9th July 2019
Sentence Structure: The Basics of Word Order
A grammatical sentence is more than just the sum of its parts. All those parts have to be in the correct order, too. Using an incorrect word order, on the other hand, may lead to errors or a lack of clarity. Thankfully, the basics of word order are easy to remember if you use the initialism “SVO.”
Subject + Verb + Object (SVO)
The minimum required for a grammatical sentence is a subject (i.e., the person or thing that is doing or being something) followed by a verb (i.e., the action or state of being). You can see this in the table below:
The sentence above has only two words: the proper noun “Steve” and the verb “dances.” This is enough to create a grammatical sentence, but only if we use those words in the order shown. If we were to reverse the word order here (“Dances Steve”), it would not make sense.
Any sentence with a transitive verb will also require a direct object after the verb. This “object” is the thing being acted upon in the sentence. For example:
In the sentence above, the subject (“Sally”) acts upon (“kicks”) the object (“the ball”). Any order other than subject + verb + object here would be ungrammatical without adding extra words. And as such, this basic word order is often the clearest, most concise option available.
If you’re feeling a little braver about word order now, you might be ready to tackle indirect objects. An indirect object is the thing that receives the direct object in a sentence, such as in the following:
To break this down a bit, in this case:
- “Jimmy” is the subject.
- The verb is “gave.”
- The direct object is “the present.”
- And “his grandad” is the indirect object.
As you can see, then, when following a preposition like “to” or “for,” we place the indirect object after the object. However, if we omit the preposition from the sentence, the indirect object would go before the object (making the correct order subject + verb + indirect object + object):
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This distinction is key, so it’s always worth checking whether your sentence contains a preposition if you’re unsure about the correct word order.
Summary: The Basics of Word Order
The basic word order in English is captured in the initials SVO:
Subject + Verb + Object
Each of these plays a specific role in the sentence:
- Subject (S) – The person or thing that enacts the verb in the sentence.
- Verb (V) – The action or state of being described.
- Object (O) – The direct object is the person or thing being acted upon.
The minimum required for a grammatical sentence is a subject plus a verb. But any sentence with a transitive verb will have a direct object as well.
The word order may be slightly more complicated in a sentence that includes an indirect object (i.e., the recipient of a direct object in a sentence). In this case, the correct word order depends on whether you’re using a preposition. If you are using one, the correct order is:
Subject + Verb + Object + Indirect Object
If the preposition is omitted, the sentence should be ordered:
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Object
Finally, don’t forget that proofreading is a great way to ensure that your writing is free from grammatical errors. Check out our Common ESL Writing Errors guide to thoroughly proofread your work. Or if you need more help, our expert editors are happy to correct your work, so why not submit a document for free today?
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