Learning to analyse syntax

Often you’ll be asked to analyse something that you have read for school. Perhaps you have to read a novel or poem for class. Perhaps you have an account of a historical event in a textbook that you must discuss. Maybe your teacher has you analysing graphic novels and advertisements. You might be reading and/or listening to political speeches.

All of these are examples that invite you to say something not just about WHAT is written but HOW it is written. But how do you do that? One way to begin is to look at syntax, or sentence structures.

Analysing syntax is not easy.
Often critical engagement or analysis of text can begin with breaking the text down into its building blocks, its sentences. We can learn to say something more than “the sentences are long” or “these sentences are simple.” In fact, syntactical analysis can easily be the first place to start diving into analysing HOW a piece of text achieves what it does.

“Syntax is difficult for students to analyse. However, the best student writers manage to achieve syntactical variety in their own writing despite their difficulty in analysing the element.”  

The above quotation is taken from The College Board’s AP Language and Composition course guide, which sets the standard for high school and university writing competency. It basically means that while you might be able to use syntax variation effectively in your writing, you may not be able to easily identify and analyse the techniques used in passages that you have to analyse. 
But there are ways to make it easier…
Here’s are 3 things to look out for to help you analyse syntax:
Sentence length. In analysing a passage you should look at the length of sentences:
– Are they long, short, or medium?
– Is there a large variation in sentence length?
Then you can analyse the sentence length and variation by answering what is the effect created?  For example, a sequence of short sentences might be used to create the a mood or feeling of panic and suspense in a story. 
Sentence structure. Identify the structure that the sentences use:
– Simple: a sentence with one verb, one subject.
– Compound: two simple sentences joined by a conjunction.
– Complex: at least one simple sentence joined to a dependent clause.
– Complex-compound: at least two simple sentences joined by a conjunction and at least one dependent clause. 
Then ask does a simple sentence follow a complex-compound sentence? If so, what is its effect? For example, different sentence structures might be attributed to different character types in a story; a child may speak in more simple sentences while an adult or character like Sherlock Holmes might be portrayed as more sophisticated which is reflected in his use of complex, compound sentences. 
Sentence type. Identify the sentence type:
-Declarative: a sentence that states something.
-Interrogative: a sentence that asks something i.e.; to interrogate.
-Imperative: a directive, usually the “you” is understood i.e.; “Shut the door.”
-Exclamatory: an exclamation, usually punctuated by an exclamation point.
Is the sentence an imperative? If so, what is the effect of it? For example, an exclamatory sentence might indicate excitement or urgency in a historical speech you might be analysing.
And here’s a short exercise to practice!
So LENGTH, STRUCTURE, and TYPE are things that you can talk about in looking at a passage of text with a number of different sentences.
Now let’s look at some text and analyse its syntax. Read the text carefully and a couple fo times if you need to understand it better. Good luck!


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