While diction determines word choice, syntax determines where the words are placed. Language, without syntax, is nonsense – words strung together with no method to the madness. We all use syntax to speak and write without thinking about it, repeating what we have heard before. Unique syntax requires mixing up that order, without creating nonsense. Do you recall Yoda’s distinctive style of speaking in the Star Wars movie series? Simply take the predicate object or predicate adjective at the end of a sentence and move it to the front. Voila – Yoda speak. “But what is a predicate object and predicate adjective?” students ask mystified. Basically it is everything in a normal sentence that comes after the verb.
Which brings up the next point – Learning how to use syntax to create a unique voice requires a fundamental knowledge of grammar. I recall, in my junior high days, creating lengthy diagrams parsing complex sentences. But diagraming went out of vogue (probably due to lack of time) just like junior high schools did (due to lack of space). However, diagraming is still a good multisensory technique (visual and verbal) to show how syntax relates to meaning.
Type of sentence is another good example of the effect that syntax has on voice – most people divide sentences into the following:
- declarative (makes a statement)
- interrogative (asks a questions)
- imperative (makes a command)
- exclamatory (ultra emphatic statement, question or command – tends to be a short, even fragmentary)
Always using exclamations will make you seem high strung. But how does constant use of questions affect voice? Try this exercise, borrowed from a popular TV show featuring improvisational acting. Attempt to have a conversation with another person in which both of you speak only in questions. Almost all conversations of this type will disintegrate into accusatory communication. Now, try to write a conversation in this same manner – does the testy attitude still come across when written?
If you are introducing a topic, or wrapping up a conclusion and realize that you are using a statement that you have heard a thousand times before, try playing with syntax. Change the statement by rearranging the words, Place the predicate object (or predicate adjective) anywhere but at the end of the sentence. Rather than reiterating the obvious, ask a question. Play with a repetition for a poetic effect; just avoid saying the same thing that everyone else has said.
Photo by Pollack man34 CC. by 3.0