Definition and Examples of SVO (Subject-Verb-Object)

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The initialism SVO represents the basic word order of main clauses and subordinate clauses in present-day English: Subject + Verb + Object.

Compared with many other languages, SVO word order in English (also known as canonical word order) is fairly rigid. Nevertheless, non-canonical word order can be found in a variety of clause types in English.

Examples and Observations

  • The woman [S] built [V] a strong stone wall [O]
  • The children [S] eat [V] buns, cakes, and biscuits [O]
  • The professor [S] threw [V] an orange [O]

Language Typologies

"[I]nformation on word order of languages was compiled from the 17th century on; consequently, language typologies were established in the 18th and 19th centuries. These studies show that the majority of the languages in the world belong to one of these typologies:

  • Subject Verb Object (SVO).
  • Subject Object Verb (SOV).
  • Verb Subject Object (VSO).

The most frequent word orders are SVO and SOV because they allow for placement of the subject in the first position. English shares this SVO order with other languages to which it is related, such as Greek, French or Norwegian, and with other languages to which it is not related, such as Swahili or Malay (Burridge, 1996: 351).

  • "The communicative strategy found in the SVO word order can be considered listener-oriented because the speaker or writer, who has new information to communicate, considers more important the fact that the message is clear to the hearer than his/her necessity to communicate (Siewierska, 1996: 374)." (Maria Martinez Lirola, Main Processes of Thematization and Postponement in English. Peter Lang AG, 2009)
  • "[T]he traditional practice of classifying languages in terms of a typology of dominant word-order patterns is potentially misleading since it obscures the fact that within each language, there are often two or more verb positions, subject positions, object positions, and so on." (Victoria Fromkin, ed., Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory. Blackwell, 2000​)

SVO Word Order and Variants in English

  • "Modern English is one of the most consistent rigid SVO languages, at least in terms of its main clause order. Still, it displays variant word-order in several more marked clause-types.
a. The boy slept (S-V)
b. The man hit the ball (S-V-DO) . . .
e. They thought that he was crazy (S-V-Comp)
f. The boy wanted to leave (S-V-Comp)
g. The woman told the man to leave (S-V-DO-Comp)
h. He was mowing the lawn (S-Aux-V-O)
i. The girl was tall (S-Cop-Pred)
j. He was a teacher (S-Cop-Pred"

(Talmy Givón, Syntax: An Introduction, Vol. 1. John Benjamins, 2001)

  • "Of course, not all English sentences follow the order subject-verb-direct object, or SVO. To emphasize particular noun phrases, English speakers sometimes place direct objects in clause initial position as with sewing in Sewing I hate, but I'll sew that for you. In questions like Who(m) did you see? the direct object who(m) is in first position. Similar word order variants are found in most languages." (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 7th ed. Cengage, 2015)

Consequences of Fixed SVO Order

"It has been argued that one of the major consequences following from the fixed SVO word order in English is that it has developed a wide range of options to cater for the communicative needs of its speakers, still keeping the subject in its required initial position. Most importantly, the grammatical function of the subject has considerably been expanded, both semantically and functionally (see Legenhausen and Rohdenburg 1995). In this context, Foley observes that

there is, in fact, a very strong correlation between concepts of topic and subject in English. [...] Thus, the typical way to express alternatives of topic choice is to select different subjects. This is very common in English (1994: 1679).

Among these alternative ways of topic choice are also the focus constructions, especially clefting, but also non-agentive subjects, existential sentences, raising constructions and the passive. Where German has equivalent structures, it offers fewer options and is more restricted than English (Legenhausen and Rohdenburg 1995: 134). All these structures exhibit a comparatively large distance between surface form (or grammatical function) and semantic meaning."
(Marcus Callies, Information Highlighting in Advanced Learner English: The Syntax-Pragmatics Interface in Second Language Acquisition. John Benjamins, 2009)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of SVO (Subject-Verb-Object)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of SVO (Subject-Verb-Object). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of SVO (Subject-Verb-Object)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).

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