The Rules of Syntax: Using Structure to Write More Effectively Image

The way your words are interpreted can be significantly influenced by your syntax, or the way your words are arranged in a sentence.

Along with diction, syntax can help establish a tone and rhythm in your writing to highlight certain themes or ideas.

What is Syntax?

Syntax refers to the way different words and phrases are strung together to convey thoughts and ideas.

Syntax can be simple or complex, creating sentences that are either simple or complex. Combined with diction, syntax can help writers to develop the mood, tone, and atmosphere of their texts.

Rules of Syntax

In the English language, there are some specific rules writers must follow for proper syntax.

Below are some of the most important syntactic rules that form the basis for proper English writing.

The SVO Pattern

The SVO pattern (Subject-Verb-Object) is the most common syntactic structure in written English. However, there are many ways to add variety to the pattern and make sentences more interesting.


syntax diagram

All Syntactic Patterns

In total, there are 7 syntactic patterns, but all must contain at least a subject (S) and a verb (V). Other elements include a direct object (O), indirect object (IO), complement (C), and adverbial (A).

  1. S + V: Alicia laughed.
  2. S + V + O: Alicia caught the ball.
  3. S + V + C: Alicia is happy.
  4. S + V + C: Alicia plays well.
  5. S + V + IO + O: Alicia passed Mark the ball.
  6. S + V + O + C: Alicia got her shoes muddy.
  7. S + V + O + A: Alicia wrote her number on the card.



The majority of sentences are statements that carry a declarative structure. In most of these sentences, the clause contains a subject, and the subject precedes a verb.


Mark caught the ball.

In the sentence above, “Mark” is the subject, and it precedes the verb “caught.”


Questions are used to elicit information. They carry an interrogative structure and usually begin with a question word (who, what where, when, why, how).

There are 3 main types of questions:

  • Yes/No questions
  • Who/what/where/when/why/how questions
  • Alternative questions (prompting a response related to options)


Questions with Inflection

Some questions take the structure of a declarative sentence. They still end with a question mark, and one’s tone usually rises at the end to indicate that the statement is a question.


You’re going to Italy next month?

Tag Questions

In tag questions, the interrogative inversion appears at the end of the statement.


You studied for the exam, didn’t you?

Exclamatory Questions

With exclamatory questions, the interrogative structure is present, but one’s tone usually falls at the end.


How great is this!


Directives, also known as imperatives or commands, are sentences that instruct others to do something.


Do your homework!

Put the keys on the table.

Don’t do that!

Parallel Structure

Parallel structure is also important for proper syntax. This is most often an issue when expressing a series of items or verbs.

For example:

I like running, swimming, and skiing. (Correct)
I like running, swimming, and to ski. (Incorrect)

When forming a list such as the one above, it is important to choose either an infinitive or a gerund (verbs ending in “–ing”) and stick with it for the entirety of your list.

Download our syntax cheat sheet so you can quickly refer back to the rules outlined above.

Purpose of Syntax

A single sentence can be rearranged in a number of ways to produce new sentences, while still remaining grammatically correct. Although the meaning of the sentence will remain basically the same, varying syntax can affect the mood and tone of a piece of writing.

Examples of Syntax in Literature

The order of words in poetry is often manipulated to achieve a unique syntax that emphasizes certain themes, or produces rhyme or melody.


Lycidas by John Milton

“Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn”

Here, Milton’s word order takes the form of Object + Subject + Subject Complement + Verb, as opposed to the traditional Subject + Verb + Object.

While this wouldn’t make for a very efficient text message, it does add an artistic effect that is ideal for poetry.

From Peter Pan by James Matthew Barrie

Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you’ll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.

The simple structure here, along with the unnecessary repetition of “never,” gives this excerpt a childlike tone which reflects the theme of innocence found in Peter Pan.

From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and it ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?”

As you may have realized by now, syntax in literature is allowed much more creative freedom than syntax in nonfiction.

While this sentence would be considered grammatically incorrect for a number of reasons, Twain uses it to develop a unique character voice and express feelings of frustration.

Create Variety with Syntax

Although you might have less creative freedom in nonfiction, you can certainly spice up your creative writing by varying your syntactic structure.

Try experimenting with new word arrangements and diction to create your desired tone and establish your own unique voice.

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