Published: Nov 28, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
If you’re struggling to structure your English sentences correctly, or you sometimes feel confused about the proper way to order words when speaking or writing, mastering word order is a key step that will help take you forward toward fluent communication in English.
In this post, we’ll look at what word order is, why it matters, common challenges English learners face, and how to improve this important language skill.
Word order refers to the sequence and position of words within a sentence. For example, in English, we use subject-verb-object order:
“The student (subject) studies (verb) algebra (object).”
Other parts of speech like adjectives and adverbs also have an expected order:
“The extremely (adverb) intelligent (adjective) student (noun)...”
Proper word order makes your sentences clear, natural, and easy to understand.
Just as following a recipe for cooking dinner only works in the correct order, reversing word order when speaking or writing in English can change the meaning or make a sentence incomprehensible.
When I started teaching English to professionals in the Netherlands, I noticed a funny pattern in the way they sometimes used adverbs.
In Dutch, it’s common to put emphasis on the adverb when you’re speaking and raise the tone of your voice to stress it.
So for example, they would say something like “I drink ALWAYS coffee in the morning” with that “always” being louder, higher in tone, and emphasized.
But this sounds funny in English because in English we have a rule where we never separate a verb and its direct object, like “drink” and “coffee” with an adverb like “always.”
But in Dutch the rule is different, and once I realized that, I was able to help Dutch speakers fix this error quickly and sound more like a native speaker with some simple instructions and exercises.
This is a simple example, but as you advance as an English learner, you’ll learn complex structures like dependent and independent clauses, which will be key in writing high-level sentences.
Word order is crucial to using them correctly, and getting a solid foundation now will make English fluency much easier later down the road.
Here are common word order struggles English learners face:
One of the trickiest aspects of word order is knowing when it is fixed vs flexible.
Some English structures always follow a strict order that cannot change:
Subject-verb-object: The girl (subject) ate (verb) an apple (object).
Adjective order: The big red car. Size - Opinion - Color - Noun
Prepositional phrases: The book on the table. Noun - Preposition - Noun
Reversing the order in these structures leads to errors. As an English learner, you’re forced to just memorize the rigid pattern.
However, other structures allow flexible word order for different effects:
Adverb placement: He quickly finished the test. vs He finished the test quickly.
Adjective order: The amazing new computer. vs The new amazing computer.
Clauses: When he arrived, dinner was ready. vs Dinner was ready when he arrived.
With flexible structures, you can change the order for emphasis or style. It takes practice to recognize when word order can vary.
Errors often occur when English learners assume a flexible structure has a fixed order, or vice versa. Pay attention to cases where native speakers alter the sequence - it likely indicates flexibility.
Unfortunately, word order in English comes with many grammar rules and exceptions to remember.
For example, the basic word order for statements follows subject-verb-object order, but questions use inversion:
Statement: You like coffee.
Question: Do you like coffee?
Another common exception is adverb order for time, manner, and place:
Yesterday he quickly walked to the store. (Time - Manner - Place)
Rather than the normal word order rules for manner-time-place sequence.
Other tricky rules include:
Double-object verbs: Susan gave Tom the book. Indirect object then direct object.
Modifier order: The very talented young actor. Opinion - Size - Age - Noun
Conditional sentences: If it rains, we will cancel the picnic. (Cause, then effect).
Memorizing these exceptions takes time. Try to notice patterns and categories that make the rules easier to absorb.
But don't let the exceptions overwhelm you. Just focus on understanding each structure little by little through practice.
Later in the post, I’ll tell you all about my English word order lesson that can help you solve a lot of these problems as well.
When learning English word order, it’s common to transfer structures from your native language. This can lead to errors.
For example, Spanish speakers may say “house red” because adjectives come after nouns in Spanish. Or Korean speakers might incorrectly say “he books likes” based on their verb-object order.
Analyze common word order differences between English and your native language. This helps avoid errors when making complete sentences due to direct translations.
Study English sentence patterns on their own terms, not just assuming your language’s word order transfers over. With practice, you can become conscious of differences and catch errors.
It takes time and consistency, but you’ll gradually develop sharper intuition for the English SVO word order independent of your native language.
Word order also changes based on the contextual meaning, emphasis, and style of a sentence. This complexity can be challenging.
We can do things like, changing the order of dependent clauses and their independent clause, we can change the position of the time we did something or the place where we did it, depending on what's more important.
