Syntax vs. Grammar: What’s the Difference?

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Grammar refers to the structure and order of words in a sentence, but what is syntax? Both are related to language, but how are they different? Or are they synonyms for the same concept?

Syntax and grammar are two related aspects of the study of language. Syntax is the study of how words and phrases are arranged to form sentences. As such, it is an element of grammar. But grammar is also an element of the study of language, or linguistics.

Because the two words are often used interchangeably, learners of a new language think they need to learn grammar first. But is that correct? Let’s go ahead and explore that question.

What is Syntax?

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. Native speakers learn the syntax of their language intuitively. However, language learners need to learn a language’s syntax.

Obviously, a language learner has to learn the vocabulary of the language they are studying. But the vocabulary doesn’t help a learner communicate if they don’t understand the syntax of a sentence. What if I get the syntax wrong in the sentence, “I am now learning syntax but not grammar?”

Syntax learning I am now but grammar now not.

My writing software translated the sentence this way:

I am no longer grammar and syntax.

Languages have essential syntaxical structures. For example, in English we typically switch the subject + verb order of a sentence to a verb (or part of a verb) + subject order when asking a question. In Spanish, inflection (and the upside down punctuation mark) are commonly used for questions.

Another difference between Spanish and English is adjective and noun order. In Spanish, the order is usually noun + adjective rather than adjective + noun. However, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a bit.

How is grammar different from Syntax?

Grammar is commonly thought of as the rules of a language. As such, it covers more areas of language than syntax. Subject-verb agreement is not syntax. Clauses, phrases, and other parts of a sentence are related to syntax. But the grammatical rules related to clauses and phrases are built on top of the syntax.

For example, this sentence begins with a conjunctive adverbial phrase (for example), and then it contains two independent clauses, which I am creating because I need a long, complicated sentence. (It ends with a non-restrictive phrase that also contains a dependent clause.)

You need to know not only the syntax (which native speakers know intuitively and language learners need to learn explicitly), but also the grammatical rules related to punctuation, as well as other principles, such as subject and verb agreement (I need, not I needs), which are grammatical concepts.

How are Grammar, Syntax, and Semantics Related?

We covered grammar vs. syntax. So how did semantics enter the conversation? Merriam-Webster defines semantics as “the study of meaning.” Meaning can be found in individual words or phrases and how they contribute to the meaning of a sentence.

When you analyze the connotation of words, you are exploring semantics. Earlier I discussed adjective and noun order in Spanish. That’s syntax.

However, there are exceptions.

For example, adjectives of appreciation, reinforcing adjectives, or those that convey emotion are placed before the noun.

un hombre triste--a sad man


un triste hombre—a pathetic man

As you can see, by changing the syntax (order of words), I have changed the semantics (meaning). And if language learners doesn’t learn the syntax of the language, they cannot master its grammar.

Now that semantics has entered the conversation, it is time for it to leave. This post is about syntax vs. grammar, and we’ll have another article about semantics.

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