Brand Voice and the Power of Words: Syntax

There’s an old joke email that’s gone ’round the web about a zillion times (the kind of thing your quirky uncle — or in my case, my quirky father-in-law — still forwards you daily) that asks the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and gives the answers of many favorite authors.  My favorite was always Ernest Hemingway:

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To die. In the rain.

Maybe I only think it’s funny because I had to do an excruciating term paper in high school English comparing and contrasting the role of the anti-hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, but that line pretty much sums up my experience with Hemingway.

But why is that? Why can we sum up (satirically, of course) an author’s entire works in two extremely short sentences?

What made Hemingway such a distinctive writer?

One main factor was his use of syntax.

Syntax is basically grammar and sentence structure: How you string your words together.  In Hemingway’s case, he was known for his laconic writing style and short, deadly sentences.  Like his famous six word story:

For sale; baby shoes, never worn.

So what does Hemingway have to do with blogging? I’m so glad you asked. 😉

Syntax is another literary tool we can use to help uncover and categorize our own distinct writing voice.


What does syntax have to do with blogging?

Previously, I talked about how diction (the words you choose) subconsciously affects how people feel when they read your writing. The same is true of how you string those words together (your syntax).

Blogging is almost as much a visual medium as it is a written one, because of the way we tend to read on a screen.  Studies have shown that people tend to scan blog posts and online articles — especially long ones — and skim to find the parts they most want to read. That’s why subheadlines, bullet points, and call outs (like the tweetable below) are important to the medium of blogging.

And those things are all a part of your syntax.

As with anything in life or business, your mileage may vary. If you find that you write really long flowing blog posts with very long sentences and paragraphs, and your readers are all over that, then go for it! Ignore the popular wisdom!

If, on the other hand, you don’t get much interaction or comments on your blog, you might try breaking up your long paragraphs, shortening your sentences, adding a few subheads to help prevent reader fatigue.

What does blog syntax look like?

Let’s look of a couple of examples of famous bloggers who have distinctive syntax:

  • Seth Godin is known for bucking all kinds of trends when it comes to internet marketing, and his blog is no exception. When clients ask me how long a blog post should be, I spit out my standard answer, which says that Google looks at posts of 300 words or more. But LOTS of Seth’s posts are shorter than 300 words. (He’s Seth Godin; he can get away with it.) His style is to be very pithy, and say a lot in a very few words.
  • Danielle LaPorte, on the other hand, has a very flowery, poetic syntax. She makes liberal use of bold, italic, and other fonts to call out certain sentences. She tends to use long sentences with parallelism and long lists of things to make a point. But she also knows when to call out an important idea in a short paragraph of only one or two sentences. Her syntax is very conversational and flowy.

Which is right? There is no right! These are just two examples of how these two writers use syntax to their advantage.

What does your syntax say about YOU?

So, of course, now that you understand syntax a bit, the idea is to look at your own and see what it might be conveying about you and your brand. You can use your word processor’s word count function to help with these questions.

  • Do you tend to write short sentences or long?
  • How many sentences are in a paragraph on average?
  • Do you use passive voice?  (“John brought flowers” is active; “The flowers were brought by John,” is passive.)
  • Do you always use proper grammar, or do you sometimes mix things up for style’s sake?
  • Do you deliberately use any special characters or break specific grammar rules? For example, not capitalizing sentences or using a + or & instead of the word and.

Now that you’ve got that empirical data, you can use it to see what your syntax might be conveying.

Very long sentences tend to:

  • be more scholarly or more narrative
  • sound the way people actually talk
  • replicate physical movements, describing how someone does a series of actions
  • suggests confusion
  • simulates the rapid flow of ideas or emotions — this is especially true when you have long, run-on sentences
  • pile on detail after detail to illustrate the enormity or weight of something, like listing the many options at a huge buffet table, or the dozens of different ways to lose weight.

Very short sentences tend to:

  • highlight or stress a key idea
  • make the author sound more objective and/or factual
  • covey anxiety or quicken the pace of a paragraph.

Parallelism (“on the sea, in the air, over the land…”) tends to:

  • stress the sheer number of things being listed
  • create rhythm, force, and power
  • stir emotions (think of the phrase “I have a dream,” in MLK’s famous speech).

Repetition tends to:

  • help stress a key idea
  • convey an emotion

So what does your syntax say about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts or questions in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Brand Voice and the Power of Words: Syntax

  1. At last — a practical, intelligent piece on the mechanics of exceptional writing. It’s refreshing to know that some writers still care about our communication skills. As professionals, we jeopardize our credibility with careless or downright shoddy writing. Thanks.

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