By Morgan St. James
The word “syntax” has several definitions relative to the English language and grammar, but the one that popped into my mind is from the Bing Online Dictionary.
Organization of words in sentences
The ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural elements in phrases and sentences. The syntax may be of a whole language, a single phrase or sentence, or of an individual speaker.
When things go wrong
I was listening to an audio book by one of my favorite authors—a New York Times bestselling author, no less. All of a sudden, there it was—the dreaded double-meaning syntax. The narrator said, “The two men sat down quickly in suits and ties.” Um, excuse me. Am I to picture these two fellows wandering through a men’s department in Nordstrom or Macys, then quickly plunk themselves down on a pair of chairs as they reached the Suits & Ties Department?
With apologies to an author whose following is huge, and an undoubtedly highly regarded editor, it seems it should have been something like “The two men dressed in suits and ties sat down quickly.”
The result of poor syntax or arrangement of the words in a particular sentence can definitely create confusion and in some cases are also quite funny.
Years ago, mixed up placement was something I was guilty of as an author. Then my sister Phyllice, trained as an editor, brought it to my attention when we began to write the Silver Sisters Mysteries. All of a sudden, misleading sentences jumped off the page and I found myself acutely aware of them in other author’s books as well.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled a song with the line “Throw mama from the train a kiss, a kiss.” The phrasing was such a good illustration of today’s topic that I looked it up on the internet. The song, actually called Mama From the Train (A Kiss, A Kiss) was recorded by songstress Patti Page in 1956 and reached #11 in Billboard’s Top 100. The songwriter, Irving Gordon, said the song was about memories of his deceased mother, whose Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced English lead to quaint phrasings. Playing on the misdirection, there was a movie with Danny DeVito called Throw Momma From the Train. However, DeVito’s character would really have liked to do what the title suggested and throw his shrew of a mother off a real train!
As I searched, I found some real gems.
- The dealer sold the Cadillac to the buyer with leather seats.
So was that buyer wearing leather pants or what?
- They saw a fence behind the house made of barbed wire.
Now that would have been a neat house for one of the three little pigs.
- The waiter served a dinner roll to the woman that was well buttered.
Except for the use of ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ maybe the woman had a unique way of wiggling into skin-tight jeans.
- Joan piled all of her clothes in the hamper that she had worn.
I wonder how much attention she attracted as she walked down the street.
Pennsylvania Dutch sentence structure also yields some winners. Here are two:
“Only people with cars that live in dorms should be allowed to park in those lots.”
“Where one parent would be quiet, polite and conservative the other parent would drive up in a black Trans Am full of arrogance and conceit.”
The point of all this
Make sure your sentences and phrases are ordered in a way that makes sense. You don’t want people secretly asking questions like the ones above.
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