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Syntax in Writing: Using Sentence Structure to Emphasize Ideas

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

It's not enough to choose the right words to convey an idea. Skilled writers also pay attention to how they set up their sentences. In this lesson you'll learn some ways that writers use syntax to emphasize ideas.

The Importance of Syntax

Imagine you're standing in the audience at John F Kennedy's inauguration. During his speech, he says, ''Everyone, ask your country what you can do to help it instead of always thinking of yourself first.'' Not very memorable. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, actually said, ''...ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.'' Both sentences carry the same meaning, but the words that Kennedy actually spoke are more powerful and emphasize his idea of putting one's country first. He accomplished this goal through his skilled use of syntax, the structure of the sentence.

Loose or Periodic

Sentences come in all shapes and sizes, and the way they're structured has a huge effect on the sentence's impact. One of the first choices writers make is whether to use a loose or periodic sentence structure. Loose sentences begin with the main idea, the most common way to structure a sentence. The previous sentence (and this one) are both loose. Kennedy began his inaugural address with a loose sentence, and that set an inviting tone for the rest of his speech. Loose sentences start with the point, and while that's fine, it's sometimes best to end with your point, which is the structure called the periodic sentence. (For an example, see the previous sentence.) Kennedy, once he had hooked his audience with his direct, loose sentences, used some periodic ones to great effect. Periodic sentences force the reader to consider all the given information before they come to the main idea. Here's one example:

''If, instead of listening to the warmongers of the military-industrial establishment, the politicians had only listened to what people had been writing in their letters and in the newspaper columns, if they had only listened to what the demonstrators had been shouting in the streets and on the campuses, if they had only listened to what was in their hearts, the war would have ended long ago.''

Kennedy builds suspense in a single sentence and emphasizes his main point by using a periodic structure.

Contrast

Aside from loose or periodic sentences, writers have a toolbox full of constructions they can use to structure sentences. Let's return to the famous line about asking what you can do for your country. Kennedy utilized a device called antithesis in that sentence. Antithesis presents two ideas in the same sentence, worded in similar ways, and contrasts them. Kennedy contrasts ''what your country can do for you'' with ''what you can do for your country''. He reverses the order, and by doing so, he emphasizes that what people should do is the opposite of what many people actually do.

Antithesis is just a specific type of contrast, and contrast is one of the most effective ways to emphasize ideas in writing. People remember ideas when they're given something to compare them to, and specifically to contrast with them. Let's take a sentence from another memorable speech. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was incredibly short - only ten sentences - but it has remained one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in history. Lincoln said, ''We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.'' Lincoln contrasts death with life in a sentence that both honors the dead and salutes their nation and the living. The contrast drives home his point and makes the sentence memorable.

Repetition

If you want your readers to remember an idea, repeat it; repeat it; repeat it. Repetition is a key element of syntax for emphasizing ideas. For proof, look no further than one of the most famous speeches ever made, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ''I Have a Dream'' speech. King keeps coming back to this refrain of ''I have a dream'' to emphasize the central idea of his speech, his dream of a future time of unity. This isn't the only thing that King repeats though. Here's another passage:

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