Quintin Collins

Many coders languish over the word syntax, but when’s the last time you gave that kind of obsession to your web content?

Sure, you’ve probably dropped a few landing pages into the Hemingway App to check readability. You’ve maybe even considered a sentence too choppy to parse. These considerations are effective for ensuring your readers consume engaging, readable copy.

However, have you ever used syntax strategically to manipulate the reader’s response to the words on the page? Do you play with sentence structure to create a sense of calmness? Have you modified syntax to haunt a reader?

Yes, this all seems dramatic. Yet the art of writing is a drama, and you can leverage syntax to create rising actions, climaxes, falling actions and resolutions to subconsciously guide your readers to conclusions while maintaining an informative position so you don’t come across too sales-y early in the funnel.

In fact, avoiding this approach to strike the right tone is one of the most valuable web content writing tips. Paying attention to your syntax is part of building tone, and craft in this area can be the difference between visitors on your site increasing their time on page and bouncing out before they reach the end of your introductory paragraph.

What is syntax in writing?

Syntax is one of those aspects of life you interact with often but don’t name. Simply put, syntax refers to the order in which you arrange the words in a sentence.

Within that definition is a web of strategy. In fact, poet Ellen Bryant Voigt details this complexity in her book The Art of Syntax. As she explains, the craft element includes everything from whether you put a subordinate clause at the start of a sentence to how syntax affects rhythm. While “For your content to provide ROI, it must be viewed by humans who would benefit from your product or service” and “Your content must be viewed by humans who would benefit from it to provide ROI” have the same meaning, the arrangement of the clauses can alter which part of the sentence appears most important.

While syntax doesn’t account for all of readability, it’s a good portion of how tools like the Hemingway app spit out scores for your copy. It’s also why the famous author and his fans like to turn their noses at compound and complex sentence constructions. Yet syntax is not about right or wrong.

Via hemingwayapp.com


When we say, “As almost anyone producing content or navigating the digital marketing space is acutely aware, audience personas have become hyper-specific, right down to your target’s favorite foods, movies, Spotify stations and preferred plots of body for their tattoos,” in a blog about digging into your target audience’s reading list, mastery of syntax tells us why that sentence needs to include at least three clauses in the order in which they appear. That same expertise determines why the following two sentences have simple constructions and are short.

Syntax is the rhythm. Syntax is the pace. Syntax is the mind control. As Voigt explains, it’s one of the earliest facets of language we learn, with subjects, verbs and optional verb objects serving as some of our first building blocks.

How do we strategically use syntax?

Writing is movement, even beyond poetry. Your content tells a story. Your job is to drive readers from the opening exposition to the resolution. On the grander scale, that path is from visitor to prospect to sale. Within the content, the road is from introduction to conclusion (or at least far enough down the page so the visitor is engaged enough to return).

Syntax in writing helps you control that journey. Here’s how:

The rhythm

The manner in which you arrange sentences can create music. If you keep your syntax consistent for a stretch, you create a rhythm. When you start several sentences with introductory phrases, readers register the pattern. This strategy, known as parallelism, works with sentences and clauses within a sentence.

As you begin to play with syntactical rhythms, don’t be too formulaic. Otherwise, your content can sound monotone.

The pace

Syntax can control reading speed. Shorter sentences that follow the basic subject-object-verb construction increase pace. Longer sentences that include hypotaxis or interruptive syntax, which take longer for the mind and eye to process, slow down the reader.

To excite readers, pick up the pace. String together short sentences. Imitate a fast-beating heart. To relax readers or get them to think about key points in your content, switch to longer sentences.

Just remember pacing is all about ebbs and flows. Too many short sentences can make readers feel frantic, and piling on the longer, complex sentences can bore your target audience.

Syntax refers to the order in which you arrange the words in a sentence.

The mind control

Rhythm and pace manipulation is all about the experience of reading. Given your content often focuses on what the target audience cares about instead of your products and services, you can’t always tell readers what to feel in blunt terms.

By controlling rhythm and pace, you can guide readers’ emotional responses to targeted parts of content. For example, imagine you provide a diet plan and supplements, and you want to publish an informative blog or eBook comparing your system to competitors. You can stick to the facts to write an objective overview while giving information about your offering more rhythm and creating excitement through shorter, straightforward sentences.

However you want to play with syntax, always remember the golden rule: Variation is essential. Even Hemingway veered from his subject-verb-object construction every so often.