SPSS Syntax Beginners Tutorial

SPSS Syntax Window - Example

Most of this tutorial aims at getting you started fast and smoothly with SPSS syntax. But before doing so, let’s briefly point out some major reasons why working from syntax is the single best practice for SPSS.*

SPSS Syntax – Some Advantages

  • Your syntax file tells you exactly what you’ve done so far with your data. It holds all details of every step you’ve taken and the order in which you took them.
  • If necessary, you can rerun the exact same steps you took in a matter of seconds, possibly after making some adjustments.
  • You hardly need to know any syntax for using it effectively; you can have SPSS generate virtually all of it by using the Paste button from the menu.
  • SPSS syntax is very readable and intuitive. You’ll naturally understand most of it in no time.

SPSS Syntax – Getting Started

Getting started with SPSS syntax is utterly simple. The most basic way for using syntax is described by the steps below.

  1. When you start working on some project, just start SPSS without opening any data.
  2. Next, simply use the menu as you would with any other software. However, when you want to complete an operation, always click Paste instead of the Ok button. A Syntax Editor window will now automatically pop up, containing the syntax you just generated from the menu.
  3. In order to actually run the syntax, select it with your mouse or a shortkey combination. Pressing ctrl + r will run the syntax you selected. Alternatively, run selected syntax by clicking the green arrow  in the toolbar area.
  4. Now return to the menu and navigate to the next command you’d like to run. Clicking Paste will -by default- add the syntax for this command to the end of your syntax window.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as needed. Like so, you’ll build up a complete syntax file entirely from the menu.
  6. When you’re done, save the contents of the syntax window as a syntax file and move it to your project folder.

SPSS Syntax – Comments

You can add comments to your syntax files for describing what you’re doing and why. Adding comments to syntax it is generally considered excellent practice.

We usually add comments by putting them on a new line, preceding them with an asterisk (*) and ending them with a period (.). This is shown in lines 1 and 2 in the screenshot below.

You can also insert a comment behind a command by adding a slash (/) in front of the asterisk. See line 4 in the screenshot.

When you run lines of syntax containing comments, the latter are ignored by SPSS. Comments are shown in grey in the Syntax Editor window.

SPSS Syntax Comments

SPSS Syntax – Next Steps

  • Unfortunately, there’s no Paste button for modifying dictionary information. However, this requires just a handful of very simple commands which are discussed in our SPSS Dictionary Tutorials. Do not edit your dictionary manually under variable view.
  • Even by merely pasting syntax, you’ll quickly start recognizing most of the commands you need. At this point, you may gain more speed by typing (instead of pasting) some of your commands. This is because you can dramatically shorten and simplify the syntax pasted by SPSS. For more on this, see SPSS Syntax Shortening.