Syntax, a very important branch of grammar, means the ordering or arrangement of words (from Greek syn “together” and taxis “arranging”) in a sentence and the grammatical rules governing this arrangement, the classification of sentences according to the class structure they belong, as well as the correct use of parts of speech or word classes according to their positions and functions in a sentence. Syntax brings together all the parts of speech or form/word classes into sentences to express ideas or to communicate; for example: The boy slapped the girl.

In the above example, different parts of speech, form or word classes are brought together to tell us that a particular boy (“the boy”) slapped a particular girl (“the girl”). Meaning in this case depends on the positions of the two nouns (“boy”, “girl”) in the sentence. if their positions are reversed, we get The girl slapped the boy.

A sentence that expresses semantically a different idea, “the girl” now becoming the aggressor instead of “the boy” who did the “slapping”. In a different sentence arrangement we could retain the same meaning but the syntactic arrangement changes; for instance:

The girl was slapped by the boy

In the above example, the original subject “the boy” who actually “slapped” the girl changes. We now have “the girl” as the subject and “the boy” as the object. The subject in our first example performed the action of slapping the girl while “the girl” suffered the action of being the person slapped — a good example of Active Voice. But when it changes as it did above into

The girl was slapped by the boy.

We have a good example of PASSIVE VOICE. Syntax, therefore, plays a very important role in grammar.

In expressing our initial idea of

The boy slapped the girl

Syntax made use of “the” (a determiner or a definite article as conventional traditional grammar calls it), “boy” (a noun), “slapped” (verb), “the” (another determiner), and “girl” (a noun used as the object of the sentence, the person who suffered the action. Syntax does all these to convey meanings –  an achievement which, to a large extent depends on the form, position, and function of the words in the sentence.




Rules of Syntax

A good understanding and application of Rules of Syntax are necessary to achieve correctness and effectiveness in written as well as spoken English. This is why it is necessary to enumerate these rules and master them as our guides; they are among others, the following:

1) Agreement of the Noun and its Pronoun in Number.

a) The Pronoun and Its Antecedent must Agree in Number, Gender, and Person:

  • The students paid their fees at the Bursary.
  • Mary forgot her pencil in the classroom.
  • The boy and the girl passed their examinations.


b) When the singular nouns joined by and refer to one and the same person, the pronoun referring to their (or the antecedent must be singular, but when such antecedents refer to different persons, the pronouns used for the antecedents must be plural.

  • The Registrar and Secretary to the Academic Board expressed his gratitude to the students (one and the same person).
  • The Registrar and the Secretary to the State Government promised that they would talk to the students (two different persons).


2) Each or every preceding singular subjects joined by and takes a singular verb.

  • Each staff and each student takes care of himself.
  • Every man and every woman is invited to the Convocation Ceremony of the Institute.
  • Each staff and each student plays his part well.


3) Two or more singular subjects joined by “or” or “nor” take a singular verb; but if one subject is singular and the other one is plural, the verb agrees with the nearer subject. 

  • Neither the students nor the teacher is in the school.
  • Neither the teacher nor the students are in the school.
  • Either the children or their father is to blame.
  • Either the father or the children are to blame.


4) If Nouns and Pronouns referring to different persons occur together, the Second Person should be mentioned first, the Third person should be mentioned second, while the First Person should be mentioned last:

  • You, Femi, and I are being expected. Femi and I are friends (not I and Femi).
  • You and I are in trouble (not I and You).


5) When a Pronoun is used after a conjunction of comparison (than or as), that is used before the Pronoun.

  • I am taller than he (not him).
  • I am taller than he (is tall).
  • The boy is stronger than she (not her)
  • The boy is stronger than she (is strong).


6) Plural Subject denoting singular object, definite quantity, a unit or group of objects when regarded as collective, takes a singular verb. (Note that a title of a book or a word used in a special sense, even when in plural form, takes a singular verb.)

  • Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper is an interesting novel (not are).
  • Fifty bushels is a good yield.
  • Twenty strokes was given to the thief.
  • We is first person plural pronoun.


7) Each, neither, either, one, someone, anyone, everyone, anyone, somebody, many a one, nobody, no one, etc. regularly take singular verbs:

  • Everbody is on holiday today.
  • Many a man has been deceived by money-doublers.


8) Two singular subjects or nouns connected by expressions such as the following (as well as, with, together with, plus, in addition to, after) take singular verbs. If, however, one of the subjects is plural, the verb agrees with the former of the two but both with the latter.

  • James as well as John is at home.
  • Politician after politician was disqualified.
  • One plus four is five.
  • Four plus one are five.


9) Nouns that are plural in form but singular in meaning take singular verbs.

  • Politics is a lucrative business in Nigeria
  • The headquarters of the party is in Asaba.

Other words in this category are: whereabouts, mathematics, news, measles, riches, news, tactics, trousers, etc.


10) Agreement of every verb with Its Subject. Nouns or Pronouns intervening between the subject and the verb should not confuse us.

  • The activities of the convocation ceremony are many.
  • The hospitability of the Urhobo is a virtue.


11) Collective Nouns take singular verbs when the group is regarded as a unit. They (collective nouns) take plural verbs when the individuals in the group are regarded separately.

  • The committee has taken a decision (regarded as a unit).
  • The committee have succeeded in securing loans to build their own houses (individuals on the committee regarded separately).

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