Q: People usually talk about grammar and syntax as if they’re a package deal, like Proctor & Gamble or Cheech and Chong, but I wonder how many people actually know what syntax is. To be honest, I don’t. Can you help, please?
A: Grammar is a system of rules for combining words into sentences. It has two parts: the choice of words and the arrangement of words. Syntax (the second part) is the orderly arrangement of words to show their relationships.
To straighten out a sentence’s syntax, in the words of Jacques Barzun, is “to link or separate what has been wrongly split or joined.”
Here’s an example of a mistake in word choice: “Everybody love a lover.” Although we use the word “everybody” when we’re thinking of a crowd, it’s actually singular and goes with a singular verb: “Everybody loves a lover.”
Here’s an example of a problem involving syntax: “Tail wagging merrily, Bertie took the dog for a walk.” As the words are arranged now, the tail is attached to Bertie, not to the dog. Let’s put the tail where it belongs: “Tail wagging merrily, the dog went for a walk with Bertie.”
This common error, called a dangler, involves putting a word or phrase in the wrong place so it describes the wrong thing. You can find a lot more examples of screwy syntax in “The Compleat Dangler” chapter of my grammar book Woe Is I.
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