Understanding grammar vs syntax will help you create strong, effective writing. Learn how these grammar concepts work together.
Writing clear, strong sentences requires two things: grammar and syntax.
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they represent different branches of linguistics.
However, they work hand-in-hand to ensure the English language easier to understand.
Studying their differences will serve as building blocks on your path to becoming a better writer. So learn the rules of grammar vs syntax…. before you break them.
What is Grammar?
To understand the difference between grammar vs syntax, you must first define the terms.
Grammar is defined as:
A set of rules that set forth the correct standard of usage in language.
In other words, grammar refers to the rules that dictate how we should say and write things correctly.
Examples of grammar rules include:
- Subject/verb agreement
- Pronoun/antecedent agreement
- Verb tenses
- Punctuation rules
These are examples of properly written sentences that follow grammar rules:
John walks his dog.
John and Sarah walk their dog.
In contrast, this sentence does not:
John walk his dog.
This is an example of incorrect grammar. “John” is a singular subject, while “walk” is a plural verb.
Grammar is important because it gives writers and speakers a standard to follow within their given language. It also helps with communicating an intended meaning clearly.
That said, understanding grammar shouldn’t deter you from breaking the rules if it improves your writing. Unless you’re a grammar nazi, playing around with words is fun.
What is Syntax?
Syntax is defined as:
The study of sentences and their structure, and the constructions within sentences.
Syntax tells us what goes where in a sentence. This part of writing and speaking is all about word order or the arrangement of words.
Grammar rules about syntax include:
- Misplaced modifiers
- Sentence fragments
- Run-on sentences
When considering syntax, this sentence structure is incorrect:
I nearly walked five miles today.
While this might seem correct, the phrase actually indicates that you nearly walked. Instead, you crawled, ran, got in your car, or dragged yourself.
Instead, syntax dictates the correct construction of a sentence as reading:
I walked nearly five miles today.
This arrangement clearly shows that “nearly” refers to the number of miles.
In addition, syntax applies to decisions about word choice and word order.
This area allows quite a bit more room for interpretation, as word choice rarely follows cut-and-dried rules. For example, it’s grammatically correct to say:
To the store we are going.
However, syntax tells us the following sentence is more clear and readable.
We are going to the store.
Both mean the same thing and technically use correct grammar, but they do not have the same syntax or order of words.
Again, understanding syntax shouldn’t deter you from breaking the rules. Consider writers like James Joyce who use colloquial or natural language and dialogue in their works.
What Is the Difference Between Grammar vs Syntax?
Think of syntax as referring to word order.
Consider grammar referring to the rules of the language.
Remember, sometimes, a phrase is grammatically correct, but it does not follow the rules of syntax and thus becomes unclear to the reader.
What Are the Rules of Syntax?
Most people understand basic rules of grammar from grade school. However, the rules of syntax are more subjective. Here are some examples of proper syntax:
Almost every sentence in the English language, with the exception of questions, follows the subject-verb-object structure. Consider this example:
I love dogs.
In this sentence, the subject (I), verb (love), and object (dogs) are clear.
My next-door neighbor quickly moved his car out of the way.
In this example, the subject phrase (my next-door neighbor), verb phrase (quickly moved), and object phrase (his car out of the way) are longer and more interesting, but they still follow the pattern.
Syntax also calls for series or lists to have a parallel structure. You should say:
He liked studying, reading and writing.
He liked to study, reading and writing.
Understanding parallel construction is a useful skill if you’re self-editing a manuscript like a book or want a clear set of structural rules for your work.
That said, a good editor will pick up on these issues for you…. assuming you pay them enough.
Syntax rules dictate what forms a complete sentence, usually in parts of speech or within a particular language.
For a sentence to be complete, it must have a subject and verb and express a complete thought. Thus:
The boy ran to the baseball field.
is a complete sentence, even though it is short and simple.
A fragment is an incomplete sentence that either lacks one of these parts or does not complete a thought. For instance:
Because he was hungry.
This is not a complete sentence. What happened because he was hungry? Unless the context is clear, we may never know.
Similarly, syntax demands writers avoid squishing two sentences together without proper connectors. This is considered a grammatically correct sentence:
The boy ran to the baseball field, and he grabbed a bat to join in the game.
However, this examples lacks the connectors, so therefore is incorrect:
The boy ran to the baseball field he grabbed a bat to join in the game.
Differentiating between grammar and syntax isn’t easy. Both work together, kind of like the building blocks of a house.
- ✓   Excellent online grammar knowledgebase
- ✓   Useful for non-native English speakers and new writers
- ✓   You can switch between US and British english
Join over 15,000 writers today
You'll get a free book of practical writing prompts.