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AP® English Literature
How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature
 The Albert Team
 Last Updated On: June 1, 2020
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It’s important to think of literary elements you’ve studied and mastered as tools in your belt that you’ll be metaphorically bringing with
you on the day of your AP® English Literature Exam Breaking down imagery is your screwdriver Pinpointing speci c diction is your
How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature | Albert.io
you on the day of your AP® English Literature Exam. Breaking down imagery is your screwdriver. Pinpointing speci c diction is your
measuring tape. Studying themes and tone are each nails necessary to drive down that coveted 9 score. However, many test takers
leave at home one of the most important, useful, and point scoring tool: analyzing syntax.
Syntax is a great starting point to dive into the emotions an author is trying to convey, the points the author is attempting to highlight,
and the complexity lurking just under the surface of a passage. Ignoring syntax is the equivalent of an architect ignoring the structure
of a house and instead focusing entirely on the color of the shutters or the design on the doormat.
In this article we will be going over what exactly syntax is, what function it serves, and how to analyze it for use in your essays on the
AP® lit test. Many test takers ignore syntax, because it at rst seems daunting. But we’ll show you easy tips to start getting
comfortable with it so that you, too, can add analyzing syntax to your tool belt.
What is Syntax?
Quite simply put, syntax is sentence structure. We’re lucky that such a simple sentence comes pre-built with alliteration to help us
remember. Syntax = sentence structure = simple!
To better understand what syntax is, consider for a moment that you are one of the authors that you’ve been studying in preparation
for the AP® English Literature exam. Pick your favorite even. Walt Whitman? Harper Lee? F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Imagine that you are sitting down at a table to write your grand masterpiece. You’re about to write a sentence. The way you form that
sentence is syntax. Do you make the sentence long with many dependent clauses? Do you make your sentences short, choppy,
rhythmic? Do you repeat the rst word again and again? The last?
The combination of all these different options for syntax help the author convey different meanings, different emotions, and different
emphasis. It is your job to understand what the author is doing and, more importantly, why. So let’s rst go over in a bit more detail
what function syntax serves in a passage you may be asked to analyze.
How Does Syntax Work?
This tree shows the basic sentence structure of an
English sentence. Image Source: Wikimedia
The great authors you read have a master over syntax, or sentence structure. They vary the structure of their sentences, because it is a
powerful way to convey three things to the reader: meaning, emotion, and emphasis. We’ll take a look at each before studying the nuts
and bolts of how they do this and how you can analyze it.
In a passage look for how an author uses syntax to push forward a particular meaning of the text. Graders on the AP® English
Literature exam typically award higher scores to those test takers who delve into the deeper, more complex meanings of a piece of
literature. That deeper, more complex meaning, however, is often hard to nd by just looking at the author’s use of imagery or tone.
Syntax conveys meanings underneath the surface. This allows you, in your essay, to write strong sentences with this equation: [Author]
How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature | Albert.io
employs [form of syntax] to argue that [meaning].
Along with meaning, authors employ different sentence structures to create an emotion in a particular passage. Repetition can build
up a feeling of anger or lust or passion. An abrupt change in syntax, say from long sentences to one short one, can show confusion or
betrayal. Studying the emotions authors generate from syntax can help us add to our arguments about tone in particular.
Syntax also allows the author to manipulate what the reader pays attention to in a particular passage of literature. Noting what the
author is emphasizing through his or her syntax can help us access the point the author is trying to make. We can start to ask questions
like why is this emphasized over that? What is the emphasis supposed to show us? Is the author hiding something deeper under the
emphasis of something else?
How can I use Syntax to Analyze a Text?
Just like with any other literary element, syntax can be employed to analyze whatever passage you are given on the AP® English
Literature exam, whether prose or poetry. In this next section we will be discussing the different types of syntax and how you can use
them to strengthen your arguments, which will result in a higher score on the FRQ portion.
Don’t be intimidated by the amount of information below. Most is just giving terms to structures you are already very familiar with as a
student of literature. And, as with all preparation for the exam, identifying and analyzing these aspects of syntax gets easier and easier
the more you read, study, and practice. Let’s begin!
Sentence Length
We’ll begin with a rather easy one to spot in a passage of literature on the AP® lit test. Is a sentence short? Is a sentence long? While it
may seem like a rather insigni cant characteristic, the length of a sentence and how it’s paired with sentences of different or similar
lengths can make a large impact on the meaning, emotion, or emphasis of a passage. Remember, just like syntax is a tool for analyzing
literature for you, syntax was a tool for writing literature for all these authors.
Study the length of sentences in a passage. Short sentences, especially ones strung together, actually slow down the reader, drawing
more emphasis to the few words in that sentence. On the other hand, longer, more easily owing sentences allow the reader to move
more quickly through that section. Many assume the opposite, so now you already have a leg up on your fellow test takers.
To analyze sentence length as a form of syntax, ask yourself: why did the author choose several short sentences over one long one?
Why after a paragraph of long, detailed sentences, did the author conclude with a short, choppy one? Diving into these questions about
something as simple as sentence length can give great evidence for your argument in your essay.
Have you ever heard the saying you need to know the rules to break them? While we learn proper punctuation and grammar
throughout school and lose points for erring from the dictated path, the opposite is often true of great pieces of literature. Authors will
purposefully add or neglect punctuation in forming the syntax of their sentences in order to create a desired effect.
Be on the lookout for whenever there is a form of punctuation other than a period or a comma. Is there an ellipsis? What was omitted
with the use of that ellipsis? How is that effect different than if the author wrote everything out explicitly? Is there a dash? Does it
indicate an interruption or a clari cation? How could it have structured differently and why did the author make that speci c choice of
punctuation? If the author only uses one exclamation point, pay attention to that one. If the author uses ten, ask yourself why?
