Word Order - Latin and English Differences in Word Order

In English Word Order is Crucial But It's Not in Latin

A typical English sentence puts the subject first, followed by the predicate, but it's not true that every English sentence starts with a subject, places the verb between the subject and the object, and has the object, if there is one, at the end. Try it! See what I mean? I've just provided two sentences where the verb comes first. Still, the examples conform to English grammar, which doesn't allow random placement of subject, verb, and object.

In English Use SVO

Speakers of English are used to putting the subject of the sentence at the beginning of the sentence, the verb in the middle, and the direct and indirect object at the end (SVO = Subject + Verb + Object), as in

(1)Man bites dog,
which means something entirely different from
(2)Dog bites man.

In Latin Use SOV or OVS or...

When learning Latin, one of the obstacles to overcome is the word order, since it is rarely SVO. In Latin it is often Subject + Object + Verb (SOV) or Object + Verb + Subject (OVS) or Object + Verb (OV), with the verb at the end and the subject included in it.* At any rate, it wouldn't matter whether the dog or mailman came first, because who did the biting would always be clear. [See: What Is the Latin Word Order?


(3)canem________ vir_____________ mordet
dog-acc_sg.(object) man-nom._sg.(subject) bites-3d_sg.
man bites dog

(4)vir_____________ canem________ mordet = (3)
man-nom._sg.(subject) dog-acc_sg.(object) bites-3d_sg.
man bites dog


(5)canis___________ virum___________ mordet
dog-nom_sg.(subject) man-acc._sg.(object) bites-3d_sg.
dog bites man

Exceptions to the English SVO Rule

Although English has a fixed word order, it is not entirely foreign to us to find the words in an order other than SVO. When we utter a sentence in the imperative, like an order, we put the verb first:

(6)Beware of dog!
Incidentally, the Latin imperative can have the same order:
(7)Cave canem!
beware dog
This word order is VO (Verb-Object) with no stated subject. An English question has the verb first, too (even if it is an auxiliary), and the object last, as in
(8)Will the dog bite the man?
The point of these examples is that we are able to understand sentences that are not SVO.

Inflection Accomplishes the Same Thing As Word Order

The reason Latin is a more flexible language in terms of word order is that what English speakers encode by position in the sentence, Latin handles with case endings at the ends of nouns, adjectives, and verbs. English word order tells us that what is the subject is the (set of) word(s) that comes first in a declarative sentence, what is the object is the set of words at the sentence end, and what is the verb separates subject from object. We rarely confuse verb with noun, except in ambiguous cases like Bart Simpson's

(9)What has 4 legs and ticks?
There is ambiguity in Latin, as well, but most of the time, an ending will show, just as efficiently, what is the subject, what is the object, and what is the verb.
(10)omnia______________ vincit______________ amor
everything-acc._pl._neut. conquers-3d_pers._sg. love-nom._sg._masc.
'Love conquers all.' (Attributed to Vergil.)

*This is an important point: A Latin verb can tell you the subject of the clause/sentence or it can tell you much of what you need to know about the subject of the sentence. The verb "vincit" can mean "he conquers," "she conquers" or "it conquers." If the noun "amor" weren't in the sentence "omnia vincit amor," if all that were there were "vincit omnia" or "omnia vincit," you would translate the sentence as "he conquers everything" or "she conquers everything."

More Latin-English Differences: Agreement | Case | Word Order | Gender | |