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Syntax (from the Greek – “to arrange together”) is a general word for the arrangement of objects or ideas or processes with some end result in mind. In linguistics, it carries two meanings: the formal “correct” order of sentence (or clause) elements in an agreed-upon language code; for example, in English, the adjective comes before the noun it modifies, while in French, the modifier follow the noun: red wine—vin rose. In declarative sentences, subjects come before predicates (in English), but in interrogative sentences, the syntax is reversed. The “correct” syntax of the elements avoids ambiguity and fulfills the reader’s or listener’s expectation as the sentence unfolds its meaning. If an exception to the “common syntax” occurs (“trip the light fantastic”), attention is drawn to the phrase or clause. Non-native speakers of a language often reveal that fact by upsetting the syntax rules that native speakers learned unconsciously: “Excuse, please—where the museum is?”
The second linguistic use of syntax is in the rhetorical arrangements of phrases and clauses in a compound or complex sentence. Normally, the reader/listener expects the main clause to start the utterance: “I had a dog in Detroit.” But for emphasis or other effect, one can begin with a prepositional phrase—“In Detroit, I had a dog.” In this sentence, the syntax puts emphasis on the past living experience of the speaker. If a subordinate clause begins the utterance—“When I lived in Detroit, many things were different.”—The rhetorical emphasis anticipates a list of things that have changed, of which dog ownership is just one. So, the syntactical order in which the speaker reveals information is an important element of the entire discourse.
Finally, the “syntax” of events in a narrative (for example, the plot elements in a mystery) is an important consideration for an author.
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