Grammar vs. Syntax

As a writer (or even if you’re just an English nerd), you’ve probably heard the terms grammar and syntax thrown about. But what are they, exactly? Ultimately, grammar is a defined set of rules for how a sentence should be structured. Subject verb object. (Unless, of course, you’re Yoda: Object, subject verb.) But what about syntax? Essentially, syntax is one of the building blocks of grammar, relating to the way a sentence can or should be structured. Both are quite intertwined. So, then, what’s the difference if both relate to the structure of a sentence?

The truth is that there is more to grammar than just, well, grammar and syntax. Think of grammar as the umbrella for the parts that make it up, which include morphology, phonology, semantics and syntax.

Morphology is the building blocks of words, made up of morphemes. Morphemes can be part of a word, such as the -ing in a gerund. To give an example: walking is made up of walk and -ing. These would be considered the morphemes that make up walking.

Phonology is the sound of words.

Semantics is made up of the meaning of words and their relationships to each other.

Syntax is the structure of words in a sentence. This is made up of parts of a sentence, including independent and dependent clauses, the parts of a sentence (including subject, predicate, object, direct object), clauses (a group of words including a subject and a verb), and sentence structure (simple, compound, complex-compound clauses).

These four building blocks are the essentials that make up grammar. Ultimately, grammar is a defined set of rules we follow to create a sentence, while syntax governs the way we structure that sentence to create a clear, concise thought. Think of grammar as the rule book and syntax as your allowance for the freedom of clarification. Syntax is your ability to construct a beautifully crafted sentence (while still adhering to the rules of grammar: agreeing subject-verb pairs, object placement, etc.) by utilizing compound and complex-compound clauses.

To give you an example:

Grammar: John (subject) eats (verb) apples (direct object).

Syntax: Although John eats apples, his favorite fruit is strawberries.

We can break down the syntax example into two separate clauses: the subordinate clause and the main clause. Subordinate: “Although John eats apples,” and main: “his favorite fruit is strawberries.”

While we can think of syntax as giving us the freedom to construct sentences, there are still guidelines we must follow, such as parallel structure. For example:

Incorrect: I enjoy writing, editing, and to read.

Correct: I enjoy writing, editing, and reading.

Syntax also dictates what is considered a complete “thought,” whereas grammar only dictates the form of a sentence (meaning the subject-verb-object structure) and things such as object-verb agreement.

Language is a complex, funny, and intricate thing. As I was writing this, I said to my dad, “How do you break down and explain something that is so intrinsic and inherent? That’s what I love about the English language.” (Pretty sure he was looking at golf-related stuff on his computer while he listened to me ramble, so I don’t think he was paying attention.) What are your thoughts on the building blocks of grammar?

Best Writing Resources

There are a ton of writing resources out there, and it can be difficult to know which ones are actually useful for your writing. The truth is? Many of them can be useful, depending on what your needs are as a writer. That is, whether you need help with things such as plotting, characterization, description, prose… The list goes on. A lot of blogs on writing exist (including this one!), but how do you know which resources are good? Well, I’ve put together a list of my favorite writing resources that have helped me.

(Note: None of these are affiliate links, nor do I make any money when you make a purchase or click a link. These are simply resources I have found useful in my writing journey.)

Best Website for Novelists

HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com

This site, run by author K.M. Weiland, has a plethora of great resources in and of itself. She outlines how to plot a novel through the Three-Act Structure, and a recent addition to the site is a long list of character archetypes and how to write them. She has several books out for plotting your novel and creating character arcs, as well as a new program to help you plot out your novel.

Best Book for Perfecting Style and Prose

Dreyer is the copy chief of Random House, one of the “Big Five” publishing houses. He gives his thoughts on common writing mistakes that he sees constantly in manuscripts and mentions how to fix them, such as superfluous or redundant words. This book is both witty and instructive, with a solid dose of humor. Definitely a great read if you plan on submitting to agents.

Best Book(s) for Characterization/Description

Puglisi and Ackerman have a series of thesaurus-type books, including one on negative traits and emotional wounds. These books are great for building characters and crafting more detailed descriptions, rather than just saying, “She was angry.”

Best Necessity for Those Looking to Publish

The CMS, or Chicago Manual of Style, is the standard style guide for the publishing industry in the U.S. It’s a great reference tool when you’re not sure whether or not to use that comma or whether or not you need spaces around your em dash. If you want to publish, traditionally or not, I believe every writer needs this in their library.

