Skip to main content

Syntax are the rules for how sentences and phrases are constructed in a language, including word order and how words change based on their relations to other words (

What this category is for

When the syntax of the question is part of the main topic in and of itself, syntax should be added to the tags. This is not a relevant tag to use for questions concerning individual declensions or conjugations, but rather for questions along the line of Why is this word in the ablative in this sentence?, or What does this accusative mean here? Therefore, what is central to this tag, is how the problem is understood in relation to the sentence in which it is.

A very brief explanation of what syntax is

Syntax in sentences

Where do the different parts of a sentence belong? How does the meaning of a sentence change from word order? Consider these two sentences:

  • Paul did have a house built yesterday [punctuation]
  • Did Paul have a house built yesterday [punctuation]

To most, the first sentence requires a full stop (or a comma, a semicolon, maybe an exclamation mark or an interrobang). It reads as a statement about a fact – in fact, the added did makes it quite a firm statement – and does not require a response. The second sentence, on the other hand, will to most require a question mark. The reason for this is how the words are ordered. The same is seen in many other European languages:

  • Gibst du deine Frau Blumen? – Do you give your wife flowers?
  • Du gibst deine Frau Blumen. – You give your wife flowers.
  • Sler du brørne dine dagleg? – Do you hit your brothers daily?
  • Du sler brørne dine dagleg. – You hit your brothers daily.
  • Vous mangez une baguette ? – Do you [polite plural] eat a baguette?
  • Vous mangez une baguette – You [polite plural] eat a baguette.

Using a finite verb, we can categorise languages based on their sentence structure. English and Scandinavian languages, for example, are SVO languages, meaning you start with the subject, insert a finite verb and then present the object, such as ‘Mary hits James’ in which Mary is the actor and James is the unfortunate recipient of the action (the patiens). Some languages put the verb at the end, for example German and Korean (which demonstrates that languages do not have to be related to have the same basic syntax); German, though, can be considered both an SOV and an SVO language. Latin generally prefers the verb at the end, making it an SOV language:

  • Lucius strikes Fulvius with a hammer.
  • Lūcius Fulvium malleō pulsat.

Syntax and word forms

The above demonstrates a characteristic of highly inflected languages: The very form of the words change based on what they are expressing. Consider the following:

  • A cat killed the bird with its teeth yesterday.
    Yesterday a cat killed the bird with its teeth.
  • Gestern eine Katze tötete dem Vogel mit seinen Zähnen.
  • Herī catus avem dentibus interfēcit.

In English, if you change the position of cat and bird, you change the meaning of the sentence. In German and Latin, however, you could say both dem Vogel eine Katze tötete and avem catus interfēcit, and the general meaning of the sentence would still be exactly the same – the only change being which part of the sentence you were stressing. (You could say ‘the bird a cat killed’ in English; it would be odd, but passable.) In Latin, we can see what function a word has in the sentence by its ending. For example, if a word ends in ās/ōs, it is almost certain to be an accusative plural, and therefore the direct object of the sentence. In English, this kind of information has (except for pronouns) been completely lost.

Note also that the verb indicates who were doing the action in most highly inflected languages. A remnant of this is still remaining in third person singular in English: the verb hits can only mean a he, she or it, never an I, you, we or they. In Latin, this is expressed with fixed endings: ō, s, t, mus, tis, nt in present tense all clearly express I, you (sg.), he/she/it, we, you (pl.), the

Other resources

Here are some general introductions to syntax: