, word order typology is the study of the order of the syntactic constituents
of a language, and how different languages employ different orders. Correlations between orders found in different syntactic
sub-domains are also of interest. The primary word orders that are of interest are
* the ''constituent order'' of a clause, namely the relative order of subject, object, and verb;
* the order of modifiers (adjectives, numerals, demonstratives, possessives, and adjuncts) in a noun phrase;
* the order of adverbials.
Some languages use relatively fixed word order, often relying on the order of constituents to convey grammatical information. Other languages—often those that convey grammatical information through inflection—allow more flexible word order, which can be used to encode pragmatic information, such as topicalisation
or focus. However, even languages with flexible word order have a preferred or basic word order,
[Comrie, Bernard. (1981). Language universals and linguistic typology: syntax and morphology (2nd ed). University of Chicago Press, Chicago]
with other word orders considered "marked
Constituent word order is defined in terms of a finite verb
(V) in combination with two arguments, namely the subject
(S), and object
(O). Subject and object are here understood to be ''nouns'', since pronouns often tend to display different word order properties. Thus, a transitive sentence has six logically possible basic word orders:
* about half of the world's languages deploy subject–object–verb
* about one-third of the world's languages deploy subject–verb–object
* a smaller fraction of languages deploy verb–subject–object
* the remaining three arrangements are rarer: verb–object–subject
(VOS) is slightly more common than object–verb–subject
(OVS), and object–subject–verb
(OSV) is the rarest by a significant margin
Constituent word orders
These are all possible word orders for the subject, object, and verb in the order of most common to rarest (the examples use "she" as the subject, "loves" as the verb, and "him" as the object):
is the order used by the largest number of distinct languages; languages using it include Japanese
, the Indo-Aryan languages
and the Dravidian languages
. Some, like Persian
, have SOV normal word order but conform less to the general tendencies of other such languages. A sentence glossing as "She him loves" would be grammatically correct in these languages.
languages include English
, the Chinese languages
, among others. "She loves him."
languages include Classical Arabic
, Biblical Hebrew
, the Insular Celtic languages
, and Hawaiian
. "Loves she him."
languages include Fijian
. "Loves him she."
languages include Hixkaryana
. "Him loves she."
languages include Xavante
. "Him she loves."
Sometimes patterns are more complex: some Germanic languages
have SOV in subordinate clauses, but V2 word order
in main clauses, SVO word order being the most common. Using the guidelines above, the unmarked word order is then SVO.
Many synthetic language
s such as Latin
, and Basque
have no strict word order; rather, the sentence structure
is highly flexible and reflects the pragmatics
of the utterance.
s organize sentences to emphasize their topic–comment
structure. Nonetheless, there is often a preferred order; in Latin and Turkish, SOV is the most frequent outside of poetry, and in Finnish
SVO is both the most frequent and obligatory when case marking fails to disambiguate argument roles. Just as languages may have different word orders in different contexts, so may they have both fixed and free word orders. For example, Russian has a relatively fixed SVO word order in transitive clauses, but a much freer SV / VS order in intransitive clauses. Cases like this can be addressed by encoding transitive and intransitive clauses separately, with the symbol "S" being restricted to the argument of an intransitive clause, and "A" for the actor/agent of a transitive clause. ("O" for object may be replaced with "P" for "patient" as well.) Thus, Russian is fixed AVO but flexible SV/VS. In such an approach, the description of word order extends more easily to languages that do not meet the criteria in the preceding section. For example, Mayan languages
have been described with the rather uncommon VOS word order. However, they are ergative–absolutive language
s, and the more specific word order is intransitive VS, transitive VOA, where the S and O arguments
both trigger the same type of agreement on the verb. Indeed, many languages that some thought had a VOS word order turn out to be ergative like Mayan.
Distribution of word order types
Every language falls under one of the six word order types; the unfixed type is somewhat disputed in the community, as the languages where it occurs have one of the dominant word orders but every word order type is grammatically correct.
The table below displays the word order surveyed by Dryer
. The 2005 study surveyed 1228 languages, and the updated 2013 study investigated 1377 languages. Percentage was not reported in his studies.
Hammarström (2016) calculated the constituent orders of 5252 languages in two ways. His first method, counting languages directly, yielded results similar to Dryer's studies, indicating both SOV and SVO have almost equal distribution. However, when stratified by language families
, the distribution showed that the majority of the families had SOV structure, meaning that a small number of families contain SVO structure.
