Writers Tricks of the Trade Volume 7, Issue 4 Winter 2018 - Page 26
S OME T HOUGHTS A BOUT S YNTAX
EXCERPTED FROM THE BOOK “WRITERS TRICKS OF THE TRADE”
The word “syntax” has several definitions relative to the English language and
grammar, but the one that popped into my mind is from the Bing Online Diction-
ORGANIZATION OF WORDS IN SENTENCES
A MAZING HOW THE POSI-
TION OF A FEW WORDS
CAN CHANGE THE ENTIRE
C HECK THESE OUT , THEN
CHECK YOUR SYNTAX
WHEN YOU PROOFREAD .
The ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural ele-
ments in phrases and sentences. The syntax may be of a whole language, a single
phrase or sentence, or of an individual speaker.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
I was listening to an audio book by one of my favorite authors—a New York
Times bestselling author, no less. All of a sudden, there it was—the dreaded dou-
ble-meaning syntax. The narrator said, “The two men sat down quickly in suits and
ties.” Um, excuse me. Am I to picture these two fellows wandering through a men’s
department in Nordstrom or Macys, then quickly themselves plunk down on a pair
of chairs as they reached the Suits & Ties Department?
With apologies to an author whose following is huge, and an undoubtedly high-
ly regarded editor, it seems it should have been something like “The two men,
decked out in suits and ties, sat down quickly.”
The result of poor syntax or arrangement of the words in a particular sentence
can definitely create confusion and in some cases are also quite funny.
Years ago, mixed up placement was something I was guilty of as an author.
Then my sister Phyllice brought it to my attention. All of a sudden, misleading sen-
tences jumped off the page and I found myself acutely aware of them in other au-
thor’s books as well.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled a song with the line
“Throw mama from the train a kiss, a kiss.” The phrasing was such a good illustra-
tion of today’s topic that I looked it up on the internet. The song, actually called
Mama From the Train (A Kiss, A Kiss) was recorded by songstress Patti Page in 1956
and reached #11 in Billboard’s Top 100. The songwriter, Irving Gordon, said the
song was about memories of his deceased mother, whose Pennsylvania Dutch-
influenced English lead to quaint phrasings. Playing on the misdirection, there was
a movie with Danny DeVito called Throw Momma From the Train. However, DeVi-
to’s character would really have liked to do what the title suggested and throw his
shrew of a mother off a real train!
As I searched, I found some real gems.
W INTER 2018
P AGE 18
W RITERS ’ T RICKS OF THE TRADE