Category Archives: Syntax

A Rose by Any Other Name

Publicity still from Harold Ramis’ sci-fi comedy Multiplicity (1996) with Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell, in which the Keaton character clones himself.

Many years ago, as a young college graduate, I decided to take a speed reading course at New York University. During the first class, the instructor boasted he was going to quickly double our speed without hurting our comprehension. The trick, so to speak, was to keep on going and not hesitate or backtrack on what we were reading. And lo and behold, everybody quickly fulfilled the instructor’s promise.

The reason this gimmick worked was rather simple. Unless you’re dealing with a very dense, scholarly tome, most writers almost unconsciously repeat themselves. They don’t necessarily do this by using the same words over and over again, but by reiterating the same ideas using different terms or phrases that have the identical or similar meanings (synonyms and related phrases, if you will). So, if you don’t immediately comprehend what’s on the page, you will quickly be cued in by the way the sentences and paragraphs are constructed.

While repetition may be inherent in your narrative, in writing nonfiction you need to be careful to not using the exact same word more than once in the same sentence unless absolutely necessary, or to make a point. Otherwise, your text might prove to be less interesting than it need be. (I’m not talking here of the use word repetition as a literary or poetic device.)

Thus, as an editor, one the most common ways I can improve a client’s writing is by looking for unnecessary word repetition and making appropriate substitutions. There are several ways to do this, the most common of which is to find a synonym or using alternative phrasing. The traditional way to find words with the same or similar meaning is by using a thesaurus. Today’s word processing programs provide useful lists of synonyms by placing your cursor on the word in question and either right clicking on it (in Windows) or by pressing the control key and tapping the mouse button at the same time (on a Mac); alternatively, you can use an online thesaurus like Miriam-Webster’s. Such sites not only provide useful lists of synonyms, but also antonyms (words with the opposite meaning), related words and phrases.

For instance, notice that in the opening paragraph of this blog post, I deliberately cut down the number of times I used the word “reading,” even though that was what I was writing about. Also, in the third sentence, I use the word “trick” in referring to what my instructor did, while in the opening of the second paragraph I used the “gimmick” instead. The process of doing so is not always easy, as you may have difficulty in finding an exact equivalent to such common words as (pardon the repetition) “reading,” but it’s worth the effort.

Syntax: Short and Long Sentences

Fat short man vs tall thin manSyntax, usage, grammar and diction are all closely related, and sometimes it is impossible to separate them. In this post I’m going to talk about decisions the writer has to make about sentence length.

Just to be clear, syntax is defined as the choices the writer makes about putting words together to make phrases and sentences. This is kind of vague, and to tell the truth, whenever I use the word “syntax” I have to look up what it means exactly. While there are lots of correct ways to express ideas, there are an equal number of wrong ones. That really is why writing is so challenging!

So anyway, as writers, we are putting words together in order to express our ideas. The length of the sentences we choose needs to be deliberate.

What will be the effect of using a short sentence? Usually it conveys clear, simple ideas that we want the reader to follow quickly. A short sentence in the middle of longer ones halts the rhythm and calls attention to itself. Occasionally I will see writing that consists of strings of short sentences, which gets tedious and boring for the reader. The fix is to combine short sentences using conjunctions (but, because, and, or, nor) or relative pronouns (who, whom, which, whoever, whomever, whichever, and that).

By far the most common error with sentence length is the run-on sentence. Run-on sentences make the reader tired, and also require him or her to reread. If the writer’s intention is to get the reader to slow down and consider a complex idea, a longer sentence makes sense. But long sentence after long sentence makes the reader want to give up. The fix here is to break up the sentences, take out the conjunctions and relative pronouns, as well as adverbs like “however.”

The quick way to identify sentence length problems is to read it out loud to yourself. If it feels like a short, choppy rhythm, you need to combine some of the sentences. If you run out of breath reading a long sentence that goes on for several lines, and you can’t remember what the beginning was, it needs to be broken up.

— Vickie Deneroff