Best Program for Novelists

Out of all the writing software and programs I’ve tried to use over the years, from Novlr to Dabble, Scrivener remains my favorite. It is a mountain of features and customization, whether you want to simply change the theme or move around that one particular scene that doesn’t go. It has templates and more for you to get your novel started. I’ve been using Scrivener for years, and it’s a program I can always count on.

And that’s it for my favorite resources! What are some of your favorite writing resources that have helped you in your writing journey?

Little Word, Big Meaning: Prepositions

Little words can have big meaning. What exactly are prepositions? Well, they are words that begin prepositional phrases. You may be thinking, “Okay, what the heck is a prepositional phrase?” Simply put, it’s a modifying phrase that includes a preposition and the object of the preposition (in other words, a noun). It is any word that introduces a modifying phrase that indicates time, place, direction, or introduces a particular object. There are approximately 150 prepositions in the English language, including words such as in, with, for, and about (just to name a few).

To give an example of a prepositional phrase:

She’s going to the movies.

“To the movies” indicates where the subject is going, making it a prepositional phrase. It includes the preposition “to” and the object “the movies.”

You may also see prepositional phrases with adjectives.

He’s taking her on a fun, romantic date tonight.

It’s also possible to hear people talk about prepositions followed by verbs. These are gerunds, which are -ing forms of infinitives that function as a noun in a sentence.

She won by cheating in the race.

Let’s not forget about compound prepositions, which are made up of more than one preposition. For example:

as well as
aside from
in front of
out of

Here is a list of some common prepositions:

  • aboard
  • about
  • above
  • across
  • after
  • against
  • along
  • amid
  • among
  • anti
  • around
  • as
  • at
  • before
  • behind
  • below
  • beneath
  • beside
  • besides
  • between
  • beyond
  • but
  • by
  • concerning
  • considering
  • despite
  • down
  • during
  • except 
  • excepting
  • excluding
  • following
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • inside
  • into
  • like
  • minus
  • near
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • onto
  • opposite
  • outside
  • over
  • past
  • per
  • plus
  • round
  • save
  • since
  • than
  • through
  • to
  • toward
  • towards
  • under
  • underneath
  • unlike
  • until
  • up
  • upon
  • versus
  • via
  • with
  • within
  • without

I hope you found this post helpful. If you have any comments, questions, or anything to add, please leave a comment!

Time Tells All: Understanding Tense

Past. Present. Future. Many folks think there are just those three tenses. There are actually different subsets of each tense, such as continuous (also called progressive), perfect, and perfect continuous. Each tense and its subsets are all written a different way, and all have different meanings. Now, tense differs from grammatical mood, such as conditional, subjunctive or imperative. That’s something we’ll touch on another time.

Tense is essentially when the verb is happening. It relates to time. Did it already happen in the past? Is it happening now in the present? Will it happen in the future? I wrote. I write. I will write. The four subsets of tense are:

  • Simple
  • Continuous (or Progressive)
  • Perfect
  • Perfect Continuous (or Perfect Progressive)

I’ve created a chart to show examples for all the tenses and their subsets. Feel free to save it, download it, share it, etc.

There’s also the topic of infinitives with tense. As a refresher, the infinitive form of a verb is the most basic form—its “to” form: to write, to read, to walk. When a verb is followed by an infinitive and you’re changing tense, only the main verb should change. This happens with words like “want” or “need,” and they are frequently followed by an infinitive to show the desire for a particular action. For example, the verb want would look like this in the various tense:

Past Simple: I wanted to write.
Present Simple: I want to write.
Future Simple: I will want to write.
Past Continuous: I was wanting to write.
Present Continuous: I am wanting to write.
Future Continuous: I will be wanting to write.
Past Perfect: I had wanted to write.
Present Perfect: I have wanted to write.
Future Perfect: I will have wanted to write.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been wanting to write.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been wanting to write.
Future Perfect Continuous: I will have wanted to write.

When it comes to writing a novel, consistency is important. You don’t want the current action to jump back and forth between present and past, but things that happened previously (as described by the narrator, whether that’s first person or third person) can be written in past tense. Most fiction novels are written in past tense, although I have seen some in present tense. Some great novels, actually. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich (based on the Tony award-winning stage musical by Steven Levenson), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are all great examples of stories written in present. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Hunger Games to show you a novel in this particular tense:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

Notice that not every sentence is in simple present. The narrator, Katniss, tells some things in perfect continuous present: “She must have had bad dreams. . .” She also describes her mother’s former beauty in simple past: “My mother was very beautiful once, too.” Much of the text, however, is in present tense. So, no, not every sentence has to be in simple present if you’re writing in that tense. Just bear in mind when the action is happening in your sentence.

