Lesson 4: Syntax
Syntax, or the way words are put together to form phrases or clauses, is an important consideration in voice. We can use short sentences to convey immediate or suspenseful action, and we can use long sentences to convey, perhaps, a languid scene. We can also use punctuation like exclamation points, colons, semicolons, and so on to create sentences that convey our meaning more precisely.
Consider this sentence:
“The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm: I wondered if these years would ever operate between us as a bridge.”
The colon says to the reader, pay attention to what follows, and acts as a bridge between the two clauses. If Baldwin had written the sentence as two independent clauses, how would that change it? It would convey the information that these are two separate ideas, whereas the colon signifies the close relationship between the two. It’s a subtle difference but a difference nonetheless.
Here’s another example:
“But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away.”
Writing “that had thrown the gun away” conveys a disconnection between the gun and the person and what we can infer he’s done with it. If Steinbeck had written, “…and looked at his right hand after throwing the gun away” we would get a totally different connotation—that George is connected to what he’s done with the gun.
Finally, consider this sentence:
He slowly ventured into the pond. The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs.
What effect does the short sentence before the longer one have on the passage? The first sentence sets up what is to come in the longer one, which is rich in description. How does the long sentence, with its comma pauses, affect the overall tone of the sentence? To me, the pauses convey a slow feeling, like sinking into water or mud.
So sometimes syntax in one sentence can be used to set up the syntax in another.
Write a sentence to convey happiness. How might you use syntax?
For example: The glory of the day is upon us; the sun rises with angelic glow!
The semicolon shows a strong relationship between the two clauses. The exclamation point conveys excitement. The words glory and angelic connotate reverence and joy.