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Concourse 2

Word order

word order


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.

think 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.

think Now ask yourself how you knew that.
Click here when you have an answer.
think 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 along with at least 50 others), VOS is also rare but includes some large languages such as Tagalog and Malagasy, and OVS and OSV are very rare indeed with only one or two attested examples (Mallinson and Blake, 1981).
Naturally, not all verbs take objects so languages like English may be described as VO languages, placing the verb before the object while others, such as Turkish and Japanese are OV languages, placing the object before the verb.

For most of our learners, then, the natural word order will be either:
    John took a fat cigar
    John a fat cigar took


Indirect objects

There is one more complication to consider: indirect objects.

In English, the indirect object can appear in two places.  In the following the direct object is a story and the indirect object is the children.  English allows both:
    I read the children a story
and, with what is called the dative shift or alternation:
    I read a story to the children
Other languages do things differently as one might expect although most languages (especially European ones) will follow the ordering of indirect-direct object.  The dative shift to reverse the ordering is either not permitted in many languages, however, or considered clumsy and substandard.
The dative shift cannot be used when the object of the verb is a nominalised clause rather than a noun phrase proper so while we allow:
    She told me how to do it
    She told the man a lie
we cannot allow:
    *She told how to do it to me
but do allow:
    She told a lie to the man.

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.

One small oddity in English which does not occur in most other languages concerns the ordering of subject and object in direct speech quotations.
The rule for ordering the items is that you cannot reverse the verb and subject pronoun but you can reverse a noun or noun phrase subject and verb.  We allow, therefore:
    "That's the bus," said John
    "That's the bus," John said
    "That's the bus," he said
    "That's the bus,", said he
is now hopelessly archaic.
The same situation applies to other reporting verbs such as explain, point out, exclaim, suggest, propose, complain and so on.
However, if the reporting verb is transitive and has the direct object, we cannot reverse the ordering so:
    *"That's the bus," told me John
is not allowed.

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 construed as a token of markedness.

So, for example, we vary the word order to mark a question form or mark a passive.  We can also vary the ordering to mark an emphasised item of almost any kind in a sentence.  When we do this we get sentences such as:

and so on.


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 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
    Mary loved John
    The problem caused the delay
    The delay caused the problem
are only distinguished by the ordering of the elements in the sentence.

By comparison, the same two sentences translate like this into some other languages:

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)


Mixed word order

Some languages show more complex patterns.

Around 70 languages, including German, Dutch and Hungarian are recorded as having two dominant orderings (usually varying between SVO and SOV).

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.


Some other languages

This is the realm of what is called syntactic typology of 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).  Approximately 80% of the world's languages are either SVO or SOV and, moreover, that figure includes some of the most widely spoken and those spoken by many millions of people.
For more, investigate using the references at the end of this guide.

Subject–Verb–Object (SVO) Subject–Object–Verb (SOV)
Arabic (most varieties)
Bantu languages
Chinese languages
Dutch (also free)
German (in both lists)
Greek (also free)
Armenian (Western)
German (in both lists)
Hungarian (also free)
Latin (also free)Maltese
Persian (Farsi, Dari, Tajik)

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.  A very few, mostly small and often endangered languages, require O-S-V as the canonical or most normal ordering of elements of a clause.  In Turkish, the canonical word ordering is S-O-V in almost all declarative clauses.
Both Japanese and Korean allow O-S-V ordering when the object is being marked for special emphasis (as does English as we have seen).
Some heavily inflected languages have much freer word ordering than, say, English because the relationship between elements of a clause is signalled by inflexions for case.

