Chapter 6: Syntax

6.2 Word order

A starting point: basic word order

If you think about hearing or seeing a sentence, or if you think about reading a sentence that’s been written down, a really obvious property is that words and morphemes come in a particular order. Indeed, the only difference between the grammatical sentence in (1) (All gryphons are tichek.) and the ungrammatical sentence in (2) (*Grypnos tichek all are.) is that the words appear in different orders.

The relevance of word order for grammaticality is particularly strong for a language like English with relatively fixed word order: there isn’t much flexibility in English to change the order of words in a sentence, without either changing the meaning or making the sentence ungrammatical. Many other languages also have relatively fixed word order, including French and Mandarin, but lots of other languages—including Latin, Anishinaabemowin, Kanien’kéha, and ASL, to name just a few—have much more flexible word order, determined by stylistic factors or by the topic or focus of the sentence.

What is the basic order of words in English sentences? Based on the grammatical sentences in (1) and the ungrammatical ones in (2), see if you can come up with any generalizations about where the verb appears in English.

(1) a. Amal ate chocolate.
b. Beavers build dams.
c. Cats chase mice.
d. Daffodils bloom.
e. Eagles fly.
(2) a. *Amal chocolate ate.
b. *Build beavers dams.
c. *Chase mice cats.
d. *Bloom daffodils.
e. *Fly eagles.

These sentences are all statements, not questions or commands: they state a fact about the world, something that could be true or false. Looking at (2b-e), and comparing them with the grammatical sentences in (1), we can make the generalization that the verb cannot be the first word in an English statement.

What about (2a)? In (2a) the verb isn’t the first word, but the sentence is still ungrammatical; we might try to explain that by saying that the verb also can’t be the last word in a statement—except that (1d) and (1e) are both grammatical even though the verb does come last. So a more accurate generalization would be to say that the verb in an English sentence has to come after at least one noun, and that it can be followed by a second noun, but doesn’t have to be.

We could write this generalization as a kind of formula or template: the grammatical sentences in (1) have the order N V (N) (the parentheses around the second “N” mean that it is optional).

Another way to describe word order involves talking not just about categories like nouns and verbs, but grammatical functions like subject and object. Word order in English doesn’t just require that any noun come before the verb, it must be the noun that corresponds to the subject. Similarly, if the verb is a transitive verb with an object, the object noun must come after the verb. This is why Chocolate ate Amal. is a grammatical sentence of English (though with a somewhat implausible meaning), but cannot express the same meaning as (1a).

If you aren’t sure about terms like “subject”, “object”, and “transitive”, read the rest of this section and then come back and re-read the last paragraph. If you feel you are comfortable with those terms, it’s still a good idea to review the definitions given here, to make sure that you understand the terms in the same way they’re used in this textbook.

Key grammatical terminology

This section reviews some key grammatical terminology that you might be familiar with from elsewhere (often from language classes). This vocabulary is important for describing the basic structure of phrases and sentences, and so we review it here.

Sentence
A string of words that expresses a complete proposition. For statements (as opposed to questions or commands), a proposition is something that can be true or false. A sentence is a clause that stands on its own as an utterance.
Clause
A clause is a combination of one subject and one predicate—some clauses occur inside other clauses (see below on complex sentences), though, and so not all clauses are independent sentences.
Predicate
The state, event, or activity that the sentence attributes to its subject.

The word “predicate” is used in two ways. Sometimes it is used to refer to a single head/word (usually a verb or an adjective), but sometimes its used to describe everything in the sentence other than the subject (e.g. a whole verb phrase). In this chapter we use it in the first sense: a predicate is something that combines with a subject and (sometimes) one or more objects.

Arguments
The participants or actors involved in a sentence. They are typically noun phrases, but it’s possible to have arguments of other types (usually prepositional phrases or whole clauses).

In the following sentences the arguments are in bold and the predicate is italicized.

(3) a. Vanja loves chocolate.
b. The children gave [the kitten] [a toy].
c. Everyone is excited.

