logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Word order

word order


unicorn

Why is word order important?

For many people, especially those who don't speak any other languages, the ordering of words in sentences seems too obvious to waste time worrying about.  That's a mistake.
Look at the graphic above.  How many correct sentences can you make by combining phrases from the first area with those in the other two areas?
Click here when you have an answer.

That all seems very straightforward and an English speaker will have no difficulty deciding that John (or the unicorn) did the taking and borrowing and the money and the cigar was what they acted on.  In sentence 3, for example, answer the following questions:

  1. Who did the taking?
  2. What did John do?
  3. What was taken?

Three easy answers are a) John, b) took and c) a fat cigar.

Now ask yourself how you knew that.  Click here when you have an answer.

There are three components to the simple sentences we have created: S, V and O.  How many other possible ways of arranging these, apart from SVO, are there?
Click when you have an answer.

And that is exactly what other people's languages do, in fact.  However, 75% of languages in the world are either SVO (like English) or SOV (like Japanese, Tamil, Dutch, Maltese, Pashto and a hundred or so others).  VSO is rare (but included in that group are Celtic languages) and VOS, OVS and OSV are very rare indeed with only one or two attested examples (Mallinson and Blake, 1981).  For most of our learners, then, the natural word order will be:

John took a fat cigar
or
John a fat cigar took


yes but

It is, of course, possible in all languages, to vary the word order for effect so we can, theoretically, have all kinds of word orders in English.  For example:

With this ring I thee wed (SOV)
John? Now him I know (OSV)
Eat the food, you (VOS)
The dragon slew he (OVS)
Eat you that food now (VSO)

Poets and song writers will often vary the word order for effect or to make the rhyme and scan work.  And, of course, we vary the word order in things like questions and to make passive sentences (as do many languages).
English can also have changes to basic word order in other types of sentence.  For more, see the guide to cleft sentences and/or the guide to fronting on this site, both linked in the list at the end.

However, what we are talking about here is known as canonical word order, i.e., the normal, unmarked word order of simple positive (declarative) sentences.
Any other word ordering will be considered as a token of markedness.


free

Free word order

There are some languages in which the speaker is far freer to vary the word order as he/she pleases.  Examples of these languages are Latin, Modern Greek, Turkish and Finnish.  Most languages with freer word order have a way or ways of marking the nouns to make it clear which is the object and which the subject.  They also usually inflect the verb so its subject is clear.  A good example is Greek in which the verb changes for number and person and the noun along with any determiner or adjective is changed to indicate its status in the sentence.  For more on this, see the guide to case on this site, linked in the list at the end.
No language, incidentally, has entirely free word ordering; there are always tendencies, sometimes quite strong ones.

English does not have free word order and is, in fact, very strict normally.  This is because the language has no way of marking what the subject is and what the object is.  John loved Mary and Mary loved John are only distinguished by the ordering of the sentence.


mixed

Mixed word order

Some languages show more complex patterns.  German, for example, has the usual order of SVO (ich sah ihn [I saw him]) but in subordinate clauses it becomes SOV (weil ich ihn sehen will [because I him see want]).  French, too, inserts the pronoun object after the subject (je le vois [I him see]) so it partly shows SOV word order in these cases although it is canonically SVO (je vois Marie [I see Marie]) when no pronoun is used.


flags

Some other languages

This is not a complete list, of course, and only Subject–Verb–Object and Subject–Object–Verb languages are here (because they are the most common).
For more, investigate using the references at the end of this guide.

Subject–Verb–Object Subject–Object–Verb
Albanian
Arabic
Bulgarian
Catalan
Chinese languages
Danish
English
Estonian
Finnish
French
German (in both lists)
Greek
Icelandic
Indonesian
Italian
Hebrew
Norwegian
Polish
Portuguese
Russian
Slovak
Spanish
Swedish
Tagalog
Thai
Ukrainian
Afrikaans
Armenian
Basque
Bengali
Burmese
Dutch
German (in both lists)
Gujarati
Hungarian
Japanese
Kazakh
Korean
Kurdish
Latin
Maltese
Marathi
Mongolian
Pashto
Persian (Farsi)
Punjabi
Sicilian
Sinhala
Somali
Tajik
Tamil
Turkish

The list above refers to the most common ordering in the languages listed.  This is not to say that the order is the only possible one.
The languages on the left are generally regarded as having the most rigid word ordering rules but even within them there are variations, especially in terms of alterations to the canonical (usual) ordering to achieve special emphasis or marking (see the guide to markedness linked in the list at the end).
Subject-Object-Verb languages are somewhat more forgiving and most will have Object–Subject–Verb as an alternative ordering.


ordering

Ordering other items

Apart from the main ordering of S, V and O, there are other elements of languages which are canonically ordered in certain ways.  These include demonstratives, numerals, adjectives and genitive (possessive) markers.
Look at this sentence and figure out what it tells you about the ordering of these elements in English.

