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The Bridge: Word order


This guide covers two main concepts:

  1. The usual (or canonical) way in which we order the information in clauses and sentences in English.
  2. What happens when we depart from the usual ordering and why we do it.

This is important for two connected reasons:

  1. Languages differ quite fundamentally in how things are generally ordered.
  2. Changing the word ordering in English affects meaning in ways of which many learners and teachers are unaware.


Canonical word order

The adjective canonical is derived from the Latin canonicus, meaning according to rule and it is the rules of conventional word ordering in English which we are setting out to explain here.

Before we start, however, a short explanation of why word ordering is so important in English in particular is appropriate and for that we need a short language lesson.  As our example, we'll use contrasting word ordering in a European language but many other languages will exhibit similar phenomena.

bird kiss

In English, if we say, for example:
    The man kissed the bird
    The bird kissed the man

We know by the word ordering who did what to whom.
In the first sentence, the man did the kissing and in the second, the bird did the kissing.  That's clear.

? If we translate this into German, however, we find the same two sentences but with a subtle difference.  Can you spot the difference?
The two sentences translate as:
    Der Mann küsste den Vogel
    Der Vogel küsste den Mann
Click here when you have it.

The difference is in the article which translates as the.
In the first sentence we have der Mann and den Vogel.
In the second, we have der Vogel and den Mann.
This means that the object and the subject of the verb kiss are distinguished by the article that is used.
We can, therefore, reverse the noun phrases and have:
    Den Mann küsste der Vogel
    Den Vogel küsste der Mann
and retain the same meaning.  A German speaker will still be aware that in the first sentence it was the man who was kissed by the bird and in the second, it was the bird that was kissed by the man.
That is not possible in English, because reversing the ordering reverses the sense.  English does not mark the subject and the object at all, so the only way we have to determine who did what to whom is to rely on the ordering of the words.
Most languages which have case structures (and there are many hundreds of them) will exhibit a similar effect.

In some other languages, such as Czech, Polish and other Slavic languages, the object and subject of a verb are identified by the form of the verb itself.  So, for example, if we translate these two sentences in which only the word ordering in English distinguishes the cause and effect:

  1. The problem caused the delay
  2. The delay caused the problem

We get:

In Greek (with different forms of the article):

  1. Η καθυστέρηση προκάλεσε το πρόβλημα (I kathystérisi prokálese to próvlima)
  2. Το πρόβλημα προκάλεσε την καθυστέρηση (To próvlima prokálese tin kathystérisi)

In Czech (with different forms of the verb):

  1. Zpoždění způsobilo problém
  2. Problém způsobil zpoždění

In Basque (with many alterations to determiners and verbs):

  1. Atzerapenak eragin du arazoa
  2. Arazoak atzerapena eragin zuen

In Russian (with changes to the endings on the nouns):

  1. Задержка вызвала проблему (Zaderzhka vyzvala problemu)
  2. Проблема вызвала задержку (Problema vyzvala zaderzhku)

The upshot is that if a learner inadvertently disturbs the usual word ordering in English, the communicative effect will be very different and that may surprise speakers of many other languages where ordering is less important than the forms of the words.


How things are (or can be) ordered

If you have followed any of the guides on this site to word class or the guide in The Bridge to Sentence Grammar (linked below), you will be aware of the possible constituents of a clause or sentence.  Now we need to look at the possible ways in which the elements can be ordered.
There are five sorts of ordering we need to consider.

  1. Subjects, verbs and objects
    We have seen, above, that the canonical word ordering in English is Subject > Verb > Object (if any) so, for example, we have:
        She travelled to Paris
    (Subject > Verb > Adverbial)
        Peter explained the problem
    (Subject > Verb > Object)
        I gave him the book
    (Subject > Verb > Indirect object > Direct object)
    There are 6 possible ways to order these three elements but only one of them (the first) is acceptable in English:
    1. Subject > Verb > Object:
          John spent the money
    2. Subject > Object > Verb:
          John the money spent
    3. Verb > Object > Subject:
          Spent the money John
    4. Verb > Subject > Object:
          Spent John the money
    5. Object > Subject > Verb:
          The money John spent
    6. Object > Verb > Subject:
          The money spent John

    It helps, of course, to know what your learners' first language(s) do in this respect because this is a fundamental characteristic of all languages.  See the in-service guide, linked below, for a list of common languages and other cross-linguistic analysis for more.

  2. Adjectives and nouns
    There are exceptions but, overwhelmingly in English, the canonical ordering of these elements is Adjective > Noun, so we have:
        the fragile vase
        *the vase fragile
    Other languages, you are probably aware, do things differently and in French that would be:
        le vase fragile
        *le fragile vase.
  3. Numerals, determiners and nouns:
    Again, in English the canonical ordering is Numeral or determiner > Noun, so we have:
        three birds
        *birds three
        this book
        *book this
        many books
        *books many
    Other languages place the numeral or quantifier after the noun.
  4. Possessive determiners
    In English, the possessive is complicated because we can have both types of ordering so, e.g.:
        the government's policy
    which is possessive marker > noun, and
        the policy of the government
    which is noun > possessive marker
    are both correct but
        the leg of the table
    is usually preferred to
        the table's leg
    Most languages settle on one or the other type of ordering and that can confuse learners as well as leading them to produce grammatically correct but unnatural language such as
        the hat of John
    Many languages, including, e.g., Modern Greek, also place the possessive determiner after the noun (and sometimes attach it directly to the noun) so we get, e.g.:
        The book my (το βιβλίο μου [to vivlío mou])
  5. Prepositions
    As the name implies, English puts these first (hence pre-position), so we have:
        in the corner
        *the corner in
        opposite the hotel
        the hotel opposite
    (which carries a very different meaning).
    A range of languages (notably Turkish and Japanese) use postpositions canonically and this can, of course, cause comprehension and production difficulties.
    Some languages, such as German, use both, depending on the preposition.

