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What is a Syntax Error?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 16, 2024
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A syntax error occurs when information is entered into a computer in an unrecognizable or improper format. If, for instance, someone typed an email address using the word “dotcom” instead of “.com,” the message would be undeliverable because of a syntax error. Poorly or incorrectly formatted information might be entered by a programmer, end user, or even by computer software itself. Computer programs communicate through digital language, and they have their own rules of grammar; when these rules are violated, a syntax error occurs.

How It Happens

Syntax is a crucial element of clear communication in any language. For example, English has rules regarding spelling, sentence structure, word placement, and punctuation that help convey ideas and makes the intended meaning clear. Numbers also have their own rules and conventions; 335 can mean many things depending on context, such as $3.35 US Dollars (USD) indicating cost and being distinct from 3:35 pm, which shows a certain time. A syntax error results from ignoring, forgetting or misusing these conventions.

Computer programming uses various languages to express data in a way that computers can understand and process. When errors are made, such as a person entering numbers, words, and punctuation incorrectly, a computer often fails to understand what is intended. A syntax error is basically a grammatical mistake made in communicating with a computer.

Results of Such Errors

Many people are quite good at working through linguistic syntax errors to find the intended meaning of a statement. For instance, text messaging is full of deliberate misspellings and shortcuts, which most readers still understand. Computers, on the other hand, lack human imagination and intuition, making them unable to deduce intended meaning when a mistake is encountered. A computer syntax error can cause a program to crash or freeze, often resulting in an error message; though more subtle problems can occur, such as a glitch or a program running with incorrect data.

Error Causes

Most common syntax errors stem from misspellings and incorrect punctuation. A programmer, for example, might make a mistake while typing a line of code, which can cause the program to fail to run when launched. End users, such as a person entering information into a web browser, may create errors when they do not use a proper format or incorrectly type data into a system. Many programs, despite being designed to interact with other software, can have trouble translating information from one format to another, which may cause a syntax error.

Fixing These Problems

Programmers try to catch syntax errors written into a computer program through testing, often with the help of debugging software. A user who accidentally creates an error can often change the input data to fix the mistake that created it, preventing future issues. Companies often release patches for programs that have difficulty communicating with each other, avoiding or correcting errors that may occur. This is an imperfect system, however, and some pieces of software may not work together regardless of fixes, requiring the use of other programs.

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Discussion Comments
By anon287261 — On Aug 24, 2012

I am having trouble with a Syntax Error message only on two websites. Is the error liable to be with their programming? They have just revised the program. --Jennie

By anon280005 — On Jul 15, 2012

It's always good to test a new program to make sure it works. I've learned some of these things the frustrating hard way. And don't assume that because the last program did things a certain way that the next one will do the same.

By NightChef — On Sep 29, 2010

@Ubiquitous, there is no doubt that Apple and PC platforms both have their share of issues but syntax errors are ubiquitous throughout all the systems.

The reliability of these two differing operating systems often means the difference between productivity and frustration. My theory is, use whatever system works for you and stick with it until you have more issues.

Switching back and forth between operating systems is not only costly but very time consuming. Many things in the tech industry are cross-platform now but there is also intricacy that would be unexpected by the lay user.

By Ubiquitous — On Sep 29, 2010

So basically what you are telling me is that syntax errors are the cause of my pain and strife in life when dealing with computers.

There is nothing like typing out a huge paper, even saving it but then getting an error from the application and it terminates.

I understand how complicated computer programing can be but you would think that for how much money all this technology costs that we could get more reliability out of our machines.

I personally prefer Macs. They don't seem to have the same kind of issues that all the PC's I have used have. This isn't to say that Mac's don't have syntax errors because I am sure that they do.

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