Functions of constituent word order
Fixed word order is one out of many ways to ease the processing of sentence semantics and reducing ambiguity. One method of making the speech stream less open to ambiguity (complete removal of ambiguity is probably impossible) is a fixed order of argument
s and other sentence constituents
. This works because speech is inherently linear. Another method is to label the constituents in some way, for example with case marking
, or another marker
. Fixed word order reduces expressiveness but added marking increases information load in the speech stream, and for these reasons strict word order seldom occurs together with strict morphological marking, one counter-example being Persian
Observing discourse patterns, it is found that previously given information (topic
) tends to precede new information (comment
). Furthermore, acting participants (especially humans) are more likely to be talked about (to be topic) than things simply undergoing actions (like oranges being eaten). If acting participants are often topical, and topic tends to be expressed early in the sentence, this entails that acting participants have a tendency to be expressed early in the sentence. This tendency can then grammaticalize
to a privileged position in the sentence, the subject.
The mentioned functions of word order can be seen to affect the frequencies of the various word order patterns: The vast majority of languages have an order in which S precedes O and V. Whether V precedes O or O precedes V, however, has been shown to be a very telling difference with wide consequences on phrasal word orders.
Semantics of word order
In many languages, standard word order can be subverted in order to form questions or as a means of emphasis. In languages such as O'odham and Hungarian, which are discussed below, almost all possible permutations of a sentence are grammatical, but not all of them are used.
In languages such as English and German, word order is used as a means of turning declarative into interrogative sentences:
A: 'Wen liebt Kate?' / 'Kate liebt ''wen''?' hom does Kate love? / Kate loves ''whom''?
B: 'Sie liebt Mark' / 'Mark ist der, den sie liebt' he loves Mark / It is ''Mark'' whom she loves.
C: 'Liebt Kate Mark?' oes Kate love Mark?
In (A), the first sentence shows the word order used for wh-questions in English and German. The second sentence is an echo question; it would only be uttered after receiving an unsatisfactory or confusing answer to a question. One could replace the word ''wen'' hom
(which indicates that this sentence is a question) with an identifier such as ''Mark'': 'Kate liebt ''Mark''?' ate loves ''Mark''?
In that case, since no change in word order occurs, it is only by means of stress
that we are able to identify the sentence as a question.
In (B), the first sentence is declarative and provides an answer to the first question in (A). The second sentence emphasises that Kate does indeed love ''Mark'', and not whomever else we might have assumed her to love. However, a sentence this verbose is unlikely to occur in everyday speech (or even in written language), be it in English or in German. Instead, one would most likely answer the echo question in (A) simply by restating: ''Mark!''. This is the same for both languages.
In yes–no questions such as (C), English and German use subject-verb inversion
. But, whereas English relies on do-support
to form questions from verbs other than auxiliaries, German has no such restriction and uses inversion to form questions, even from lexical verbs.
Despite this, English, as opposed to German, has very strict word order. In German, word order can be used as a means to emphasize a constituent in an independent clause by moving it to the beginning of the sentence. This is a defining characteristic of German as a V2 (verb-second) language, where, in independent clauses, the finite verb always comes second and is preceded by one and only one constituent. In Questions, V1 (verb-first) word order is used. And lastly, dependent clauses use verb-final word order. However, German cannot be called an SVO language since no actual constraints are imposed on the placement of the subject and object(s), even though a preference for a certain word-order over others can be observed (such as putting the subject after the finite verb in independent clauses unless it already precedes the verb).
To say that German is an SVO language would be completely wrong. A sentence such as 'Cäsar besiegte Pompejus' aesar defeated Pompey / Pompey defeated Caesar
will always be ambiguous in German.
Phrase word orders and branching
The order of constituents in a phrase
can vary as much as the order of constituents in a clause
. Normally, the noun phrase
and the adpositional phrase
are investigated. Within the noun phrase, one investigates whether the following modifier
s occur before or after the head noun
* adjective (''red house'' vs ''house red'')
* determiner (''this house'' vs ''house this'')
* numeral (''two houses'' vs ''houses two'')
* possessor (''my house'' vs ''house my'')
* relative clause (''the by me built house'' vs ''the house built by me'')
Within the adpositional clause, one investigates whether the languages makes use of prepositions (''in London''), postpositions (''London in''), or both (normally with different adpositions at both sides).
