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?