Syntax and Semantics Through Serenity and Genre

The film Serenity is a amalgam of genres and provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the syntax and semantics of genre conventions.

This 25 minute lesson teaches the syntax and semantics through an examination of genre and the way it works for the film Serenity.
(Estimated Running Time: 28 Minutes)


Students will be able to define syntax and semantics by identifying the syntax and semantics of a genre of their choice in a short journal entry.


Required materials are normal text, recommended but not required materials are italicized

Essential Question(s):

How do syntax and semantic change the way we read something?

  • Semantics is how the words/meanings/visuals function within a genre.
  • Semantics is needed to create meaning.
  • Syntax is the grammar and structure that separates each genre.
  • Syntax is needed is needed to separate and make understanding easier.
  • In combination, the two work together to create or break expectation and narrative.
  • Both exist outside of language.
  • Both can be applied to difficult issues to see how misconceptions are created and perpetuated.

Inquiry Exercise:

(2 Minutes)
What elements do you expect to see in a western? How about a science fiction story? Write their answers in list form on a whiteboard or large post-its. We’ll need this list later.

Introduction to New Material:

(3 Minutes)
Genres function a lot like language. We’re going to watch a quick video and then we’re going to look more closely at the ideas of syntax and semantics:

Watch the video from 1:02 to 2:04. Pause to identify syntax and semantics of genre.

The video just defined them for us. Let’s write that down.

Semantics: “The visual markers of established film types. These are the icons and images we associate with each distinct genre.”
Syntax: “The grammar and the structure that makes each one distinct. These are the thematic and narrative conventions we associate with the genre in question.”

Alright. We have our list of things we expect in each genre. We’ve just defined syntax and semantics. Now we’re going to see if we can connect the definition to our list.

Guided Practice:

(10 Minutes)
Go down the list and label each item syntax or semantics. Converse about why is fits each one. Ask if other genres use that item or convention.

Once the list is complete, ask them for specific examples that weren’t listed to expand the list.

Continue the video to 10:06 so they can see the long list of conventions covered and the ways in which Serenity uses or break away from them.

Individual Practice:

(10 Minutes)
So you can see that the semantics of a genre is the iconography and what, in any given moment, would let you recognize the genre. The syntax, meanwhile, are the elements of the plot, the tropes, and the pieces of narrative that set that genre apart.

For the next five minutes I’d like you to choose another genre: horror, romance, vampire stories, coming of age stories, adventures, whatever you like. You can work with a partner or alone. Brainstorm the syntax and semantics of the genre and create a few sentences that identifies each in your journal. If you’re working with a partner, you both need to have it written in your journal and you need to list your partner.


(3 Minutes)
We had a chance to look at the syntax and semantics of genre today. These ideas, the way something can be broken down into it’s parts, allows us to see the actual meaning beneath the words and structure. It also allows us to play with the meaning, words and structure.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at semantics and syntax related to language and the specifically the language of racism in regards to the arguments about Syrian refugees and the way they mirror the same arguments against Jews in the 1940s and other minorities and refugees in years past.