I walked to the store this morning. (Neutral order)
This morning I walked to the store. (Emphasizes “this morning”)
I walked to the store this morning. (Emphasizes “walking” as opposed to driving or biking)
The flexibility of English word order allows for succinct, clear communication of ideas and focus.
But it means you may need to intentionally vary word order for the context, rather than relying on memorized sequences.
English sentence structure is easy to get familiar with and learn, but the subtle differences in meaning depending on the slight ways you change your sentences or even just the way your sentence begins, are all a bit more tricky to learn and will definitely take time.
Pay attention to how native speakers alter order for emphasis or clarity. With time, your contextual usage will become more natural through practice.
For now, focus on precision with basic sentence patterns. As your fluency develops, you can begin flexing word order skills.
So how can you start better understanding the logic behind English word order? Here are some tips:
Understanding the standard sentence structures in a language is essential for mastering word order. English, for example, primarily follows a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order.
However, variations like inverted questions do exist. By studying these patterns, you'll be able to form coherent and natural sentences with ease.
Understanding basic sentence structure like the standard Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order is like learning the basic rules of a game, it sets you up for being able to enjoy the game without having to think about the rules.
In an SVO sentence, the subject comes first, followed by the verb, and then the object. For example, in the sentence "She (Subject) reads (Verb) books (Object)," the structure is easy to identify.
Of course, this is quite basic, but mastering this basic pattern will give you the foundation you need to write more types of sentences.
Beyond the basic SVO order, English and many other languages offer variations, like inverted questions, that you'll also need to get familiar with.
Inverted questions flip the standard word order to form a question. For example, instead of saying "You are coming," you'd ask, "Are you coming?" Here, the subject and auxiliary verb are inverted or flipped.
Understanding these and other variations will make you more flexible when using English, helping you to express yourself in more ways in your thoughts and questions.
When you get to things like direct and indirect objects, and independent and dependent clauses, it may not feel like it, but you're opening up a door for ultimate flexibility in writing in English.
Once you master those topics, you'll be able to write texts that even native English speakers won't notice are from a non-native speaker.
But before you get to the advanced topics, learning the basic grammar rules as it relates to word order and sentence structure in English will help you become more and more advanced in your English learning journey.
People often think of grammar as limiting, only focusing on rules and the parts that seem boring.
But if you think about it in terms of music, without structure in music we’d only have a bunch of random sounds being thrown around.
Structure in music, like scales, notes, and chords, fit together to form music theory, which allows musicians to create music that sounds pleasing to our ears by following the structure for sounds.
Grammar in English is the same. It provides us with the structure we need to communicate effectively, and sometimes even beautifully.
One intriguing area of grammar as it relates to English word order is the concept of double-object verbs, where a verb directs action toward two objects.
Take the sentence "She gave him a book."
Here, both "him" and "a book" are objects, but their order is not interchangeable. Saying "She gave a book him" would be incorrect.
Knowing these distinctions not only makes your language more precise but also enhances your understanding when you encounter complex sentences.
The examples only get more complicated from there.
Studying these advanced aspects of English word order is like being handed a more detailed map after you've already learned the main roads.
The journey might be a bit challenging, but it's incredibly rewarding. The beauty of English comes alive in these nuanced rules and exceptions.
So why settle for a basic understanding when you can explore the language in its full richness?
Diving into the advanced aspects of English word order will give you the skills to communicate more effectively, impress others with your fluency, and perhaps most importantly, appreciate the language in all its complexity.
Why does word order matter so much in a language? Understanding the neuroscience might help you understand its importance a little better.
When learning English, the brain must form new connections and patterns. Word order provides a schema that, with repetition, becomes automatic.
Your brain will begin to think in the pattern of “subject-verb-object” rather than constructing each sentence entirely from scratch. This saves mental energy for more advanced communication.
The more you understand it conceptually, if you really master it, the more your brain will be able to give you the words you need where you need them when you need them while you’re speaking and writing, subconsciously.
So mastering word order boosts fluency by enabling your brain to speak English more instinctively.
Hearing about word order when thinking about learning English may take you back to the grammar lessons that you hated in school. That’s totally understandable.
I’ve heard that from so many of my students over the years.
But it really is one of the most crucial things you can learn when you want to move towards fluency in English, and especially proficiency.
That’s why I dedicated an entire lesson to Mastering Word Order here in my courses.
As an online English school, I offer various courses on specific topics here at the Weaver School.
But word order is a truly foundational piece of learning English that you should spend some time on.
Check out my English courses here and put yourself in a position to speak and write English at a high level without ever having to think about grammar again.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.