I want those two lovely vases in the window for my collection of pottery.

Click here when you have an answer.

Languages will differ and put all of the above in different orders.  For example:

numerals
all European languages prefer Numeral–Noun but many South-East Asian and African languages reverse the order.  Some languages allow both and some, such as Egyptian Arabic, prefer Noun-Numeral for 1 and 2 and then reverse the order for other numbers.
adjectives
French prefers the Noun-Adjective pattern in, e.g., un vase fabuleuse (although some common adjectives precede the noun (un beau vase).  Greek and most Germanic languages (German, Dutch etc.) and the Scandinavian languages follow the Adjective–Noun pattern.
Slavonic languages such as Polish, Russian and Czech also usually have Noun-Adjective as do Thai and the Italic languages (Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, Spanish etc.)
All varieties of Arabic are Noun-Adjective, too.
genitives
many languages have a single ordering (unlike English).
(Many languages put a possessive before a noun (as in my life [English], ma vie [French], mein leben [German], mit liv [Danish] but that is not the point here.  English has an inflected genitive (Mary's book, for example) for which Italic languages do not have an equivalent, always preferring a construction such as the book of Mary.)
Italic languages generally prefer the Noun–Genitive pattern but Scandinavian languages use Genitive–Noun.
All forms of Arabic are Noun–Genitive but Chinese languages, Japanese and Thai are Genitive–Noun.
prepositions
English has prepositions but other languages use post-positions (London in not in London).  Among them are Turkish, Japanese, Korean and the Chinese languages.

If the languages of your learners aren't mentioned here and you don't already know how they work, why not ask them?  A little comparative linguistics and guided thought about how learners' first languages differ from English is often very helpful.


headedness

Headedness

Headedness refers to what comes first.

For example, in English a compound noun is usually formed with the head to the right so we have, for example:
    a record player
is a type of player, not a type of record and
    a walking stick
is a noun for a type of stick, not a verb form.
Other languages may be left headed in this respect so, for example:
    znaczek Pocztowy
and
    timbru poștal
are the Polish and Romanian respectively for postage stamp and nouns not adjectives so left-headed compounds.
For a little more, see the guide to compounding linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Headedness also affects other word ordering.
Every phrase in a language has a head so, for example:
    at the market
is a prepositional phrase with the head at
    walk out the door
is a verb phrase with the head walk
    an old man
is a noun phrase with the head man
In English, noun phrases are usually right-headed because the adjective and determiner lie to the left of the head.
Prepositional phrases and verb phrases, on the other hand, are usually left headed with the head of the phrase preceding the complement.
It is unlikely that any languages are wholly consistent in this respect but English is predominately left headed with the head in the initial position in the phrase.
The more complex a modifier is, however, the more likely it is, in English, to follow the head.  For example:
    an old man out there in his boat
contains two sorts of modification:

  1. Light elements (an and the) which come to the left of the head
  2. Heavy elements (out there and in his boat) which follow the tendency of the language to end-weight such elements and appear to the right of the head.

Japanese is the usual example of a right headed language in which the head follows the rest of the phrase so the normal ordering of the elements.  So for example, the object of the verb will precede the verb and the prepositional complement will precede the preposition (which is, in fact, a post-position).  We get therefore e.g.:
    He books bought
    She was home at

etc.
Languages will differ in this respect so, for example, in English it is usual to have
    my book (right headed)
    three books (right headed)
    that book (right headed)
    went crazy (left headed)
    through the park (left headed)
and so on, but other languages will do things differently and get:
    book my (e.g., Greek)
    books three (e.g., Swahili and many other Niger-Congo languages)
    book that (e.g., Hebrew)
    crazy went (e.g., Japanese)
    the park through (e.g., Turkish)

The jury is still out concerning how fundamental the the right- vs. left-headed nature of languages is and how sustainable it is as a way to classify languages.


