WHAT IS SYNTAX?
Between December 1-23 I’ll post twelve editing suggestions I hope you can use in the coming year when you’re working on your manuscript. I suppose you could print them off and hide them under your tree, but don’t feel like you have to.
Okay! On to today's Editing Tip.
DAY #3: SYNTAX
There are zillions of words in the English language (that might possibly be an exaggeration, and the cool thing is how you can transform those words from boring old sentences into great ones just by using syntax. What is syntax? Glad you asked.
syn·tax [sin-taks] (c/o Dictionary.com)
a.the study of the rules for the formation of grammatical sentences in a language.
b.the study of the patterns of formation of sentences and phrases from words.
So really, it's using words effectively. Here are some examples:
Let's start with two simple sentences. Hmm …
I wrote a book. I hope people will buy it.
Let's connect the two phrases with a conjunction ("and"). In this case, I removed the "I" from the second phrase, meaning the second phrase can't stand independently. When this happens, no comma is necessary.
I wrote a book and hope people will buy it.
Now let's connect them again, but this time I'll pop that "I" back in so the second phrase is just as independent as the first. When you have two independent phrases joined by a conjunction, you have to add a comma before the conjunction.
I wrote a book, and I hope people will buy it.
Now let's use what's called a "dependent marker" so phrase #1 become a modifier for phrase #2.
While I was writing my book, I hoped people would buy it.
Let's switch them around now so phrase #2 starts first. We can play with phrase #1 to make it more interesting.
I hope people buy the book I wrote.
Just to make things even more interesting, we can insert a "nonessential phrase" and surround it by commas BUT you have to put the comma after the conjunction ("and" in this case). The reason the conjunction is before is because the nonessential clause modifies the second phrase, not the first.
I wrote a book and, of course, I'm hoping people will buy it.
Along the nonessential phrase thing, you can also insert one that modifies the first phrase. In that case the conjunction comes after the nonessential phrase.
I wrote a book, which was amazing to me, and I hope people will buy it.
If you want to make that nonessential phrase stick out, like it's something that just popped into your head, use em dashes. The conjunction comes before the dashes in this case.
I wrote a book - which surprised the heck out of me - and I hope people will buy it.
If you use brackets instead, it will de-emphasize it. Don't forget the comma after the close bracket.
I wrote a book (which surprised the heck out of me), and I hope people will buy it.
Semi-colons can be used as well, but sparingly. Too many times writers replace commas or periods with semi-colons. But you use it in a few cases. For example, if we change the second phrase into something a little more interesting, we can add it to the first one.
I wrote a book; I'm hoping when folks head into a bookstore they'll pick up a copy.
Use the semi-colon again, still using a more interesting second phrase, but add an adverb or adverbial phrase after the semi-colon, followed by a comma.
I wrote a book; naturally, I'm hoping when folks head into a bookstore they'll pick up a copy.
When you are writing, or when you've finished writing something, read what you've done out loud. Are your sentences all the same length and rhythm? Do they lack a little depth and variety? Anything gets dull if it's all the same.
Look at syntax. Take a sentence or two and play. Create something beautiful out of something plain.