Archive for August, 2015|Monthly archive page

The Importance of Syntax

Way back in the nineteen-mumbles, I took a programming class. I was in the very last class at my university that started Fortran programming on punch cards. Yes, punch cards. You can buy them on Etsy as antiques. The professor thought we should know how bad his generation had it so we would appreciate dumb terminals (insert eye-roll here).

At any rate, the mini-mainframe system was so amazingly primitive that your program output might be a single sheet of paper (with tractor-feed margins still attached, of course) that bore the message “Syntax Error”. Which meant you had screwed up in punching one or more of your cards and the resulting code would not compile correctly, let alone run and give you the results you had to turn in for a grade.

It’s an excellent catch-all message that can be used to describe so many grammatical errors in English:
“Try and do it” = syntax error
“Graduated college” = syntax error
“Happened on accident” = syntax error
“Your so right” = syntax error
“I could care less” = syntax error

Luckily, English is extremely redundant and the human brain is highly resilient (unlike computers). We can interpret statements full of syntax errors, although a personal opinion of the speaker/writer’s intelligence might be revised down in the process. Unless English is not his or her first language, of course; syntax can be tricky to port between different grammatical systems.

For example, French uses postpositions, positional-descriptive words that are placed after a noun phrase, as well as prepositions. When French is transliterated to English, you sometimes get sentences that sound like Yoda came up with them — full of syntax errors…in English.

Genre fiction publishers are reluctant to include semicolons in books, because they believe (or so my editors have said) readers can’t understand them. Not fair, really, to either readers or the semicolon, but there it is. The result, if the writer is using the punctuation correctly, is unnecessarily choppy prose or (shudder) comma splices without appropriate conjunctions. In other words, syntax errors.

Many syntax errors are so common they’ve become idiom (a nice way of saying everybody does it so grammarians have given up), which is why idiom is almost untranslatable — it didn’t actually make sense in the first place, so moving it into a different language is tricky at best.

Study your syntax, be aware when you’re using idiom. Control it; use it for effect and not just because it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Just because everyone is doing it does not make it right, or good, or readable twenty years from now when idiom and syntax have moved on.

If you do that, you’re less likely to include the word “hassle” (origin in the late 19th century, rarely used before 1950) six times in a Regency romance novel.

Back to the word mine….


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