We sometimes see punctuation as a necessity just to tell us when to stop or pause, but learn to think of it as a deliberate choice meant
to convey a point you should pay attention to.
First Word and Last of a Sentence
We learn that the rst sentence and the last sentence of a novel, chapter, or passage are the most important. In fact, most of the most
quoted lines of books are the rst or the last. They’re important, because they tell us what’s important. They set up themes. They guide
us in the direction the author wants to lead us. The same is true with the rst and last word of an individual sentence.
How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature | Albert.io
See if there are any patterns in how an author starts sentences or ends them. Repetition of a certain word or phrase is meant to draw
your attention. Look especially for groups of three in either the rst or last words of a sentence. Groups of three tend to be a particular
favorite among literary authors. If you’ve found three, you’ve found something worth noting in the FRQ of your AP® English Literature
exam. Just remember to go beyond just stating a repetition of the rst or last words. You need to analyze why it is used and what point
it conveys in the larger context of the piece.
The Purpose of a Sentence
Just for a second let’s do a little bit of memory refreshing. We’ve all used these terms before, but dusting off the cobwebs in order to
use them in our essays for the AP® English Literature exam is never a bad idea.
Here are four sentence purposes:
1. A declarative makes a statement. For example: You ran a mile.
2. An interrogative forms a question. For example: Did you run a mile?
3. An imperative gives a command. For example: Run a mile.
4. An exclamatory expresses a strong feeling. For example: You ran a mile!
Now, just like with any other the other aspects of syntax we are discussing here in this article, merely stating that this sentence is
declarative or this sentence is exclamatory will not garner you any extra points on the AP® English Literature exam. It would be just as
absurd to write that this sentence is long, while this one is short. Assume your test grader is an intelligent individual who can see these
things for his or her self.
No, your job is to argue how these aspects of syntax are employed and what effect they have in the passage. Remember, they are tools
to make an argument.
So how can we use the four above sentences a tool for our analyzing belt? We have to look at what each one does in the text. Read the
above examples. ‘You ran a mile’ carries a different meaning than ‘Run a mile’. Each one carries a different tone, purpose, and emotion.
Look too how each one has a different voice. And that is all created simply by syntax alone. That’s how powerful something as simple as
sentence structure can be in a passage.
In the above aspects of syntax, sentence length, punctuation, the rst and last words, and the four sentence purposes, we’ve been
mostly focusing on individual sentences. But it is also important to look at how syntax works in the passage as a whole. How does the
combination of all the sentences work? What effect does it create? What meaning, emotion, and emphasis does it drive toward?
One tool in looking at the syntax of a passage as a whole is repetition. Repetition is a very powerful way to get across an author’s point
and is therefore used quite often. It could be repetition of the rst word in a sentence or repetition of a short sentence following three
long ones or even repetition of a certain type of unusual punctuation.
One word often associated with the use of repetition is rhythm. There’s rhythm in music, but don’t doubt that there is rhythm in
literature as well. While this isn’t necessarily possible during the actual AP® English Literature exam, try reading some passages of
literature out loud for practice. Hearing the words out loud can help you get a sense of a particular rhythm. Then look back at the
syntax in the piece. How did the author make that rhythm?
Once you start breaking it down backwards like that you can see how different sentence lengths work together or how the same
sentence purpose repeated creates a beat. Explain in your essay how the author constructed this rhythm and what it means for the
argument you are trying to make in your essay.
Breaks in Patterns
Another tool to use in assessing the syntax of a particular passage as a whole is identifying in breaks in patterns. A break in pattern is
especially used for adding emphasis in a passage of literature.
Suppose that you’re studying a pattern of syntactic structure during a FRQ of the AP® English Literature exam, but suddenly you nd
that the next paragraph breaks said structure. Don’t assume that you’ve got the pattern wrong. Instead look at the break in pattern as
intentional and examine what the author is trying to guide you to as the reader
How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature | Albert.io
intentional and examine what the author is trying to guide you to as the reader.
A break in pattern can be a break in rhythm, a break in sentence length, a break in rst word or last word, or even a break in
punctuation usage. If you’ve noticed a pattern and it’s broken, this is a great point to note on your essay. But remember, just a simple
noting is not enough. Discuss in your essay why you believe the author chose to break the pattern at that particular point in the
passage and what purpose that serves in furthering the argument of whatever question you are answering on the FRQ portion of the
AP® English Literature exam.
If this is your rst crack at syntax, the above information may seem like a lot to integrate into your arsenal of analytic tools for the AP®
English Literature exam. The best way to get comfortable with them is to practice. It’s okay to take one at a time.
In fact, we recommend picking one aspect of syntax and use it to look at a passage of literature. Start with sentence length and focus
on just that. Then add repetition, then the rst and last words of sentences. Soon you’ll nd yourself spotting more and more.
Whatever you do, just don’t make the common mistake of neglecting syntax. It is a powerful tool in analyzing literature and with just a
little bit of practice, you can master it.
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6 thoughts on “How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature”
Your fav bro
October 16, 2020 at 3:34 pm
thx homie, that helped a lot
The Albert Team
October 26, 2020 at 10:58 am
How to Analyze Syntax for AP® English Literature | Albert.io
Sure thing!
Edwin Jebaraj
October 27, 2020 at 9:14 pm
Thanks a lot. Very useful.
The Albert Team
November 16, 2020 at 1:57 pm
Happy to help.
October 29, 2020 at 7:57 pm
thank you sm
The Albert Team
November 16, 2020 at 1:57 pm
Sure thing.
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