Making Sense of Nonsense (Syntax and Poetry)

As you might know, I am currently writing a BA thesis on Linguistics. I won’t bore you with the details, but I would like to convince that there is some merit to familiarizing yourself with the language sciences – specifically if you’re interested in writing! In a series of blogposts, I will show you some tools which will perhaps help you dissect your language. I promise we won’t look at crazy things like the image here (which has a small typographical error).


“Syntax is the study of word order.” This description is so deceptively simple, you might trick yourself into saying you understand the syntax of your own language. (I remember my parents were certainly not impressed when I said I wanted to study syntax for my graduate degree.)

But consider how much there is to the concept of “word order”: every complex thought is a matter of syntax. Make and sentence example this for. (See?)

Poetry is partly an art of not making sense. You will be surprised how many perhaps ‘poetical’ sentences are, strictly speaking, “ungrammatical” (i.e. they do not adhere to a series of rules that grammarians prescript or agree on). Here’s an example from last week’s post:

Island,
Oh Island,
Why are you like clay?
I can mould you
And scold you
Times plenty a day  

Island, oh Island

Did you find what is ungrammatical here?

With very few exceptions, adjectives in English ‘pre-modify’ (come before) the noun. I made a creative choice to break this rule of thumb and opted for an inversion: “times plenty a day”

Why? Notice how the prosody of the poem changes – the last four lines don’t flow well without the inversion. From this little demonstration, I hope to demonstrate my general attitude. When doing creative writing, grammar and its rules should not be followed strictly. They should be seen as a guideline for how the reader is meant to extract meaning from the text.

In this example, it didn’t really matter whether ‘plenty’ pre- or post-modified ‘times’ – the meaning was the same. But now, we will get a little more technical. Consider the following sentence:

Did the dreamers the world amend?

Brave New World

English is a (S)ubject-(V)erb-(O)bject language. This means that sentences usually have the structure: (1) the doer (2) the action itself (3) the done-upon. (This is a gross oversimplification, but it serves our purposes for the moment.) With this in mind, the sentence above seems very weird… very weird indeed.


Not a syntax tree, please don’t copy for your Linguistics final.

NOTE: I have omitted the ‘did’ at the beginning of the sentence for simplicity’s sake. The meaning and structure remain fucntionally the same. Compare to the French: Les rêveurs, le monde ont-ils changé ? or Les rêveurs, le monde les a-t-il changés ?


This sentence structure is undeniably ungrammatical in standard English. But this is what makes it interesting – it’s not possible to gauge which is the subject (the doer) and which is the object (the done-upon). What was amended? Did the dreamers the world amend, or did the dreamers the world amend?

This syntactic ambiguity complicates the reading of the poem. Understanding whether “the world amended the dreamers or “the dreamers amended the world” is a question of the reader’s biases and openness to ambiguity. Granted, it’s likely natives speakers look at this and think it’s utter nonsense, whereas second-language speakers of English are more likely to detect the alternative meaning. But like I said – poetry is indeed, at least partly, an art of not making sense.

This post has barely scratched the surface of what you can do with syntax and the other language sciences, so look forward to more in the future.


If you would like a substantial and well-written introduction to syntactic theory, I highly recommend Andrew Carnie’s Syntax. A generative introduction (2001). I have read through the entire book, and I would criticize some points, but worth a read if anything here sounded interesting.

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