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Linguapress English Grammar

Word order and sentence structure in English

How to correctly order sentences in English

A clear guide with examples

In analytic languages like English (that means languages that do not have many grammatical word endings) word order is often vital for ensuring clear and unambiguous communication. Words are organised according to standard patterns and structures that determine the relationships between them and their role in a sentence. Even if basic communication may be possible, specially in oral English, without paying strict attention to word order, the correct use of word order is generally essential in written English in order to avoid ambiguity or errors of meaning.

WORD ORDER  in declarative statements

A simple colour-coded guide to English word-order

In the examples below, parts of the sentence are colour-coded: subjects in red, verbs in blue, direct objects in maroon, etc.
English word order
►  1.1 In a normal (declarative) English sentence, the subject  comes directly in front of the verb. The direct object (when there is one) comes directly after it: 
    The man
wrote a letter.
    People who live in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones.
    The president laughed.

►  1.2. Note that by the subject, we mean not just a single word, but the subject noun or pronoun plus adjectives or descriptive phrases that go with it. The rest of the sentence - i.e. the part that is not the subject - is called the predicate.

    People who live in glasshouses
shouldn't throw stones.
    I like playing football with my friends in the park.
    The child who had been sleeping all day  woke up.

► 1.3. If a sentence has any other parts to it - indirect objects, adverbs or adverb phrases - these usually come in specific places: 

1.3.1 The position of the indirect object  

   The indirect object follows the direct object when it is formed with the preposition to:
   The indirect object comes in front of the direct object if to is omitted.

    The doctor
gave some medicine to the child.
       or: The doctor gave the child some medicine.  

 1.3.2. The position of adverbs or adverb phrases 

Adverbs (single words) and adverb phrases (groups of words, usually formed starting with a preposition) can come in three possible places:
   a)  Before the subject  (Notably with short common adverbs or adverb phrases, or sentence adverbs - see below )

    Yesterday the man wrote a letter.
    At the end of March the weather was rather cold.
    Obviously the man has written a letter.

       b1)  After the object  (virtually any adverb or adverb phrase can be placed here)

    The man
wrote a letter on his computer in the train.

       b2) or with intransitive verbs after the verb. 

    The child
was sleeping on a chair in the kitchen.

c)  In the middle of the verb group. (Notably with short common adverbs of time or frequency)

The man has already written his letter.
    The new version of the book will completely replace the old one.
    You can sometimes get real bargains in this shop.

1.3.3. Word order with "sentence adverbs"

Sentence adverbs (like perhaps, surely, indeed, naturally, also .... ) relate to a whole clause or sentence, not just a single word. In most cases, they stand outside the clause they refer to, notably at the start of the clause. However, they may be placed elsewhere in the clause for reasons of stress or emphasis.

    Surely the man has already written his letter.
    Perhaps the man has already written his letter.
    The man has perhaps already written his letter
    ..., therefore the man had already written his letter.
    Naturally the man grew vegetables in his garden.
Contrast this with:
     The man grew vegetables naturally in his garden.
which has a quite different meaning.

For more details, see sentence adverbs.

► 1.4 In standard English, nothing usually comes between the subject and the verb, or between the verb and the object.
  There are a few exceptions. The most important of these are adverbs of frequency and indirect objects without to.  (Examples 1 and 2)
    However, with adverbs of frequency, it is more normal to place them in the middle of the verb group  (Example 3)

  1.  The man often wrote his mother a letter.
  2.   I sometimes have given my dog a bone.
  3. I have sometimes given my dog a bone.

If you always apply these few simple rules, you will not make too many word order mistakes in English. The examples above are deliberately simple - but the rules can be applied even to complex sentences, with subordinate and coordinated clauses.

    The director, [who
often told his staff (to work harder),] never left the office before (he had checked his email.) 

 2 Exceptions

Of course, there are exceptions to many rules, and writers and speakers sometimes use different or unusual word order for special effects. But if we concentrate on the exceptions, we may forget the main principles, and the question of word order may start to seem very complex!
    So here are just a few examples: you should realise that they exist, but not try to use them unless either they are essential in the context, or else you have fully mastered normal word order patterns. (Don't try to run before you can walk!)

A few examples:
  • Never before had I seen such a magnificent exhibition.
      (After never or never before, subject and verb can be - and usually are - inverted. Do not invert when never follows the subject !).
  • Hardly had I left the house, than it started to rain.
         (When a sentence starts with hardly, subject and verb must be inverted.).
  • Had I known, I'd never have gone there.
         (Inversion occurs in unfulfilled hypothetical conditional structures when if is omitted.. See the page on conditional clauses for more details)
  • The book that you gave me I'd read already.
        (Emphasising a long object; in this exampleThe book that you gave me, is placed at the start of the sentence for  reasons of style: this unusual sentence structure is not necessary, just stylistic).
Special meanings...
A very few adjectives can follow the noun; but when they do so they have a special meaning.  One common example is the adjective free....
     Wrong word order
Word order matters ! These two signs are meant to say the same; but the first one actually says the opposite of what it means to say ! 
  When free is added to the end of a noun, as in alcohol free or tax free, it means "free of" or "without".  So Wifi free zone means a zone with no wifi.  A point to remember !

Word order in spoken English

Spoken English generally respects the same word order rules as written English; however spoken English is characterised by a lot of hesitation, fragments and incomplete sentences, in which a speaker may deliberately or unintentionally use non-standard word order. When this leads to ambiguity, dialogue provides the opportunity for misunderstandings to be cleared up.
Return to  English grammar rules index

Going further: other issues of word order.
Specific word order issues are also considered on other pages:

Return to Linguapress home page


Cette page en français: ►
L'ordre des mots en anglais

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