August 7:  Syntax Day

Today is the anniversary of the Whiskey Rebellion.

File:Whiskey Insurrection.JPGOn this date in 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against a federal tax on liquor by tarring and feathering tax collectors and torching their homes. It was one of the first tests of federal authority for the young United States. In response to the uprising, President George Washington called in more than 12,000 Federal troops. The rebels put up little residence, fleeing to hide in the woods. Twenty were captured, and one man died while in prison. Only two of the rebels were convicted of treason, and both of these men were eventually pardoned by Washington (1).

There is a long tradition of sin taxes in America, and it may be a bad pun, but on what other day can you celebrate the syntax of English sentences?

Syntax is simply the way writers put together phrases and clauses to make sentences. Knowledge of syntax helps writers create more varied sentences. For example, variety in sentence openings is an important feature of good writing. Starting with the subject is a natural feature of English sentences, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, if every one of your sentences begins with the subject, your writing will sound monotonous and lifeless.

Three effective methods for adding variety to sentence openings are using prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and absolute phrases. Let’s look at how you can manipulate a sentence’s syntax to open in a variety of ways.

I. Open with a Prepositional Phrase: These phrases begin with a preposition and end with a noun, such as: on the roof, over the rainbow, in the garden, from the city, out the window.

Original Sentence: The students gathered in the cafeteria to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

Revised sentence, opening with a prepositional phrase: In the cafeteria, the students gathered to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

II. Open with a Participial Phrase: These phrases begin with a verb (often in the -ing form) that works like an adjective to modify a noun, such as, eating a sandwich, mailing a letter, or singing a song.

Original Sentence: Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment by reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques.

Revised Sentence, opening with a participial phrase: Reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques, Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment.

III.  Open with an Absolute Phrase:  These phrases begin with a noun or pronoun followed by a participial phrase, such as her arms folded, her voice soaring, or eyes focused.

Original Sentence:  The boxer jumped rope.

Revised Sentence, opening with an absolute phrase:  His feet barely grazing the ground, the boxer jumped rope.

Today’s Challenge: No Sin Syntax Super Sentence
Can you craft a sentence that has at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase?  Look at the example sentences below and see if you can identify the prepositional phrase, participial phrase, and absolute phrase in each.  Then, write the opening sentence of a short story that contains at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase.

Her melodic voice singing out loud and strong, Mary astonished the concert goers in the opera house, bringing the entire audience to tears.

Sitting in the chair, Max, a handsome young man with blond hair, read the book, his mind captivated by the unfolding mystery.

Quote of the Day: Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of the vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds. –Dorothy L. Sayers

1 – U.S. Department of the Treasury. “The Whiskey Rebellion.”

2 – Backman, Brian. Thinking in Threes: The Power of Three in Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: Cottonwood Press, Inc., 2005.