There are several common correlations between sentence-level word order and phrase-level constituent order. For example, SOV languages generally put modifier
s before heads and use postposition
s. VSO languages tend to place modifiers after their heads, and use preposition
s. For SVO languages, either order is common.
For example, French (SVO) uses prepositions ''(dans la voiture, à gauche),'' and places adjectives after ''(une voiture spacieuse).'' However, a small class of adjectives generally go before their heads ''(une grande voiture)''. On the other hand, in English (also SVO) adjectives almost always go before nouns ''(a big car),'' and adverbs can go either way, but initially is more common ''(greatly improved).'' (English has a very small number of adjectives that go after the heads, such as ''extraordinaire
'', which kept its position when borrowed from French.) Russian places numerals after nouns to express approximation (шесть домов=''six houses'', домов шесть=''circa six houses'').
Pragmatic word order
Some languages have no fixed word order and often use a significant amount of morphological marking to disambiguate the roles of the arguments. However, some languages use a fixed word order even if they provide a degree of marking that would support free word order. Also, some languages with free word order, such as some varieties of Datooga
, combine free word order with a lack of morphological distinction between arguments.
Typologically, highly-animate actors are more likely topical than low-animate undergoers, a trend that would come through even in languages with free word order languages. That a statistical bias for SO order (or OS in the case of ergative systems, but ergative systems do not usually extend to the highest levels of animacy and usually give way to some form of nominative system, at least in the pronominal system).
Most languages with a high degree of morphological marking have rather flexible word orders, such as Polish
, and O'odham
. In some languages, a general word order can be identified, but is much harder in others. When the word order is free, different choices of word order can be used to help identify the theme
and the rheme
Word order in Hungarian sentences is changed according to the speaker's communicative intentions. Hungarian word order is not free in the sense that it must reflect the information structure of the sentence, distinguishing the emphatic part that carries new information (rheme) from the rest of the sentence that carries little or no new information (theme).
The position of focus in a Hungarian sentence is immediately before the verb, that is, nothing can separate the emphatic part of the sentence from the verb.
For "Kate ate ''a piece of cake''", the possibilities are:
# "Kati megevett ''egy szelet tortát''." (same word order as English) Kate ate ''a piece of cake.''"
# "''Egy szelet tortát'' Kati evett meg." (emphasis on agent ate ''A piece of cake'' Kate ate."
(''One of the pieces of cake was eaten by Kate.'')
# "Kati evett meg ''egy szelet tortát''." (also emphasis on agent ate Kate ate ''a piece of cake.''"
(''Kate was the one eating one piece of cake.'')
# "Kati ''egy szelet tortát'' evett meg." (emphasis on object ake Kate ''a piece of cake'' ate."
(''Kate ate a piece of cake '' – cf. not a piece of bread.)
# "''Egy szelet tortát'' evett meg Kati." (emphasis on number piece, i.e. only one piece ''A piece of cake'' ate Kate."
(''Only one piece of cake was eaten by Kate.'')
# "Megevett ''egy szelet tortát'' Kati." (emphasis on completeness of action) Ate ''a piece of cake'' Kate."
(''A piece of cake had been finished by Kate.'')
# "Megevett Kati ''egy szelet tortát''." (emphasis on completeness of action) Ate Kate ''a piece of cake.''"
(''Kate finished with a piece of cake.'')
The only freedom in Hungarian word order is that the order of parts outside the focus position and the verb may be freely changed without any change to the communicative focus of the sentence, as seen in sentences 2 and 3 as well as in sentences 6 and 7 above. These pairs of sentences have the same information structure, expressing the same communicative intention of the speaker, because the part immediately preceding the verb is left unchanged.
Note that the emphasis can be on the action (verb) itself, as seen in sentences 1, 6 and 7, or it can be on parts other than the action (verb), as seen in sentences 2, 3, 4 and 5. If the emphasis is not on the verb, and the verb has a co-verb (in the above example 'meg'), then the co-verb is separated from the verb, and always follows the verb. Also note that the enclitic ''-t'' marks the direct object: 'torta' (cake) + '-t' -> 'tortát'.
