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:
- 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.