I hope you found this post informative and useful in explaining tense. Questions? Comments? Leave a comment for me! They are much appreciated.

Common Punctuation Mistakes

With so many rules and different style guides, it’s hard to know what punctuation to use where in your writing. From comma splices to overuse of ellipses, there are a lot of mistakes you can make that cause you to look less than your best. I know—we all make mistakes. The mistakes I’m going to list below are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, as that is the most commonly cited style guide for writing, editing, and publishing fiction. There are different rules based on the various guides, so be wary of what type of writing you’re working on.

Photo by Brett Jordan from Pexels
  1. Comma Splices
    Comma splices happen when two independent clauses are joined by a comma. For example:

John ate dinner with us last night, we had a good time.

You could write this idea differently in a couple different ways.

John ate dinner with us last night. We had a good time.
OR
John ate dinner with us last night; we had a good time.

2. Incorrect Use of Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes
Yes, there is a difference between the three.

Hyphens are used to join two or more words together, such as when two or more words are connected and are modifying another word (to avoid confusion). A good example is up-to-date. Another good example, as given in the CMS, is to compare small animal hospital with small-animal hospital. The first indicates a regular animal hospital that is small in size. The second means a hospital that is only for small animals. It’s important to note that Chicago drops the hyphen when the modifying phrase comes after the noun. For example:

That well-known book is big right now.
OR
That book is well known and big right now.

The hyphen can also be used as separators, such as when you have a character spelling out something:

“My name is Skylar. That’s s-k-y-l-a-r.”

En Dashes typically connect (or deal with) numbers. (Words? Not nearly as often.) It means up to and including (or through) with continuing numbers. It can also indicate an unfinished range of numbers. Note that there should be no spaces around the dash. (Not in Chicago Style, anyway.)

John lived 1920–2005.
Barry Wolfe (1965–) or Barry Wolfe (b. 1965)

According to the CMS, the en dash can sometimes replace a hyphen in the use of compound words, as long as it makes sense or there isn’t already a hyphen in one of the words.

Em Dashes are probably the most well known of all the dashes. They separate an explanatory element in a sentence—instead of commas, parentheses, or colons.

I bought three antique books—all Nancy Drew Mystery Stories that are first or early editions—at the bookshop down the road.

You can also use em dashes around dialogue to indicate sudden breaks. If the break belongs outside the dialogue, then the em dashes go outside the quotation marks. For example:

“I didn’t know, and”—her voice grew hoarse with desperation—”there was no way I could’ve known.”

Bear in mind that you should never use a comma, colon, or semicolon directly in front of an em dash. A question mark or an exclamation point, however, can be used in such a manner. You can also use em dashes in place of commas for a more stylistic type of writing:

“How could you—” began Catalina, but Rob cut her off.

3. Overuse of Commas
This mistake seems to be a commonly cited one, but it’s one I personally tend to make when writing first drafts. I apparently have an affinity for commas, which means I have to carefully edit my writing during revisions for excess punctuation. To give an example:

The girl, however, started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt, but, her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

The above is a huge mess of a sentence that needs to be broken up. While it’s (technically) grammatically correct, it makes for quite awkward reading with so many pauses. You could fix it up several different ways, but one definite edit is to split this up into more than one sentence:

The girl started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt. Her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

4. Not Using Enough Punctuation
Similar to comma splices, I mean run-on sentences. Independent clauses that aren’t joined by a conjunction need to be separated by proper punctuation, whether that’s a semicolon or a period. Don’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses unless a conjunction divides them. By this, I mean the two independent clauses should have separate subjects and verbs, and the clauses should be separated by a word such as and, but, if.

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition it’s dated 1948 and the dust jacket is still on!

This example definitely needs to be split up, such as:

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition; it’s dated 1948, and the dust jacket is still on!

5. Not Using the Oxford Comma
The Chicago Manual of Style adheres to the use of the Oxford comma. It’s the last comma in a series that comes before a conjunction. For example:

Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin, and French.
Without Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin and French.

There’s a ton of debate over this one little comma, depending on which style guide you’re following. Following the CMS? Use the Oxford comma.

The beautiful—and frustrating—thing about English is that there are so many variations of the rules. Writing is such a subjective and stylistic art, meaning we all write in our own way. What punctuation faux pas have you made in your own writing? (We all make mistakes.) I’d love to hear from you in the comments!