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Using Syntax to Determine the Meaning of Words

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  • 0:00 Unknown Words
  • 0:36 What Is Syntax?
  • 1:07 Using Syntax to…
  • 3:34 Practice
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Syntax can be a helpful tool in determining the meaning of unknown words. This lesson will explain what syntax is and how it can be used to break the code of unknown vocabulary.

Unknown Words

Coming across unknown words as you read can put you in quite an imbroglio and may make you feel vacuous. There is no need for perturbation, though, as there are many stratagems for overcoming these impediments. If you're like me, you've already been challenged in this lesson with words like imbroglio, vacuous, perturbation, stratagems and impediments. Never fear! By the end of this lesson, you'll be a pro at using syntax to determine the meaning of these words.

What Is Syntax?

Syntax, in its most basic form, is simply the order of words. A more formal version of the definition of syntax might describe it as the rules that govern the structure of language, whether written or spoken. For example, you wouldn't say, 'went I store the to.' This sounds like nonsense. However, if you said, 'I went to the store,' you'd be demonstrating an understanding of syntax. In short, syntax is a set of rules that determine what goes where in language.

Using Syntax to Determine Meaning

Now you know what syntax is, let's look closer at the ways it can help you can decode, or determine unknown words. To begin, take a moment to define the word 'absconded.' How about 'interlocutor?' Were you able to come up with definitions for these two tough words? If not, don't worry. We're going to use syntax to figure out what they mean.

Take a look at the following sentences:

  • My dog absconded with the treat to keep it from the cat.
  • Gina's role in the town budget talk demonstrates that she is an interlocutor.

Did seeing the words in sentences make it easier to define them? If you haven't guessed already, absconded means to run away with something. The dog in the sentence was running away with a treat, to keep it from the cat. It may have been harder to figure this out if the sentence read simply, 'My dog absconded,' because we would not have been able to use syntax, or the order of the words, for clues. However, the addition of an object in the sentence (the treat) and an action (keeping it from the cat), helped provide syntactic clues, or signals provided by the syntax of a sentence about the meaning of the word. This is how we use syntax to determine the meaning of words.

How about the second sentence? We know based on the way the words in the sentence are placed, that Gina was involved in the town budget talk. We can assume that she was a part of the conversation about the town's budget based on the syntax, can't we? Then it should come as no surprise that an interlocutor is someone who engages in a conversation. Gina is an interlocutor because she was a part of the town budget conversation and syntax helped us determine that through word placement, or the ways the words are positioned in the sentence.

Let's try using syntax to determine the meaning of a word, but with a twist this time. The following sentence has a blank. How can we use syntax to guess the unknown word?

  • My dog likes to _____ holes in the backyard.

Can you guess the word? Well, if you look at the order of the words, we know that a verb, or action word, is missing. We know this because the words in order tell us that it is something the dog likes to do. Syntax also tells us that this action creates holes in the backyard. Okay, syntax investigators, what is the word? You guessed it! The word is 'dig.' My dog likes to dig holes in the backyard.

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