Syntax in Motion

I’ve introduced two terms, syntax and sentence structure, to refer to the same thing: the possible relationships between words in sentences. Structure suggests something standing firmly in place, like the steel framework of a building. It’s true that when we examine its structure, a sentence does remain still. But this stillness is only one side of the coin. When we’re actually using language—when we’re in the act of listening or talking, reading or writing—sentences are things in motion. They move through time, as music does, and it’s through this movement that their meaning is communicated. This movement in sentences is called sentence rhythm. Although in ordinary conversation we may rarely be conscious of sentence rhythm as such, we all instinctively employ the rhythms of our native languages.

Sentence rhythm and sentence structure are not two different things. Rather, they’re two states or phases of the same thing, just as ice is solid water and water is liquid ice. Sentence rhythm is syntax in motion: the moving along of sentence structure as we speak or read. In the same way, syntax is “frozen” sentence rhythm. It’s frozen in the sense that it’s a kind of stationary record of sentence rhythm, like those nighttime photographs that show the passing of automobiles as lines of light. To repeat: in looking at the syntax of a sentence, we perceive it as a stationary structure of words. But it’s never possible to see the structure of a sentence unless we first follow its sentence rhythm. Everyone with normal hearing follows spoken sentence rhythm perfectly. The problem for some readers is to get themselves to feel sentence rhythm while dealing with a silent page full of words: to mentally “hear” the words as spoken sentences.

This site is full of example sentences, and, as noted, there are practice sentences to download. If you already have a good feel for sentence rhythm in reading, you can read these sentences silently, as you normally would. But if reading silently doesn’t give you a feel for how a sentence would sound if spoken aloud, you’ll need to read it aloud, maybe several times, and listen to it carefully. You might be surprised at how much easier it is to see the syntax of a sentence whose rhythm you actually feel.

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The smallest units of sentence rhythm are syllables. A syllable is the sound produced with a single puff of breath. If you utter any sound, it can’t be less than a syllable. If you cup the palm of your hand about an inch in front of your mouth and say the words in the following list aloud, you’ll feel, both on your hand and on the skin around your mouth, the puff of air that pushes out each syllable. Syllables like boot and pie make a much stronger puff than those like I or you or -ly, but every syllable has its own puff, however light. I’ve placed dots between the syllables of multisyllable words:

boot pie group you
in I see ale ra.di.o in.sist dumb.bell
gi.raffe mul.ty.ply per.form for.ti.tude    

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When an English word has two or more syllables, one of them is stressed with the voice more than the others. Again, every syllable requires a puff of air: otherwise, there wouldn’t be any sound. But we give stressed syllables a distinctly stronger puff than unstressed syllables. Stress has nothing to do with volume (loudness) but comes from a stronger push of air. In the following list, I’ve printed stressed syllables in bold. If you say these words once again, you will note the difference in forcefulness between the stressed and unstressed syllables: ra.di.o dumb.bell
in.sist gi.raffe
la.zi.ness mul.ti.ply per.form
squish.i.ness un.til For.ti.tude  

Dumbbell is a word that combines two words, and you may have noticed that the second syllable is less stressed than the first syllable but has more stress than the second syllable of a word like jumble: we wouldn’t say “dumble.”

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Stress in Phrases

Individual words in sentences naturally stick together in meaningful groups called phrases. In the following examples I’ve again printed stressed syllables in bold:

The day
a fly
in your soup
at the lov.ers’ con.ven.tion
that pink and blue one
run.ning a flea cir.cus
e.lev.en licked

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In speaking, we don’t give equal emphasis to every stressed syllable. Rather, we naturally stress most forcefully the words we instinctively feel are the most important in order to make them more prominent—to make the meaning stand out. The following examples consist of short sentences. This time I haven’t put all the stressed syllables in bold, but only the most prominent ones:

All day, Miss .Muf.fet sat on the .tuf.fet. [The stressed syllables have pretty much equal prominence.]
Snee.zy is my [Again, the two stressed syllables are equally prominent.].
I thought he was Dop.ey’s brother.
No, he’s my brother., she left. [The emphasis is on the fact of her leaving.]
She left [The emphasis is not on the fact of her leaving but on the time she left.]

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Finding Phrases

Phrases are combinations of words that naturally stick together and make sense:

may have been eaten
flapping in the breeze
all the little fleas in town
at high speed
my Uncle Charlie’s lip-smacking kumquat wine
wearing nothing but running shoes and a smile

It’s easy to see that these combinations make sense as they are. They’re not sentences; they don’t make, as we’re traditionally told, “complete” sense. But they are meaningful and complete in their own right as parts of sentences. If you found combinations of words like the following, you’d feel something was wrong—that these couldn’t be functional phrases:

most forcefully the words
less stressed than
backbone gives a
that combines two
feel phrases through

I copied these strings of words from this page, but I deliberately ignored where the actual phrases begin and end. The point is that if you are reading for sentence rhythm you will naturally feel what a complete phrase is.

–> Continue on to Subjects and Finite Verbs.

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