How do you understand literary syntax. I am a new English learner, and I am still struggling with reading literature in English.

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The best way to begin to conquer English syntax is (1) to learn the basic sentence structures, which is syntax, and (2) to understand that the "inflections" other languages currently have and that English used to have (such as in Middle English) no longer play any significant role in Modern English, especially not in American English.

Basic Sentence Syntax Structure

The basic English sentence syntax structure [i.e., syntax] is Subject Verb Object: Someone did something to somebody (or something). If you use the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for English learners, you'll see that they give the parameters of how a word can be used, of sentence syntax, by using the "somebody/something" model to describe syntax. For example, for the verb form "throw" Longman describes three syntax options using the "somebody/something" model:

  • [You] throw something to somebody   
  • [You] throw something at somebody/something   
  • [You] throw somebody something

The Subject is an assumed "You." The Verb is "throw." The Object is the double Indirect/Direct Object (or Direct/Indirect in "throw somebody something"), which may be illustrated by looking at the second description "throw something at somebody [or] something."

This "somebody/something" description of syntax for "throw" tells you that "throw" requires an Indirect Object ("something") and a Direct Object ("somebody"). So the basic sentence syntax applicable to usage of the verb "throw" is Subject Verb Indirect/Direct Object (or Direct/Indirect for the third usage, "[You] throw somebody something.").

What this discussion of the "somebody/something" syntax model means is that forms of syntax are prescribed; they are set according to Verbs and Subjects. So to understand English literary syntax, we must know that:

  • There is a prescribed basic word order: Subject Verb Object.
  • There is a prescribed syntax structure, e.g., "throw" requires the double Object syntax of Indirect/Direct Object.

Basic sentence syntax structure in English (Subject Verb Object: SVO) can be altered into several other basic structures. These basic structures include:

  • SVO
  • SVC (C=Complement of the Subject)
  • SVA (A=Adverbial Phrase or Clause)
  • ASV (A=Adverbial Phrase or Clause: because of the nature of adverbials, they can occupy front, middle or end positions)

When you are reading English:

  • Search for the basic structure elements of English syntax, which are Subject, Verb, Object (or Complement of the Subject as in the example "Sally is intelligent."), and Adverbials (phrases or clauses).
  • Identify the basic "Someone is doing something to somebody/something" syntax model (which may also be thought of as "Who is doing what to whom?").
  • Identify any adverbial elements that tell where, when, how, why, or for/to whom (i.e., location, time, means, reason, purpose).

These steps will orient you to the intent and meaning of the sentence through the prescribed forms of English syntax, whether it be one of Dickens' sentences, which can go through multiple lines of text with multiple clauses taking multiple detours in thought, or one of Hemingway's, which can present the most basic, uncomplicated syntax or can present complex syntax in descriptive but brief (and potentially confusing) sentences, as seen in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."


Inflection affixed to a word shows a change in meaning or use in the syntactical (i.e., syntax) function of the word. Modern English does not inflect words as it once did: While Middle English used to inflect words, English we use no longer does. There are some lingering words with inflected forms still used in British English, such as "whilst" (a conjunction for during) and "amongst" (a preposition for in or in the midst of), but verbs like maken and harkeneth are long gone.

Consequently, if your first language is one that inflects words to change their meaning and use, then you will have to learn to use other means to recognize these shifts in meaning/use in English words, sometimes through the means of rote memorization. For example, countable, but not uncountable, nouns in English change their numerical meaning by affixing -s or -es, while regular, but not irregular, verbs change tense use by affixing -d or -ed. Conjugation of irregular verbs requires memorization: Is the past tense of "drink" drunken, drank, or drinked?

So to understand literary syntax in English, you will need to know not to expect inflected words but to look for change in meaning and use to be indicated through other forms. For example, since English has no future tense (no affix that indicates future time), discussion of future time occurs through modals, auxiliaries and be verbs, such as through the phrases will be and is going to be.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I commend you for learning a new language and reading English literature.

It is best to begin with a definition of syntax. 

Syntax is the arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses to create sentences in a language. This is a very basic definition, but it will do. Each author you read, whether it be Dickens, Orwell, Steinbeck, or anyone else uses good syntax, but there is incredible flexibility within the rubric of good syntax. Let me illustrate this with an example. 

Here is a sentence taken from Dickens (Tale of Two Cities):

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."

This is a very interesting sentence. We have an appositive clause "that every human..." But there is no main verb. It is an elliptical construction, which means that there is a verb "to be" implied. Native English speakers would naturally understand it as "A wonderful fact to reflect upon [is] that every..." 

Here is a quote from Orwell (1984):

"He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

We have two adjectival clauses. "who controls...": in both sentences are adjectival clauses. There is also a very nice ring to the composition as the sentences are parallel and make you think about the contrasting statements past controls future and present controls past

These examples show the great flexibility that exists in literary syntax. When we read authors from different time periods, we will see even greater differences. The best way to go about this is to know the rules of grammar well. After you do this, you will be able to break down sentences. With more practice, you will begin to see patterns and appreciate literature. You might find yourself saying something like: "This author loves to compose complex sentence with an introductory adverbial clause followed by a main clause with an inverted word order."

I will link a few webpages that will get you started. 

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If you would like to increase your understanding of English syntax by reading English literature, books by Roald Dahl, British novelist, are a good starting place. They include such hits as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and Giant Peach, George's Marvelous Medicine, Enormous Crocodile, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,and Going Solo, plus many more.

I'd also add another beloved British novelist, C. S. Lewis, whose Narnia series and Space Trilogy are equally engaging. They include, in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Return to Narnia; The Silver Chair; and The Magician's Nephew, along with others; and, in the Space series, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. He also wrote, among many other more difficult titles, an allegory called The Pilgrim's Regress, but, being an allegory, it's more difficult to follow.

There is something to be said in favor of reading several works by one author when mastering reading a new language (although you seem rather advanced in your English language skill already), because you get familiar with the author's style and tricks of literary technique and can focus more on the language rather than on figuring out the stylistic and literary devices of the author (with whom you've become familiar).

zakaria19 | Student

What about start reading short stories by different authors, would it help me more than reading novels and reading for one author? 

zakaria19 | Student

Thank you very much. Indeed my english level is a bit good. But though i rarely read sth. I am not the kind of a person who read much. And now i wanted to start a reading habit but i don't know where to start. I chose a short story to begin with by william Faulkner entitled "Barn burning" but i stucked with the language and syntax. 

zakaria19 | Student

Thank you very much, 
Could you please provide me with a list of books that you advice me to start with.
a teacher told me to start with Rolad dahl books .