There are some outliers, sometimes small languages spoken by fewer people than those in the list above and they include:

Some Arabic languages, Berber, Gaelic (Scots), Hawaiian, Irish, Maori, Tagalog, Welsh
Chinook, Malagasy, Nicobarese
Only four languages are attested as having this canonical word order, all small and the classification is contested.
No dominant word ordering (allegedly – this is a contested area)
Armenian (Eastern), Arabic (Syrian), Cherokee, Dutch, Frisian, Fijian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Mohawk, Samoan, Tongan


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 shop 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:

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.
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 Romance languages (Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, Spanish etc.)
All varieties of Arabic are Noun–Adjective, too.
Many languages, listed below, are left headed so the classifier follows the noun.  More on headedness below.
many languages have a single ordering (unlike English).
Some 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 Romance languages do not have an equivalent, always preferring a construction such as the book of Mary.
Romance 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.
English has prepositions but other languages use postpositions (London in not in London).  Among them are Turkish, Japanese, Korean and the Chinese languages.
German also uses postpositions as well as prepositions, depending on the word in question.
There are eleven items which sometime function as postpositions in English: ago, apart, aside, away, hence, notwithstanding, on, over, short, through, withal (rare / dialect).

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.


Patterns across languages

Although there are exceptions, there are some interesting (for some) correlations across languages which have been uncovered.
The table above considered two fundamental and common types of languages.  Those, like English, in which the Object follows the verb, called VO languages, and those, like Japanese in which the Verb follows the Object, called OV languages.
Essentially this just means do you say:
    John the book stole (OV)
    John stole the book (VO).

The picture looks a bit like this:

vo and ov 

For teaching purposes, this may not be very helpful but it may explain why certain learners make some simple word-ordering errors and allow you to alert them to the fact that English is, predominantly (i.e., bar the odd genitive forms), a VO language and follows the general patterns of such things.
If we take the number of languages in the world to be around 7000, very roughly 5600 will fall into one or other of these categories, 3400 or so into the VO section and 2200 into the OV section.



Headedness refers to what comes first, i.e., what the head of phrase or compound is.  The head of a phrase or compound determines its grammatical function in the syntax of the language.
The two pairs of terms used in this respect are right- or left-headed or head final and head initial.

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
    timbru poștal
are the Polish and Romanian respectively for postage stamp and nouns not adjectives so left-headed compounds.
And in French, a walking stick is un bâton de marche and a record player un tourne-disque.

To complicate matters, some languages, particularly Slavic ones such as Polish and Russian, will place the adjective before the noun but choose to place a classifier after the noun.  In Polish, for example, large postage stamp translates as duża znaczka pocztowa (literally large stamp postage).

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
    has walked out the door
is a verb phrase with the head walked post-modified by a prepositional phrase (out the door) which has out as its Head
    an old man
is a noun phrase with the head man
In English, noun phrases are usually right-headed because the adjective and determiner (old and an) 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 although the alternative analysis calling the noun phrase the object of the preposition rather than the complement, restores the situation somewhat and mirrors the verb-object ordering of other clauses.
It is unlikely that any languages are wholly consistent in this respect but English, apart from, arguably, prepositional phrases, is predominately right headed (or head final) with the head in the second 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.

and it would be unusual marking to render that as:
    Out there in his boat is an old man

Japanese is the usual example of a right headed language in which the head follows the rest of the phrase as 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 postposition).  We get therefore e.g.:
    He books bought
    She was home at


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 right- vs. left-headed nature of languages is and how sustainable it is as a way to classify languages but here is a short list:

Right-headed Left-headed
English and most Germanic languages
Scandinavian languages
Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese
Turkish, Basque
Most Indian languages
Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc.)
Slavic languages and Albanian
South-East Asian languages (Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese etc.)
Celtic languages
Most African languages



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)
    Marriage that is not yet for me (with a fronted subject)
    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.  For example, in German, the unmarked
    I am seeing the doctor next week
    Nächste Woche gehe ich zum Arzt
    Ich gehe nächste Woche zum Arzt
is also a common ordering.
The ordering in English of:
    Next week I am seeing the doctor
is reserved for times when we wish to mark the adverbial time expression for emphasis.

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 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 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 see _______?
    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.
    Choose from:
    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, often
    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 or dummy 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
the genitive for a guide to how the genitive is marked in various ways
case for more on subjects, objects and genitives

There is, of course, a test on this.

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 https://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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Languages_by_word_order