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How Sentences Work

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How do our sentences get their structure? Do we need to follow grammar rules? What happens when we mix up the order of our words when we speak? In this article, we’re answering all those questions and more -- as we cover the basics of something called syntax. 


How do sentences work?

The short answer is syntax. Here’s what you need to know about it:

  • Syntax means the set of rules for how words can be ordered in a given language. 

  • In other words, syntax is what gives our sentences their structure.

  • To help you understand what syntax is and why it matters, let’s look at a story that illustrates it in a fun way. It features an alien named Chad, so buckle up for a read that’s…well, outta this world.

Story time!

Our story begins with a laundry line of clothes. A bird flits around the laundry line, where some clothes have been hung to dry. There’s a pair of crisp blue jeans, a couple athletic shorts, a few colored shirts, a pair of underwear, some socks, a blazer and a bathing suit. All in all, it seems like a normal Saturday morning on Planet Earth. But alas - things are about to get a little extraterrestrial because a bright green UFO has just appeared in the sky above the house and within seconds, it has landed in the backyard, right beside the laundry line. An alien named Chad jumps out of the UFO, excited to explore Planet Earth and learn all the customs of the curious species called “humans.” 

The first thing that Chad the Alien sees is the laundry line. He thinks to himself: “I should try and dress like a human so that I can blend in.” Looking at the laundry line, he realizes he first needs to make sure he knows what each piece of clothing “means.” What are pants? What’s a shirt? Luckily, before arriving on Earth, Chad the Alien bought a Human Clothes Picture Dictionary. So he pulls it out and quickly reviews what each piece means. For example, he learns that pants are “leg-coverers” and shirts are “torso-coverers.” Feeling confident in his understanding of what each piece of clothing is for, Chad the Alien figures he’s ready to get dressed. So, he starts grabbing clothing items and putting them on. However, he soon realizes that he doesn’t know how to order the individual pieces to make an outfit. Does the underwear go on before the pants - or after?, he wonders. He also realizes that he doesn’t know anything about how the items can be combined to build logical human outfits. Can a shirt be worn without a blazer? Can a blazer be worn without a shirt? He looks around at some of the humans walking around the town and quickly gets the sense from their confused stares that he hasn’t combined these items in a logical order, according to their fashion rules. 

That’s when Chad the Alien realizes that while he has a Human Clothes Dictionary - what he’s missing is a Human Clothes Rule Book. So, he decides to make one himself. He does so by observing all the different orders and combinations of clothing items that can form logical human outfits. And he notes them all in his Rule Book. For example, he notes down that one logical - and very common - outfit order is 1 pair of jeans +  1 shirt + 2 socks + 2 shoes. He also makes sure to note the kinds of combinations that don’t seem possible. For example, no one seems to wear 1 shirt + 2 socks but no pants. Nor do they ever put their underwear on after they’ve put on their jeans. Once Chad the Alien’s Rule Book is complete, he settles in for a great rest of his stay on Planet Earth -- because he now has everything he needs in order to endlessly and systematically build logical human outfits. And wouldn’t you know it, but Chad the Alien’s Rule Book works a whole heck of a lot like syntax…

What’s the takeaway?

Just as there are certain rules for the ways that pieces of clothing can fit together to make logical outfits, there are certain rules for the ways our words fit together to make grammatical sentences. You might not be able to articulate those word order rules. But you know them -- and you use them all the time. For example, which of the following sentences is a grammatical sentence in English? Which is ungrammatical? 

  1. Brianna eats a mango.

  2. Eats Brianna a mango.

You were probably able to very quickly discern that #1 is grammatical and #2 is ungrammatical. But how? Well, your brain has internalized the word order rules that give English sentences their structure. Simply put, your brain knows English syntax. Now, a trained linguist could tell you that the underlying word order rule at play in the sentences above is that English syntax prefers words to follow what we call an SVO word order. SVO stands for Subject + Verb + Object. So, the sentence Brianna eats a mango is grammatical because it follows the SVO word order: Brianna (the Subject) + eats (the Verb) + a mango (the Object). But importantly, you don’t need to be a trained linguist or formally study English syntax rules like SVO word order in order to know and use them in your everyday life.

Why do we need word order rules?

Why can’t we just order our words any way we like? The short answer is that it helps us convey meaning more effectively. At first glance, it might seem like word order rules were invented arbitrarily by some old grammarian to make languages needlessly complicated. To the contrary! Syntax actually helps us convey meaning more clearly. For example, when reading the sentence “The alien chased the human,” you immediately know that the alien is the one doing the chasing. But how did you know that it wasn’t the human doing the chasing? It’s because of the SVO word order rule. If the human were chasing the alien, we’d need to change the word order: “The human chased the alien.” In English, we can rely on the stability of SVO word order rule to convey and understand our ideas efficiently. Cool, right?

Let’s recap
  1. Syntax is all about word order rules.

  2. Word order rules (like SVO) are what give our sentences their structure.

  3. Syntactic word order rules exist to help us convey meaning efficiently.

Thanks for reading!

Now that you’ve reached the end of the article, we hope you have a clearer understanding of what syntax is and why it matters. And remember - if you have a question or idea for an article you’d like to see from us, let us know! We’re always listening. Bye for now - and we look forward to seeing you back here soon!

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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