Syntax conventions in the English language

grammar syntaxParallel Structure

The parallel structure is more about style than grammar.  When you are making a list in a sentence, for example, a series of verbs, then they should be congruent.   For example, “My response to the news was laughing, sighing, and then crying.”  In this example the responses are gerunds, they all end in ‘ing’.  The non-parallel structure would be “My response to the news was laughing, sighing and then I cried.  “and then I cried” breaks the parallel structure of the sentence because it is not a gerund.

Things to look out for to make sure that a sentence is a parallel sentence,

  • Active vs. passive voice. For example, “the egg was boiled, salted, and I put pepper on it.”  The use of the word ‘was’ makes ‘boiled’ and ‘salted’ passive.  The use of the pronoun ‘I’ makes the application of pepper active.  Who put the pepper on the egg? I did, but who boiled and salted the egg? Someone else did.  To fix this sentence you would apply either passive or active voice to all the elements of the list.  For example, the passive version, “The egg was boiled, salted and peppered.”  Or the active version, “I boiled, salted and peppered the egg.”
  • Infinitive vs other verb forms.  The infinitive version of a verb is the most basic form of the verb, for example, the verb ‘cry’ is infinitive.  Other versions of the verb include ‘crying, cries or cried.  For example, the parallel infinitive version of the sentence above is “My response to the news was to laugh, sigh, and then to cry.”
  • A list of individual terms vs. longer phrases.  For example, “the egg was boiled, salted and then I put pepper on it.”  It contains two verbs and a verb phrase.  The correct parallel version would be “The egg was boiled, salted and peppered.”  The actions applied to the egg are all verbs and not a combination of verbs and a verb phrase.

Subject-verb agreement

Agreement in grammar is making sure that sentence parts connect with one another in a harmonious way.  A sentence contains a subject and a verb; the subject must agree with the verb.

For example, “The baby screams.”  The subject ‘baby’ agrees with very ‘screams’.  There would not be a subject-verb agreement if the verb was ‘scream’.  The subject is singular, so the verb must be singular.  It is an odd feature of the English language that the third person singular version of a verb usually ends with an ‘s’.

  • The singular third-person form of the verb is with the ‘s’, for example, “the baby screams.”
  • The plural third-person form of the verb is without the ‘s’, which is the infinitive version.   “The babies scream.”
  • The singular first-person form of the verb would be without the ‘s’ “I scream.”
  • The plural first-person form of the verb is without the ‘s’.  “They scream.”

This pattern holds for the subject being a noun or a pronoun.

Most indefinite pronouns are a third-person perspective.  An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that refers to non-specific people, things, beings or places.  An example would be “Does anyone know the way to the airport?”  The pronoun ‘anyone’ is indefinite third-person singular, it does not define a specific person.   The word ‘do’ is an irregular verb.  The same rule of adding an ‘s’ to third-person singular nouns applies.  If several people were being addressed (third-person plural), then the irregular verb is without the ‘s’.  For example, “Do you all know the way to the airport?”

Recognizing fragments

A sentence fragment is either a sentence including a subject but not a predicate, or a sentence containing a predicate but not a subject.  Sentence fragments do not give enough information to make sense. A sentence that ends prematurely with a full stop.  For example, “The whole story.” Is a sentence fragment because it is missing a predicate.  A complete sentence would be “The whole story began a few years back.”  Another example would be, “Began a few years ago.” This is not enough information to be a complete sentence as it has a predicate without a subject.

Run-ons and comma splices

A run-on occurs when two independent clauses are put together without punctuation or coordinating conjunctions.  Coordinating conjunctions, for example, ‘like, and, but, or’, join parts of a sentence.  An example would be “We walked down the street we met a friend.”  Both “We walked down the street” and “we met a friend” can stand alone as sentences, as they are independent clauses.  There are two ways we can make these two independent clauses make a sentence.

  • Use coordinating conjunction, for example, “We walked down the street, and
    we met a friend.”
  • Use a semi-colon “We walked down the street; we met a friend.”

Comma splice

A comma splice is an inappropriate joining of two independent clauses by using a comma.  Independent clauses should be joined either by a semi-colon or by a command and coordinating conjunction.  For example, “I went to the movies last night, I saw Return of the Jedi.” These are two independent clauses joined with a comma.  It would be correct to join the two independent clauses either with a comma and coordinating conjunction, for example, “I went to the movies last night, and I saw Return of the Jedi.”, or joining the independent clauses with a semi-colon, for example, “I went to the movies last night; I saw Return of the Jedi.”

Dangling Modifiers

Modifiers are words that describe something in a sentence.  Modifiers come before the thing that is being modified when they don’t, it is called a dangling modifier. For example, “After reading the great book, the movie is sure to be exciting.”  The problem is that we do not know who read the book and the phrase “After reading the great book” can’t be modifying the movie because it is referring to a book.  The correct sentence would be “After reading the great book, Andrew can’t wait to see the movie based on it.”  Andrew is reading the book and the movie is based on the great book.

Remember that a modifier (word or phrase) must be close to the subject that it modifies.

Another example is, “With a thunderous roar, Andrew struggled as the train came to a stop.” In this example, it is not clear if the ‘thunderous roar’ is being made by Andrew or the train.  The sentence can be fixed by clarifying the subject.  “With a thunderous roar, the train came to a stop while Andrew struggled to maintain his balance.”  In this example, there can be no doubt that the train is making a thunderous roar and not Andrew.

Test your knowledge of Syntax conventions

These books and tools provide both study and reference material for English Grammar

Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar understandingEnglishGrammar
Grammarly. Correct your grammar as you type. Grammarly logo
English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy English Grammar in Use
The Bluebook of Grammar and punctuation – An easy to use guide with clear rules, real-world examples, and reproducible quizzes. thebluebookofgrammar


Aaron Skudder


  1. As a teacher of English as a second language, I read with interest your article about conventions.  I’ve been teaching English for a long time and, for the most part, writing and speaking it is second nature.  When I read an article like yours, it makes me realize how much I don’t know.  It’s like knowing how to play music but not being good at reading it.  I’ll be honest, many of the terms in your article, are not terms I often use, but probably should.  Thanks for a great article.  Keep up the good work. Take care.


  2. Nice overview. It’s good to get back to the basics in English and though I’ve been speaking and writing in the language all my life, it’s easy to lapse into bad habits – using different tenses, double negatives, etc. So to see a refresher today served as a reminder to keep the bad habits at bay and correcting them. 

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