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5.1: The Rhetoric of Syntax

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    Learning Objectives
    • Define syntax and rhetoric and apply them to college writing.
    • Differentiate between narration, description, and classification as rhetorical approaches to writing in college settings.
    Learning Outcomes
    • Organize information (support) from reading, experience, and class discussion into an argument with a clear thesis.

    What is Syntax?

    Have you ever learned a Romantic language, such as Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, French, or Italian? One fascinating commonality you may notice between Spanish and French, as an example of knowledge you may discover when learning these languages, is that speakers and writers of them usually place the thing (noun) before its describing word (adjective or modifier): la mariposa azul would translate to the butterfly blue. Ordering the modifier and noun this way in English would be considered a word-order error, and you probably know this already. This is partially due to one element of syntax, a word that encompasses all the skills and knowledge needed to obey a language’s grammar rules when constructing a sentence. In short, it’s the art and science of building sentences. I say science because you can program these idiosyncrasies of language and usage into robots or applications like ChatGPT, making it at least a precise art, one with observable correct and incorrect forms. This means there’s an objectivity to each language that’s available for people who desire a set of strict rules when building sentences, whom we call prescriptivist: people who advocate that languages must follow strict sets of unchanging rules. Since words are symbols, not signs, and they have different meanings based on placement in sentences and phrases we make, there is some special knowledge required when using any language to make expressions that may be nuanced, hidden, figurative, or idiomatic in nature. Sometimes a sentence may seem wrong when an author writes one without proper punctuation or word order, but their knowledge of what they are doing with language makes their choices argumentative or symbolic, or meaningful because of how the writer uses them, and the writer is now you!

    Consider the sentences highlighted in the following image that contains an excerpt from 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by author Gary Provost.

    A post from Gary Provost's Facebook page about the importance of varying sentence structure.

    You may not notice at first, but the highlighted parts of the text indicate different sentences, some long, some short, and one incomplete. Notice the third sentence in the second paragraph: it is only one word long, and the word is a noun (a thing): music. A complete sentence in English (according to the laws of syntax) must contain a subject (a thing) and an action or being word, called a verb. Since music is a noun and not a verb and it is punctuated as a complete sentence, either Provost (the author) is making a fragment error by writing an incomplete sentence, or he is making a kind of argument: that the idea of music itself deserves to be considered a complete thought, or a full sentence: music is an action and an actor, a thing being and being done by someone or something. Deep thoughts, am I right?

    Please note that your syntax choices, how wordy or concise your sentences are, can influence how people interpret your tone, which is covered later on in this chapter. Your effectiveness and effect on others when you use words is referred to as rhetoric. A short sentence with single-syllable words seems urgent or bored, while a lengthy, flowery response may delight, confound, and twist the intended point into exhausting or snobby-sounding statements.

    Work Cited

    "This Sentence Has Five Words: A Lesson from Gary Provost on Varying Sentence Length." Aerogramme Writers' Studio, 5 Aug.

    2014, Accessed 20 Jan. 2023.

    • 5.1.1: Introduction to Rhetoric
      This page introduces the three vertices of the rhetorical triangle, an ancient approach to describing the major components involved in persuasion through writing and speaking.