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Concourse 2

Word order: the essentials


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.

Take these sentences for example:

  1. Mary kissed John
  2. John kissed Mary
  3. She kissed him
  4. He kissed her

That all seems very simple and an English speaker will have no difficulty deciding that John did the kissing in sentences 2 and 4 and in 1 and 3, it's the other way round.

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

There are three parts to the simple sentences we have created: S(ubject) V(erb) and O(bject).  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.  Although 75% of languages in the world are either Subject–Verb–Object (like English, French, Italian, Russian, Norwegian and a hundred or so other big languages) or Subject–Object–Verb (like Japanese, Tamil, Dutch, Maltese, Pashto and a hundred or so other large languages).
For most of our learners, then, the natural word order will be:

John kissed Mary
John Mary kissed

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)

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).

However, what we are talking about here is known as canonical word order, i.e., the normal, word order of simple, positive sentences.


Free word order

There are some languages in which the speakers are far freer to vary the word order as they please.  Examples of these languages are Latin, Modern Greek, Turkish and Finnish.  Most languages with free word order have a way 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 noun and the article are changed to indicate its status in the sentence.

English does not have free word order and is, in fact, very strict normally.  This is because the language has no way of telling you what is the subject and what is the object.  John kissed Mary and Mary kissed John are only distinguished by the ordering of the names.  Compare also,
    The delay caused a problem
    A problem caused the delay
and you will see that only the word order tells you what happened.


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.

Arabic, Chinese languages, English, Finnish, German, Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and some others), Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Danish and Swedish), Slavic languages (Polish, Russian etc.)
Basque, Bengali, Dutch, Gujarati, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Persian languages, Punjabi, Tamil, Turkish

Ordering other items

Apart from the main ordering of Subject, Verb and Object, there are other element of languages which are usually ordered in certain ways.  These include numerals and adjectives.
English puts adjectives before nouns (e.g., a fabulous vase).  French and other Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish prefer to put the adjective after the noun (e.g., in French, un vase fabuleuse).
Greek prefers to put a possessive determiner such as my, your, his etc. after the noun to which it refers but English, along with a range of other languages, chooses the reverse order and has, e.g.:
    my suitcase
    suitcase my


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 word orders

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 examples,
    What words can go in the gaps in this?
    A: Come _______ the garden, I want to show you a _______ flower.
    B: OK.  Where is this _______ flower you want _______ to show _______?
    A: _______ is ______ here, _______ the shed.

    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 articles, numbers 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 mono-lingual classes, you have the advantage that you can focus on specific differences, of course.

Related guides
word order for a more technical guide in the in-service area
subjects and objects an essential guide to these

There is, of course a short test on this.

Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Dryer, MS and Haspelmath, M (Eds.), 2013, The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Languages_by_word_order