A Great (and Free) Resource for SPSS Syntax: the Command Syntax Reference

I find SPSS manuals, as a rule, marginally useful. Sure they may tell you which options are available when doing Statistic X, but not what they mean or when to use them.

I still use them, of course, but only when I have no other options.

There is one exception, though, and that is the Command Syntax Reference. This is the manual that explains all the SPSS Syntax commands.

SPSS started as a syntax-only program. I first learned SPSS before Windows existed. I don’t think you could even get it for a PC back then. We had to use the College’s VAX mainframe computer. This was back in the days where you had to go pick up your printouts down the hall in the computing center. But no cards. I’m not THAT old.

Anyway, I think in those days SPSS must have put a lot of resources into really good manual writing. So the Command Syntax Reference, which was the entire manual, rocked. It still does, since for the most part, the syntax doesn’t change that much with new versions.

The great thing about it is now it’s available right in SPSS. When you click on help, instead of Search, choose Command Syntax Reference. It includes every possible option, explains when and how to use it, and what it means. It’s an extremely handy resource, comes free with SPSS, and you don’t have to spend hours searching the internet for an answer.

The only hard part about it is it is organized by the command, and they’re not always intuitive. So if you don’t know that the Univariate GLM menu equivalent syntax command is  “UNIANOVA,” you’ll have a hard time using it.

This is another good time to use the Paste button. Just use the menus to create some semblance of the analysis you want to do and hit Paste. You’ll get the basic command, which you can now look up and refine.

Want to learn more? If you’re just getting started with data analysis in SPSS, or would like a thorough refresher, please join us in our online workshop Introduction to Data Analysis in SPSS.


Getting Started with SPSS
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Reader Interactions


  1. Frank M. Howell says

    Hi Karen,

    Just a piece of nostalgia. I learned SPSS-X on a Univac mainframe in 1975. Cards. Often without ink in the keypunch machine ribbons (learn to read holes!).

    I was a consultant to SPSS during the early years of SPSS-PC, edited a special issue of Social Science Microcomputer Review that I launched with Dave Garson at NCSU (Dave continues the renamed SS Computer Review as Editor). Had one of my graduate students, Jim McKenzie, go to work on Wacker Ave with that team.

    I beta-tested the first PC version. The team was internally committed to be the first ALL point-and-click statistical software. Yep, that’s the ticket! I pounded and pounded on them to allow BOTH P&C as well as syntax, finally getting them to just put the PASTE SYNTAX feature into the final beta software. My argument was that power users would grow to hate them, and heavens, migrate to the budding SAS-PC which I drove by on the way to my office at NC State (I lived in Cary).

    Thank goodness they took advice from beta-testers like me.

    Later, I wrote them a memo to allow “tables” to be created directly from the output. All programmers are writing “output tables” in various formats so why not let the end-user have some input into making selected bits into what we scientists put into our papers and journal articles. Head nothing. A few months later, I got a lawyer letter distancing themselves from any and all communications with me on the topic. Two releases later, they had TableLooks as a feature in the ActiveX output container (SPSS was the first to use ActiveX in the output, much to the chagrin of ASCII-dependent output users who wrote macros in WordPerfect to open ASCII output, find certain document strings, copy it to a new document, make a report out of it). Another winner. I had called it Smart Tables, or Smartables. An internal staffer whom I knew well later told me about the internal legal drama I had unintentionally initiated as the legal minds just “knew” I’d want $$$ for the idea. I just wanted better software.

    Thanks for your blog!


    Editor-in-Chief, Springer Media
    Adjunct Professor, Emory University
    Professor Emeritus, Mississippi State University

    • Karen Grace-Martin says

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for this great story and thanks for pushing for the Paste button! Honestly, that Paste button is really what makes Point-and-click SPSS viable for scientific research.

      What an impact!

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