Word Order in English Sentences

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A chicken crossing a road


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Word order refers to the conventional arrangement of words in a phrase, clause, or sentence.

Compared with many other languages, word order in English is fairly rigid. In particular, the order of subject, verb, and object is relatively inflexible.

Examples and Observations

  • "I can't see the point of Mozart. Of Mozart I can't see the point. The point of Mozart I can't see. See I can't of Mozart the point. Can't I of Mozart point the see . . . I can't see the point of Mozart." (Sebastian Faulks, Engleby. Doubleday, 2007)
  • "[A] characteristic of modern English, as of other modern languages, is the use of word-order as a means of grammatical expression. If in an English sentence, such as 'The wolf ate the lamb,' we transpose the positions of the nouns, we entirely change the meaning of the sentence; the subject and object are not denoted by any terminations to the words, as they would be in Greek or Latin or in modern German, but by their position before or after the verb."
    (Logan Pearsall Smith, The English Language, 1912)

Basic Word Order in Modern English

"Assume you wanted to say that a chicken crossed the road in Modern English. And assume you are interested only in stating the facts--no questions asked, no commands, and no passive. You wouldn't have much of a choice, would you? The most natural way of stating the message would be as in (18a), with the subject (in caps) preceding the verb (in boldface) which, in turn, precedes the object (in italics). For some speakers (18b) would be acceptable, too, but clearly more 'marked,' with particular emphasis on the road. Many other speakers would prefer to express such an emphasis by saying something like It's the road that the chicken crossed, or they would use a passive The road was crossed by the chicken. Other permutations of (18a) would be entirely unacceptable, such as (18c)-(18f).

(18a) THE CHICKEN crossed the road
[Basic, 'unmarked' order]
(18b) the road THE CHICKEN crossed
['Marked' order; the road is 'in relief']
(18c) THE CHICKEN the road crossed*
(18d) the road crossed THE CHICKEN*
[But note constructions like: Out of the cave came A TIGER.]
(18e) crossed the road THE CHICKEN*
(18f) crossed THE CHICKEN the road*

In this respect, Modern English differs markedly from the majority of the early Indo-European languages, as well as from Old English, especially the very archaic stage of Old English found in the famous epic Beowulf. In these languages, any of the six different orders in (18) would be acceptable . . .."
(Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph, Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Mouton de Gruyter, 1996)

Word Order in Old English, Middle English, and Modern English

"Certainly, word order is critical in Modern English. Recall the famous example: The dog bit the man. This utterance means something totally different from The man bit the dog. In Old English, word endings conveyed which creature is doing the biting and which is being bitten, so there was built-in flexibility for word order. Inflection telling us 'dog-subject bites man-object' allows words to be switched around without confusion: 'man-object bites dog-subject.' Alerted that the man is the object of the verb, we can hold him in mind as the recipient of a bite made by a subject we know will be revealed next: 'dog.'

"By the time English evolved into Middle English, loss of inflection meant that nouns no longer contained much grammatical information. On its own, the word man could be a subject or an object, or even an indirect object (as in 'The dog fetched the man a bone'). To compensate for this loss of information that inflection has provided, word order became critically important. If the man appears after the verb bite, we know he's not the one doing the biting: The dog bit the man. Indeed, having lost so much inflection, Modern English relies heavily on word order to convey grammatical information. And it doesn't much like having its conventional word order upset." (Leslie Dunton-Downer, The English Is Coming!: How One Language Is Sweeping the World. Simon & Schuster, 2010)


"One way to find out whether a sentence part is a subject or not is to make the sentence into a question. The subject will appear after the first verb:

He told me to add one tablespoon of honey per pound of fruit.
Did he tell me . . .?
We spread a thin layer of fruit on each plate.
Did we spread . . .?

The only constituent that may occur in many different places is an adverbial. Especially one-word adverbials like not, always, and often may occur almost anywhere in the sentence. In order to see if a sentence part is an adverbial or not, see if it is possible to move it in the sentence."
(Marjolijn Verspoor and Kim Sauter, English Sentence Analysis: An Introductory Course. John Benjamins, 2000)

The Lighter Side of Word Order in Monty Python's Flying Circus

Burrows: Good doctor morning! Nice year for the time of day!
Dr. Thripshaw: Come in.
Burrows: Can I down sit?​
Dr. Thripshaw: Certainly. Well, then?
Burrows: Well, now, not going to bush the doctor about the beat too long. I'm going to come to point the straight immediately.
Dr. Thripshaw: Good, good.
Burrows: My particular prob, or buglem bear, I've had ages. For years, I've had it for donkeys.
Dr. Thripshaw: What?
Burrows: I'm up to here with it, I'm sick to death. I can't take you any longer so I've come to see it.
Dr. Thripshaw: Ah, now this is your problem with words.​
Burrows: This is my problem with words. Oh, that seems to have cleared it. "Oh I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee." Yes, that seems to be all right. Thank you very much.​
Dr. Thripshaw: I see. But recently you have been having this problem with your word order.
Burrows: Well, absolutely, and what makes it worse, sometimes at the end of a sentence I'll come out with the wrong fusebox.
Dr. Thripshaw: Fusebox?
Burrows: And the thing about saying the wrong word is a) I don't notice it, and b) sometimes orange water given bucket of plaster.
(Michael Palin and John Cleese in episode 36 of Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1972)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Word Order in English Sentences." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/word-order-english-sentences-1692503. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Word Order in English Sentences. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/word-order-english-sentences-1692503 Nordquist, Richard. "Word Order in English Sentences." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/word-order-english-sentences-1692503 (accessed May 28, 2023).