A poster from a 1912 production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III. It is of a man, King Richard standing on a battlefield in armor with a sword, gesturing towards the skies.

When we learn how to read, we get used to seeing words in a certain order, and we begin using the same order in our speech. This is the basis of syntax. All languages have basic patterns for how words are combined to form sentences. Writers use different types of sentences for different effects. A solid understanding of sentence patterns is, therefore, crucial to understanding written and spoken language.

Source: Richard III 1912 Poster, Vanjaggenije, Wikimedia

Below are some types of sentences you have probably seen prior to this lesson; read through the examples and review them.

(states something):

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

—President Franklin D. Roosevelt

(a command):

“Off with their heads.”

—The Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s
Through the Looking Glass

(a strong statement or exclamation):

“It’s alive! It’s alive!”

—Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 film Frankenstein

(asks a question):

“Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why, can’t I?”

—Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

The following passages show effective examples of syntax in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll, Bob Dylan, and Ralph Ellison. Read through each passage, paying attention to the syntax. What are these authors telling you? What points are they trying to make? How does the passage make you feel? By answering these questions, you will begin to understand syntax and how the arrangement of words can affect a reader.

Read each passage in this section and then click the correct answer for the questions that follow.

Passage 1

In this passage from The Great Gatsby, author F. Scott Fitzgerald is describing main character Jay Gatsby, a self-made man who seems to have everything—except the girl he has always loved.

He wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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1. The first sentence is an example of—

an imperative sentence.
Try again. This sentence is not a command.
a declarative sentence.
Correct! This sentence states an idea.

2. In the second sentence, what is it about the syntax that pulls you into Gatsby’s dream of returning to the past?

The sentence contains a metaphor.
Incorrect. There is no comparison.
The sentence is quite long, first describing Gatsby’s current life and then, in a series of phrases, describing his longing to find happiness
Correct! The second sentence is long and feels like a dream.

Passage 2

In this next passage from Through the Looking Glass, Alice and Unicorn are getting to know one another. Unicorn has never seen a child before and thinks Alice is a monster. By the same token, Alice thinks Unicorn is a monster. Pay attention to what they are saying to one another. What is being debated here? What do they agree to do? What does the last line reveal about Unicorn? How does the last line make you feel? Are you a little bit impressed by the Unicorn’s acceptance of Alice? Whatever your feelings are, the last line’s syntax seems to create a tone of friendliness and compromise.

[Alice:] “Do you know, I always thought unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!”

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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1. “If you believe in me, I’ll believe in you” is an example of—

parallel sturcture.
Correct! “Believe in” is used in both parts of the sentence.
Try again. “Onomatopoeia” is a word that makes the same sound it represents.

2. The second sentence is an example of—

an exclamatory sentence.
Correct! It expresses excitement and ends in an exclamation point.
an interrogative sentence.
Try again. The second sentence does not ask a question.

Passage 3

Donne uses metaphors to provide his readers with imagery, and the metaphors add meaning to his words and phrases. Island, continent, and clod are metaphors for how we are all connected to each other.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

—John Donne, “No Man Is An Island”

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1. The seventh and eighth sentences of Donne’s poem beginning with “As well. . .” are examples of—

interrogative sentences.
Try again. These sentences are all declarative sentences.
parallel structure.
Correct! The seventh and eighth sentences begin with the phrase “as well” followed by examples to support the poet’s contention that we are all a part of each other.

2. The word “tolls” in the last two lines is an example of—

Try again. The word “toll” is repeated not paired with a word that has the same initial sound.
Correct! The word “toll” is repeated to give emphasis to the bell that tolls when someone dies to support Donne’s idea that anyone’s death affects everyone.

Passage 4

This passage is from the prologue of The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. As a writer, Ellison used racial issues to express universal dilemmas of identity and self-discovery but avoided taking a straightforward political stand. In this passage, Ellison repeats over and over again “I am.” The details that follow suggest a man’s yearning to be recognized as a man. A reader can’t help but feel empathy and sympathy toward someone who does not consider himself very important and struggles to prove his identity. Ellison begins this passage with a very short, straightforward statement, elaborates with a very long sentence in the middle, and then ends with another concise and strong statement. You can see that Ellison’s syntax influences what a reader feels when reading this passage.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

—Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man

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1. The first two sentences of the passage draw the reader‘s attention because they—

present a rhetorical question and then an answer to the question.
Try again. Ellison does not question and provides no answers.
present a short powerful statement followed by a long sentence of specifics.
Correct! This is exactly what Ellison does. The second sentence is long and filled with details.

2.“Nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms” is an example of—

word inversion.
Correct! Normally you would say “I am not one of.”
Try again. This statement does not compare two things.