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Syntax can be a helpful tool in determining the meaning of unknown words. This lesson will explain what syntax is and how it can be used to break the code of unknown vocabulary.

Unknown Words

Coming across unknown words as you read can put you in quite an imbroglio and may make you feel vacuous. There is no need for perturbation, though, as there are many stratagems for overcoming these impediments. If you’re like me, you’ve already been challenged in this lesson with words like imbroglio, vacuous, perturbation, stratagems and impediments. Never fear! By the end of this lesson, you’ll be a pro at using syntax to determine the meaning of these words.

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What Is Syntax?

Syntax, in its most basic form, is simply the order of words. A more formal version of the definition of syntax might describe it as the rules that govern the structure of language, whether written or spoken. For example, you wouldn’t say, ‘went I store the to.’ This sounds like nonsense. However, if you said, ‘I went to the store,’ you’d be demonstrating an understanding of syntax. In short, syntax is a set of rules that determine what goes where in language.

Using Syntax to Determine Meaning

Now you know what syntax is, let’s look closer at the ways it can help you can decode, or determine unknown words. To begin, take a moment to define the word ‘absconded.’ How about ‘interlocutor?’ Were you able to come up with definitions for these two tough words? If not, don’t worry. We’re going to use syntax to figure out what they mean.Take a look at the following sentences:

  • My dog absconded with the treat to keep it from the cat.
  • Gina’s role in the town budget talk demonstrates that she is an interlocutor.

Did seeing the words in sentences make it easier to define them? If you haven’t guessed already, absconded means to run away with something.

The dog in the sentence was running away with a treat, to keep it from the cat. It may have been harder to figure this out if the sentence read simply, ‘My dog absconded,’ because we would not have been able to use syntax, or the order of the words, for clues. However, the addition of an object in the sentence (the treat) and an action (keeping it from the cat), helped provide syntactic clues, or signals provided by the syntax of a sentence about the meaning of the word. This is how we use syntax to determine the meaning of words.How about the second sentence? We know based on the way the words in the sentence are placed, that Gina was involved in the town budget talk.

We can assume that she was a part of the conversation about the town’s budget based on the syntax, can’t we? Then it should come as no surprise that an interlocutor is someone who engages in a conversation. Gina is an interlocutor because she was a part of the town budget conversation and syntax helped us determine that through word placement, or the ways the words are positioned in the sentence.Let’s try using syntax to determine the meaning of a word, but with a twist this time.

The following sentence has a blank. How can we use syntax to guess the unknown word?

  • My dog likes to _____ holes in the backyard.

Can you guess the word? Well, if you look at the order of the words, we know that a verb, or action word, is missing. We know this because the words in order tell us that it is something the dog likes to do. Syntax also tells us that this action creates holes in the backyard. Okay, syntax investigators, what is the word? You guessed it! The word is ‘dig.’ My dog likes to dig holes in the backyard.

Practice

How about one final challenge? Let’s revisit the words used in the introduction that may have been unknown to you: imbroglio, vacuous, perturbation, stratagems and impediments. We’ll use what we’ve learned about syntax to decode them. For example, in the first sentence, what syntactic clues can you find?

  • Coming across unknown words as you read can put you in quite an imbroglio and may make you feel vacuous.

By focusing on the words and their placement in the sentence, we can tell that imbroglio and vacuous carry negative connotations. We also know that the first is a position and the second is a feeling, because of the other words used in the sentence. Imbroglio is a synonym for predicament and vacuous means stupid. Let’s take a look at the second sentence now, using the same strategies.

  • There is no need for perturbation, though, as there are many stratagems for overcoming these impediments.

Can you guess what the words mean? This one is a bit harder because there are three unknown words in one sentence. However, if you take it slow and pay attention to the words used in their arrangement, you’ll see that perturbation is another word for being freaked out, stratagems are techniques, and impediments are barriers. That wasn’t too hard, was it? Well done!

Lesson Summary

Syntax is a set of rules that govern word placement in spoken and written language.

Syntax can provide clues to help decode or figure out what unknown words mean. Using syntactic clues, such as the inclusion of certain words, can help us determine the meaning of unknown words. Keying into the order of word placement is also an example of how we can use syntax to assist us in determining the meaning of unknown words.

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