Term of Art: Syntax

“syntax: The arrangement of words in sentences, clauses, and phrases. Understanding syntax in the English language is very important because it directly affects comprehension. The following sentences, for example, contain the exact same words, but only the syntax is different—Liz saw Bob, Bob saw Liz. The sentences mean very different things.

Students with a learning disability may have trouble understanding the rules of syntax. When speaking out loud, syntax is more flexible and fluid. Sentences in spoken language tend to be longer, and syntactical errors are often overlooked. In spoken language, difficulties in syntax may lead to the inability to articulate a thought in a complete sentence. May students with learning disabilities who demonstrate a solid understanding of syntax in spoken language may have considerable difficulties with syntax in written form because of the static nature of text and rigidity of grammar. In writing, common syntactic errors include run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, subject-verb disagreement, and comma splices.

Syntactic knowledge can have a significant impact on reading and writing. Normal development of syntactic knowledge occurs in the following stages:

  • holophrastic stage (10-12 months): children begin uttering one-word sentences to express ideas. For example, ‘milk’ means ‘I want milk’
  • two-word stage (18-24 months): children string two words together to express general ideas. For example, ‘Mommy’s sock’ could mean ‘That sock is Mommy’s’ or ‘Mommy, the sock is over there’
  • expansions (two to nine years): children begin to gradually use more descriptive and grammatically advanced sentences with subjects and verbs. For example, a two-year-old may say ‘Car goes’ for ‘That car goes down the road’
  • later stages (nine years through adulthood): after age nine, sentence length continues to increase through early adulthood. In adolescence, average sentence length is about 10 to 12 words. Sentence structure becomes more complex, using complex subjects, interrupters, modals, and so on.

Children who do not gain syntactic knowledge in the above stages may encounter problems with comprehension. Research has discovered that poor readers have often have syntactic deficits. Poor readers use fewer complete sentences; they violate subject/verb agreement and use shorter sentences more often than do proficient readers.

If an individual is suspected of having problems with syntax, it is important to find out where the breakdown is occurring. There are both formal and informal syntactic assessment procedures that can be carried out by speech pathologists or other such professionals qualified in assessing language skills.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

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