For some cross-linguistic analysis and more examples of what other languages do, see the guide to word order in the in-service section of the site.

? To make sure you have this clear before we go on, try a short matching test.


Deviations from the canonical: markedness

If you are perceptive, you will have objected to some of what was said above along the lines of:
    Well, we don't always follow that order in English, do we?
and you'd be quite right.
It is possible, for example, to have:

We also adopt unusual word ordering in sentences such as:
    It was Mary that he took to the restaurant
which puts the Object at the beginning
    Idiotic is what it seemed to me
which reverses the usual ordering of copular verb and attribute.

The question, naturally, is why we should want to do any of this and the answer lies in a concept called markedness.

If, for example, in English, we want to mark a clause to make it an interrogative, we reverse the ordering of the Subject and the Verb so instead of:

As soon as the hearer recognises the departure from Subject > Verb > Object he or she is alert to the fact that something less usual is intended.  In this case a question.

(The phenomenon of markedness does not only affect word order, incidentally, because if we were to say, for example:
    How near is it?
instead of
    How far is it?
we are marking the fact that we already know that it is close by.
The usual question is also, as another example:
    How old is the puppy?
    How young is the puppy?
for the same reason.)

Thus it is in all these examples, that the deviation from canonical word order marks an element of the clause for special emphasis:

and so on.


Three reasons for markedness

English emphasises information in three distinct and non-parallel ways:

  1. Fronting
    This is simply moving an item to the front of the sentence.  For example:
    1.     Barely had I sat down to eat when the telephone rang
      instead of
          I had barely sat down to eat when the telephone rang
    2.     Yesterday, I went to the cinema
      instead of
          I went to the cinema yesterday
    3.     The restaurant is where I took my mother
      instead of
          I took my mother to the restaurant
  2. End focus
    English usually places new information at the end of a clause so we would normally have:
        A: Where did you go yesterday?
        B: I went to London
    in which the new information is placed in the end position.  However, if the conversation takes this turn:
        A: Where did you go yesterday?
        B: I went to London yesterday

    then speaker B is emphasising the day, not the location and may well have a good reason for that.
  3. End weighting
    English generally places more complex and 'heavier' elements to the end of a clause so, instead of:
        That Mary was allowed to leave so early when the work wasn't finished surprised me
    which is quite normal Subject > Verb > Object ordering, we will usually prefer:
        I was surprised that Mary was allowed to leave so early when the work wasn't finished
    because we prefer the heavy clause at the end.
? To make sure you have these three concepts clear , try a short matching test.



The phenomena of fronting, end focus and end weighting for markedness are not common across languages so, for example, in German, the time adverbial frequently comes at the beginning of clauses but is not specifically marked for emphasis because of that.  Speakers from language backgrounds like that will often produce, therefore:
    Tomorrow, I am leaving
without realising that an English-speaking hearer might assume that there is something more important about tomorrow than the learner intended.

In many languages, there is a strong tendency to front the topic rather than the grammatical subject of the clause so learners from those language backgrounds (such as Spanish or Chinese languages among many others) may produce:
    That factory is where my father works
without knowing that an English-speaking hearer may assume that the factory is being unduly emphasised.

Not all languages conform to the principle of end weighting so learners may produce the grammatically correct but unnatural:
    The storm which came in from the west overnight and got worse in the morning damaged the trees
where an English speaker would probably prefer a passive structure to get the weight to the end and have:
    The trees were damaged by the storm which came in from the west overnight and got worse in the morning

It is often suggested to learners that active and passive sentences are simply two different ways of saying the same thing.  That is not the case.  There is a real difference between:
    The children stole the puppy
    The puppy was stolen by the children
because of the nature of end focus in English.
For this reason alone, transformation exercises are probably best avoided.
It is also the case that some passive sentences, especially those with unknown or unknowable subjects are the more natural way to form the clause and no obvious active sentence is even available.  For example:
    The limestone was formed many millions of years ago
has no clear active equivalent and there is no special marking of the limestone.

One the other hand, learners may misinterpret what they hear or read because they are not sensitive to word-ordering principles so may miss important emphases which would be obvious to a native speaker.  That may not result in a breakdown in communication but it does make it less efficient.

If that's all clear enough to you, you can go on to the guides below (on the right).  If you still feel slightly confused, try the links on the left.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
word order essentials word order
subjects and objects fronting
sentence grammar postponement
negation and interrogatives markedness