Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.



            This is the other joy stick you have to control your style. Syntax refers to the way you arrange words in such units as phrases, clauses, and sentences. Here again we find great potential for artistry.

            We might well ask, however, what makes one syntactic construction more artful than another?

            To get at the roots of what syntax is all about and how we can make value judgments about it, let's have a look at the following paragraph. Better yet, let me ask you to be interactive. Proceed by following the directions.

Rewrite the following paragraph so that it flows smoothly, stylishly. You may combine sentences, change the order of words, and omit words that are repeated too many times, But try not to leave out any of the information.

Aluminum is a metal. It is abundant. It has many uses. It comes from bauxite. Bauxite is an ore. Bauxite looks like clay. Bauxite contains aluminum. It contains several other substances. Workmen extract these other substances from the bauxite. They grind the bauxite. They put it in tanks. Pressure is in the tanks. The other substances form a mass. They remove the mass. They use filters. A liquid remains. They put it through several other processes. It finally yields a chemical. The chemical is powdery. It is white. The chemical is alumina. It is a mixture. It contains aluminum. It contains oxygen. Workmen separate the aluminum from the oxygen. They use electricity. They finally produce a metal. The metal is light. It has a luster. The luster is bright. The luster is silvery. This metal comes in many forms.

            Awfully choppy, isn’t it? Even primitive?

            In fact, the paragraph represents what our thought stream looks like at its most basic level. Human thought begins as a series of propositions. Linguists call these proposition-bits “s-constituents,” which are defined as “the abstract structures underlying the simplest of sentences; kernel sentences.”

            By the time we utter or write our thoughts, however, our minds have performed operations on these s-constituents.  What we’ve done is to combine them, making some more important than others. Some get demoted. Every adjective in a sentence, for example, used to be a free-standing proposition. (I think of the adjective-laden sentence in terms of a headhunter with heads tied to his belt; the heads are the adjectives, all that remain of the former independent s-constituents).

            In linguistic terms, we organize s-constituents into T-units (the “T” stands for “terminal”).

            T-units: “a single main clause with whatever other subordinated clauses or non-clauses are attached to, or embedded within, that one main clause. All T-units can be sentences, though sentences are not always Y-units because they may contain more than one main clause.” If we have a sentence with two main clauses, it contains two T-units.

            Here’s a scheme to represent what happens:

            SC1                   +                       SC2                  +            SC3

Aluminum is a metal.               It is abundant.             It has many uses.

       equals this T-unit:    Aluminum is an abundant metal with many uses.                                                                   

Interestingly, we all seem to make these transformations in individual ways. For years, I have had classes rewrite the aluminum paragraph. After completing the exercise, we compare what we did with the first six s-constituents. Never have I found an exact match. Sometimes we come close but one of us might have used a comma and another not; every piece of  punctuation conveys semantic information, changing the meaning of an otherwise-identical formations.

            What I’m reminded of is a startling thing I read once in an essay which demonstrated that given the astronomical number of possible grammatical combinations, “it would take ten trillion years (two thousand times the exact age of the earth) to utter all the possible English sentences that use exactly 20 words. Therefore it is improbable that any 20-word sentence a person speaks was ever spoken previously.”

A national study

            This aluminum paragraph was part of a study that looked at how syntax develops as we move from childhood to adulthood. It was administered to great numbers of people at all ages. Here is what the study found (as reported in an article by Kellogg Hunt entitled “Early Blooming and Late Blooming Syntactic Structures”).

            If we take those first six s-constituents:

                        1. Aluminum is a metal.

                        2. It is abundant.

                        3. It has many uses.

                        4. It comes from bauxite.

                        5. Bauxite looks like clay.

                        6. Bauxite contains aluminum.

            A typical fourth-grade response is:

            Aluminum is a metal and it is abundant. It has many uses and it comes from bauxite. Bauxite is an ore and looks like clay.

            A typical eighth-grade response is:

            Aluminum is an abundant metal, has many uses, and comes from bauxite. Bauxite is an ore that looks like clay.

            A typical skilled adult response is:

            Aluminum, an abundant metal with many uses, comes from bauxite, a clay-like ore.

             So what’s happening as we move from fourth grade to adulthood? To begin with, we witness a decrease in the total number of T-units. We move from five in fourth grade to two in eighth grade to one in the adult response (remember that a T-unit is a main clause and there can be more than one in a sentence). In other words, there is increasing compression of thought. The adult response contains only one main idea; the other propositions have been embedded as adjectival material.

            The other thing we notice is that different syntactic structures are being used. The fourth-grade response shows simple coordination, the adding together of things. The eighth- grade response introduces a new device: the relative clause (“that looks like clay”). And the adult response responds to the same stimuli by using two appositives.  A preliminary conclusion is that some syntactic devices are more “mature” than others. If this is so, we can use the knowledge to good effect as we try to develop a mature style. More on this later.