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Word order and sentence structure in English

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

English sentence structure

How to build correctly ordered sentences in English

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in declarative statements

Word order is very important in English; but it is not complicated, and can be reduced to a few basic rules or principles

Note: In the examples below, parts of the sentence are colour-coded: subjects in red, verbs in blue, direct objects in brown, etc.
1.1 In a normal (declarative) sentence, the subject of a sentence 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 )

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 eampleThe 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).
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Continue to  Word order in questions

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