topicalising

Topicalisation

Some languages, for example, the Chinese languages, are known as topicalising languages.
Simply put, this means that instead of having a subject or object as the first item, these languages front the topic of the sentence regardless of its grammatical function.
We get, therefore, something like:
    Noodles I like spicy ones best (with a fronted object)
or
    Marriage that is not yet for me (with a fronted subject)
or
    Leave, I'll go tomorrow (with a fronted verb)

All languages are capable of this to some extent but it's quite rare in English.
Some European languages, such as Spanish, employ the tactic frequently and it is at least arguable that the habit in German and Dutch (as well as some others) of putting the time adverbial at the front of the sentence and altering the word order following it to Verb + Subject, rather than the usual Subject + Verb, is also an example of topicalisation.

Learners with a topicalising language background will produce a range of connected errors, often involving doubling the subject such as *That factory, there is where my father works.
Yes, that's why they do that.
There is a guide to how fronting works on the site, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


classroom

Classroom implications

The above may look (and is slightly) all rather theoretical but there are significant implications for teaching.

Think for a moment about what these might be and then click here.


teaching

Teaching word order

As is mentioned above, much of this is involved with getting models right and encouraging noticing.  However, there are some things to consider when you focus on this area.

  1. Jumbled sentences to reorder are helpful but keep the focus and don't jumble all the words or the learners will not see the patterns.  For example, presenting lower-level learners with a task such as
    Put these words in the right order:
    lovely in vases of window for I my two those collection pottery want the
    is too hard to do and doesn't provide any focus.
    It would be better as:
    Put the words and phrases in the right place
    I want _______ _______ _______ vases _______ the window _______for _______ collection _______.
    Choose from:
    those | two | lovely | in | my | of pottery

    This exercise focuses the learners on noticing which things precede or follow which.
  2. It's also a good idea to get the learners to try to insert elements of the language into utterances for themselves so they get a feel for what goes where.  For example,
    What words can go in the gaps in this?
    A: Come _______ the garden, I want to show you something _______.
    B: OK.  What is this _______ thing you want _______ to show _______?
    A: _______ is ______ here, _______ the shed.

    etc.
    You can also focus the learners by giving them a list of words to insert, some possible, some not.
  3. At lower levels, it's important to focus on elements separately.  For example,
    Fill the gaps with the words in the list.
    There is no reason to worry _______ the _______ weather.  I have brought _______ umbrellas and _______ _______ coat for you.
    two | warm| terrible | a | about
    This focuses only on determiners and adjective positions.
  4. Spot the mistake activities are useful, too, to get people to notice the importance of word order in English.
    Take a story you have presented in class and make up sentences about it reversing the order of some elements and keeping others intact.  For example:
    Mark each sentence true or false:
    She kissed him T / F
    He gave her the flowers T / F
    They gave the flowers to him T / F
    She introduced him to the man T / F
    etc.  Mixing direct and indirect objects is a good way to alert people to the relationships indicated by English word order.
  5. An awareness raising exercise involves taking these sorts of elements and embedding them in sentences for the learners to translate into their own language in order to compare the ordering of items.  For example,
    I came today because I wanted to buy some tickets
    becomes, in German
    Today, came I because I some tickets (to) buy wanted
    In other languages, the differences will be more or less extreme but they will almost certainly be different.  It can be both fruitful and fun to compare how things work, especially in multi-lingual classes.  In monolingual classes, you have the advantage that you can focus on specific differences, of course.


Related guides
the word order map for links to other guides in this area
fronting for more on how word order is disturbed to signal markedness
adjectives for more on adjective ordering
compounding for a little more on headedness in compounds
cleft sentences for more on a form of word-order markedness
anticipatory it and there for a guide to how (and why) these word orders are used
markedness for the general guide to how we may choose to emphasise elements of a phrase, clause or sentence
theme and rheme for a guide which considers the importance of the leftmost position in English clauses
postponement for a guide to when a constituent is moved to the end of a clause
a mini-course this is a short course in comparing languages with an example lesson
case for more on subjects, objects and genitives


There is, of course, a test on this.


References:
Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages. London: Routledge
Croft, W, 1990, Typology and Universals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Dryer, MS and Haspelmath, M (Eds.), 2013, The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Available online at http://wals.info, [Accessed on 12-10-2014]
Mallinson, G and Blake, B, 1981, Language typology: cross-linguistic studies in syntax, Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company
Russel, S, 1986, Basic word order: Functional principles, London: Croom Helm
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Languages_by_word_order