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The gift of good syntax

We've all experienced by now the difference between a good and a bad story-teller. The two tell the same story, even use the same words. One holds us spellbound; the other - so what! 

It's all a matter of order, of syntax. The order gives the emphasis. The emphasis is the drama. The drama is the story. 

The difference between a good writer and a bad one is in their treatment of a sentence. They may use the same words, but the good writer has the gift of plot. By his exact ordering of words he achieves three things: 

1. Clarity of meaning

2. Logical unfolding of plot

3. That sense of drama which gives all good writing interest and life.

In a way the gift for words and gift for syntax that a good writer must have are in a way the same - it is all in the ear. This is where reading your writing out loud is the best first step for catching the gremlins of grammar and syntax. As with all important gifts, the talent for good syntax does not come gift-wrapped - it must be nurtured and developed, by guidance and by constant practice. This in turn, will develop the ear. 

And just as an example, look what can happen if you choose to ignore this aspect of your English. It's called syntactic ambiguity and, apart from being used on purpose like in the making of jokes, it can confuse a conversation profoundly. 

Consider an example

This is a paraphrased excerpt from a novel by Kipling: 

"That, down on the banks of the Gumti, was when, having got over the gate, through a whole day, he pleaded with the lama who set like a flint his face against it, averring that the time had not yet come: pleaded that the next holidays he accompany him on the Road - for a month - for a little week."

You can read it again if this left you with a slight confusion, or you can read the original excerpt written by Kipling himself, one of the greatest masters of the narrative sentence: 

"That was when he got over the gate and pleaded with the lama through a whole day down on the banks of the Gumti to accompany him on the Road next holidays - for a month - for a little week; and the lama set his face like a flint against it, averring that the time had not yet come."

It looks so simple here: notice how the syntax suggests the pleading and how the stern character of the lama comes alive. Achieve this in your sentences and you're way on your way as a writer. 

Every sentence we write should constitute a dramatic unfolding. When one can catch it, the finely tuned sentence, that is one of the greatest satisfactions of the writer. It is very much like that of a fisherman catching the fish for dinner, or the batsman who, timing his act perfectly, catches the ball on the meat of the bat. 

You can use powerful words in your writing, but ultimately it is the syntax that controls the spell. And for those of my students who are currently studying creative writing, please find a few more examples on this page.

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