Word Order

Did you know that English is a word order language?

by Louis Alexander

A word order language? What does that mean? It means that in the English language, the order of words is essential to the meaning of a sentence. A simple sentence like:
The policeman arrested the thief
makes complete sense. However, if we change the order of words and say:
The thief arrested the policeman
we may be conveying a meaning we did not intend. This means that English is less flexible in its word order than many inflected languages.

What is an inflected language? Three common characteristics of inflected languages are:


Nouns have endings which change depending on whether they are, for example, the subject or the object of a verb.


There are complex agreements between articles, adjectives and nouns to emphasize the fact that a noun is, for example, subject or object, masculine or feminine, singular or plural. The more inflected a language is (for example, German or Greek), the more complex its system of endings ('inflections').


Verbs 'conjugate', so that it is immediately obvious from the endings which 'person' (first, second or third) is referred to and whether the 'person' is singular or plural.

English was an inflected language up to the Middle Ages, after which inflections gradually died out. For example, the 'subject form' of 'tongue' in the singular was 'tunge'; the 'object form' was 'tungan'. Verbs conjugated and there was a second person: 'I do, thou dost'. The forms 'thou' (= you) and 'thy' (= your) now survive only in some religious texts. Very few inflections survive in modern English. We still have a 'genitive case' in e.g. 'lady's handbag' where 'lady' requires 's to show singular possession. We still have to add 's' to a verb in the third person of the simple present tense (I work - he/she/it works) where the -s ending identifies the third person. We still have comparative and superlative forms (nice, nicer, nicest). But there are now only six words in the English language that have subject and object forms: I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them and who/whom. The lack of inflections tempts some people to suppose that English has 'hardly any grammar'. Nothing could be further from the truth, as you, the learner can testify. However, there is no doubt that some aspects of English are easier than other languages because nouns no longer have masculine and feminine forms and do not change to show whether they are subject or object; adjectives remain unchanged, as do the articles: a(n) and the. The difficulties connected with learning English derive not from having to master inflections, but from having to master, for example, a huge range of prepositions and their uses (which compensate for the lack of inflections) and the notorious difficulty of prepositional verbs (look at) and phrasal verbs (put up, put off, put over, put in, put out, etc.) all of which may have multiple uses and idiomatic meanings.

The basic word order of an English statement is: Subject, Verb, Object, Manner, Place, Time. Not all these elements are present in everything we say or write: I bought a hat yesterday. (Subject, Verb, Object, Time) The taxi-driver shouted at me angrily. (Subject, Verb, Object, Manner) etc. The subject in English must always be present, or implied. That's why we have to say 'It's hot today', rather than *Is hot today*.

This keen awareness of the importance of word order runs right through Direct English.


© LG & DE Limited 2006


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