to something gender-specific. “Wait until Lisa and Ingrid return, and then send the guys.” I find that English is historically male-neutral, female specific, but this has fallen out of favor in recent texts, with generic examples alternating between both male and females used interchangeably for a non-proper noun. (IE – A nurse is a valuable member of the hospital team. She is often the face the patients and their families see most. He needs to be a person who can handle a very stressful work environment.) However, once you establish a proper noun (IE – Sally) all female pronouns refer to her, until we have something else that can also be replaced with words such as ‘she’ and ‘her’. Example – “Sally saw Bob at the mall. She was happy to see him.” Since these two are of different genders, it’s easy to differentiate your pronouns – we can assume it’s Sally who is happy to see Bob, not Bob who is happy to see Sally, even though the latter might be implied.

Verbs – Action words. Usually verbs are thought of in their most active sense (Bob ran vs. Bob was running). However for this article I will not differentiate the two forms.  Examples of verbs include words such as said, drank, saw, was, is. Now, you’re likely thinking of an example where a noun becomes a verb – an example would be. “Bob’s favorite Avenger is The Incredible Hulk. However, he very seldom hulks out himself.” While I’m not going to check and see if hulk has a very specific oxford definition, whether or not we think Bob merely doesn’t SMASH! Or doesn’t turn green with only little purple shorts is open to interpretation at this point. Many words can be used in a different context, and exist as nouns, verbs, adjectives – for instance, the word what.

Adverbs – a word that modifies the verb. These are words like quickly, softly, coolly. Words that you don’t think of as often modify it in a negative way – this could be words like never or no.

Example: Bob slept soundly.

Adjectives – a word that modifies a noun. These are words like beautiful, hard, blue, as well as quantifiers, such as an, the, & dozen.

Example: Sally bought a red hat.

Some words are obvious, others can be tricky because they can be used in a variety of ways. Let’s take the word Beauty – in that form, it is a noun because it’s an idea – something can be said to possess the characteristic of beauty, the only way I can make it a verb is if I were to ‘go beauty myself up’ (and end a sentence in a preposition. Tsk). However, we can alter this word into numerous forms. Beauty, beautiful, beautify, beautifully – If you’re without a dictionary, try using that word in a simple sentence and see if it fits. For example:

Bob ran ________.

Bob ran beautifully – this doesn’t describe Bob so much as his running. Beautifully is therefore an adverb.

Beautiful Bob ran – this describes Bob, not his running. This might also be differential if there’s more than one Bob in the story. (Poor Ugly Bob). Beautiful is an adjective.

Beautified Bob ran – this means that Bob has been somehow transformed into being more beautiful. Beautified still relates to Bob, ergo, an adjective.

Bob ran through the mud. It was beautiful. – ‘through’ is a preposition, which we’ll get to below. If we were to describe the mud (Bob ran through the warm and stinky mud) the words warm and stinky would be adjectives, and if we were to describe Bob’s running (gracefully, trudged) they would be adverbs. However, these two sentences both have their own clauses, which we will get to next week. However, the second clause’s subject (‘it’) refers to Bob’s running through the mud.

You’ve probably heard from someplace that you should destroy all adverbs and adjectives, and I’m not about to say you need to throw caution to the wind and give your potential readers a grocery-list of adverbs and adjectives to waddle through – I’m not here to lecture you what stylistics choices you want to make. (I have heard the same school on thought that ‘said’ should never be used). Basically when someone says, “Get rid of them!” they mean limit what you don’t need – afterall, it’s less words to say “Sally sprinted.” Rather than “Sally ran very quickly.” And while some times it makes sense that you relate that Sally wasn’t sprinting (perhaps this is from a young child) if your editor says “Trim down your word count” these things are usually the first thing that go on my cutting board. By all means – if something is green and this is a plot point, please tell us – I find that if you are picky with your use of descriptors, you can utilize them to great stylistic effect.

Before we go on, I’ll talk about difficult words – definite and indefinite articles. Let’s go back to the previous example with pronouns:

 “Can I send Bob and Mary to the store?” Stu asked.

The word ‘the’ implies a specific store – there isn’t enough context to be clear, but one would assume he has a specific store with a specific task in mind. “Can I send Bob and Mary to a store?” – This implies Stu simply wants to send them to any store – this would make more sense if he said, “Can I send them to a convenience store?” Meaning he doesn’t care which one. Thus, “the” is a definite article – it refers to a specific thing, whereas ‘an’ and ‘a’ are indefinite articles – they could mean any that exist.

Grammar purist are reminded at this point when your mother says, “Stay out of the mud.” She most likely means all mud. She will be quite cross with you if you try to use definite and indefinite articles in your defense.

Conjunctions – these exist to join parts of a sentence. They can connect subjects, complements, predicates, and even clauses. Words include include but are not limited to: and, but, & or.

Subject Example – Bob and Mary went to the store.

Complement Example  – Bob bought chicken and rice.

Predicate Example – Mary ranted and raved about the new video game she wanted.

Clause Example – Mary wanted to stop at the electronic section but they didn’t have the time.


You might have heard that you’re never supposed to end a sentence with a preposition – prepositions mean ‘to go before’. I’m a believer that choosing to break rules can work to stylistic effect, but basically the word exists to go ahead of something else.  

The cheat to knowing if something is a preposition is to put the word in front of “the log.”


“Before the log.” Before is a preposition.

“Around the log.”  Around is a proposition.

“To the log.” To is a preposition.

“Bob the log.” Bob might be a bump on a log. Bob might be magically turned into a log. Assuming he has annoyed a local wizard and found himself turned into shrubbery, Bob the Log remains a noun because I can chop him up and throw him in the fire. Bob is still not a preposition, no matter what we do to him.

This rule doesn’t work with verbs. “Throw the log.” Throw is a verb – neither is burn, eat, dance, but if I were to say, “Sit upon the log.” Upon is a preposition, sit is not – it is a verb. I can sit here, there, anywhere, but if I want to sit on a chair, I need a preposition to specify. And yes, grammar matters – you sit on the chair, not in the chair, but now we’re being technical.

Exceptions, blah blah blah

Now, if you’re a keener delighting in my mistakes, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What about Nouns that have adjectives, prepositions, and other stuff in them?” Examples would include:

Old Spice

Oil of Olay

The Queen of England

This is where a little bit of interpretation is okay – The Queen of England, a very specific title – unless we were getting really technical, I’d be okay with lumping all four words as a noun. Next week, I will knock it down to its basest level. For now, I will put it in brackets. I’ll do that below for the example, “Scotch of Myra”. It’s a specific drink.

Putting it all together

There is more to this then I’ve gone into – and I haven’t even touched how punctuation can greatly effect sentence structure, but this article is already several pages long and we’ve hashed out most of the basics. If you’d like some homework, take a chunk of text and color-code it with highlighters like I have below. Try it without a dictionary, and see how you do:

Stuart Wood cocked his head, narrowing his eyes a little more. His bronze beard bristled, as if every hair were made of fine wires. He moved a little closer, and Will smelled the [Scotch of Myra] on his breath.“I pray by the [White God’s blood] that you never have to wield a blade, Willy, but a man should always be prepared. When the reaper comes, if your axe is sharp, you can cut his scythe at the haft, and escape with your life.

Nouns  Pronouns Verbs Adverbs Adjectives Prepositions Conjunctions

Have at me, Grammar-Purists!


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