Predicates can be classified by their transitivity, which is the number of arguments they take. (This is also sometimes called the valency of a predicate.) The words for transitivity are based on the number of objects a predicate takes.

Intransitive
One argument (the subject); no object.
Transitive
Two arguments (subject and direct object); one object.
Ditransitive
Three arguments (subject, direct object, and indirect object); two objects.

Arguments can be classified in at least two ways: their position in the sentence, and how they’re related to the predicate (are they the actor, the thing acted upon, etc). For now we will focus on the position of arguments, with diagnostics specific to English. Later in this chapter we will return to classifying arguments based on their role in an event.

Subject
Almost always appears before the predicate in English, and
controls agreement on the verb. If the subject is a pronoun, it is in nominative case (I, we, you, he, she, it, they)
Direct object
Usually appears after the verb in English. If the direct object is a pronoun, it is in accusative case (me, us, you, him, her, it, them)
Indirect object:
Only appears when a verb has three arguments. Generally the recipient of the direct object. Sometimes (not always) marked by “to” (or another preposition); if it is a pronoun, in accusative case (but in languages that have dative case, often in dative case)

Now that we’ve looked at grammatical terminology relating to predicates and arguments within sentences, let’s talk about terminology for sentences as a whole. First, we can classify sentences according to their function—whether we use the sentence to make a statement, ask a question, or give a command.

Declarative:
Statements. Things that can be true or false.
Interrogatives:
Questions.

  • Yes-No questions (For example: Did Romil watch a movie?)
  • Content questions: (For example: What did Romil watch?)
Imperatives:
Direct commands. (For example: Open the door!)

Alternatively, we can classify sentences according to their structure; that is, according to whether they contain one clause or more than one clause, and (if more than one clause) how the sub-clauses are related to each other.

Simple sentence
A sentence is simple if it contains only one clause. All the sentences we have seen so far have been simple sentences.
Compound sentence
A compound sentence has two clauses, linked by a conjunction (and,
or, or but). (For example: [ Danai laughed ] and [ Seo-yeon cried ].)
Complex sentence
A complex sentence is one that contains a subordinate embedded
clause—a clause inside a clause (an example of recursion!). (For example: Seo-yeon knows [ that Danai laughed ] .)

Variation across languages: order of Subject, Object, and Verb

Having reviewed terminology relating to predicates and their arguments, we’re now in a better position to talk about variation across languages in terms of basic word order—the order found in simple declarative clauses.

English is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). This is one of the most common word orders in the world’s languages, found in about 35.5% of languages (Dryer, 2013). Other languages with this basic word order include most of the Romance languages, and both Mandarin and Cantonese. This word order is usually referred to as “SVO” even though not all clauses have objects; in a sentence without an object, the order would just be SV.)

All the other logically possible orders for subjects, objects, and verbs are also attested in the world’s languages, though. The most common basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb (41% of languages, according to Dryer 2013); for example, Japanese and Korean are both SOV languages.

Many languages have the order Verb-Subject-Object, for example Irish and the other Celtic languages, as well as in Anishinaabemowin. Orders where the object comes before the subject (VOS, OVS, OSV) are less common, but found in a few languages.

As we noted before, even though most languages have a basic word order (the order found in neutral declarative sentences), in many languages this order is much more flexible than it is in English.

When word order is flexible, it’s usually the case that order determined at least partly by topic and/or focus—the topic is the thing you’re talking about, and the focus is something you want to emphasize. So while English has a very strict SVO word order, languages with word order that is flexible with respect to the subject and predicate might be said to have a strict topic-comment word order, where he first element in the sentence is the topic (the thing the sentence is about) and the rest is a comment on that topic. Language users will prefer or require particular word orders in particular conversational contexts.

In Chapter 9.3 Dr. Kanatawakhon-Maracle gives several examples of flexible word order of this type in Mohawk—showing that translating from English isn’t always straightforward, with many different translations being possible with shades of meaning that can be a bit hard to distinguish in English.


References

Matthew S. Dryer. 2013. Order of Subject, Object and Verb. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/81, Accessed on 2022-02-26.)

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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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