) is essentially a verb-final (SOV) language, with relatively free word order since in most cases postpositions mark quite explicitly the relationships of noun phrases with other constituents of the sentence. Word order in Hindustani usually does not signal grammatical functions.
Constituents can be scrambled to express different information structural configurations, or for stylistic reasons. The first syntactic constituent in a sentence is usually the topic, which may under certain conditions be marked by the particle "''to''" (तो / تو), similar in some respects to Japanese topic marker は ''(wa).''
Some rules governing the position of words in a sentence are as follows:
* Adjectives come before the noun it modifies in its unmarked position. However, the possessive
and reflexive pronominal
adjectives can occur either to the left or to the right of the noun it describes.
must come either to the left or to the right of the verb it negates. For compound verbs or verbal construction using auxiliaries the negation can occur either left to the first verb, in-between the verbs or to the right of the second verb (the default position being left to the main verb when used with auxiliary and in-between the primary and the secondary verb when forming a compound verb).
s usually precede the adjectives they qualify in their unmarked position, but when adverbs are constructed using the instrumental case postposition ''se'' (से /سے) (which qualify verbs), their position in the sentence becomes free. However, since both the instrumental
and the ablative
case are marked by the same postposition "''se''" (से /سے), when both are present in a sentence then the quantity they modify cannot appear adjacent to each other.
* "''kyā'' " (क्या / کیا) "what" as the yes-no question
marker occurs at the beginning or the end of a clause as its unmarked positions but it can be put anywhere in the sentence except the preverbal position, where instead it is interpreted as interrogative "what".
Some of the all possible word order permutations of the sentence "The girl received a gift from the boy
''on her birthday''." are shown below.
In Portuguese, clitic
pronouns and comma
s allow many different orders:
* "Eu vou entregar a você amanhã." I will deliver to you tomorrow."
(same word order as English)
*''"''Entregarei a você amanhã." will deliver to you tomorrow."
* "Eu lhe entregarei amanhã." I to you will deliver tomorrow."
* "Entregar-lhe-ei amanhã." Deliver to you will tomorrow."
* "A ti, eu entregarei amanhã." To you I will deliver tomorrow."
* "A ti, entregarei amanhã." To you deliver will tomorrow."
* "Amanhã, entregarei a você." Tomorrow will deliver to you"
* "Poderia entregar, eu, a você amanhã?" Could deliver I to you tomorrow?
Braces (') are used above to indicate omitted subject pronouns, which may be implicit in Portuguese. Because of conjugation
, the grammatical person
In Latin, the endings of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronouns allow for extremely flexible order in most situations. Latin lacks articles.
The Subject, Verb, and Object can come in any order in a Latin sentence, although most often (especially in subordinate clauses) the verb comes last. Pragmatic factors, such as topic and focus, play a large part in determining the order. Thus the following sentences each answer a different question:
*"Romulus Romam condidit." Romulus founded Rome"
(What did Romulus do?)
*"Hanc urbem condidit Romulus." Romulus founded this city"
(Who founded this city?)
*"Condidit Romam Romulus." Romulus founded Rome"
Latin prose often follows the word order "Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Adverb, Verb", but this is more of a guideline than a rule. Adjectives in most cases go before the noun they modify, but some categories, such as those that determine or specify (e.g. ''Via Appia'' "Appian Way"), usually follow the noun. In Classical Latin poetry, lyricists followed word order very loosely to achieve a desired scansion
Due to the presence of grammatical cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and in some cases or dialects vocative and locative) applied to nouns, pronouns and adjectives, the Albanian language permits a large number of positional combination of words. In spoken language a word order differing from the most common S-V-O helps the speaker putting emphasis on a word, thus changing partially the message delivered. Here is an example:
* "Marku më dha një dhuratë (mua)." Mark (me) gave a present to me."
(neutral narrating sentence.)
* "Marku (mua) më dha një dhuratë." Mark to me (me) gave a present."
(emphasis on the indirect object, probably to compare the result of the verb on different persons.)
* "Marku një dhuratë më dha (mua)." Mark a present (me) gave to me"
(meaning that Mark gave her only a present, and not something else or more presents.)
* "Marku një dhuratë (mua) më dha." Mark a present to me (me) gave"
(meaning that Mark gave a present only to her.)
* "Më dha Marku një dhuratë (mua)." Gave Mark to me a present."
(neutral sentence, but puts less emphasis on the subject.)
* "Më dha një dhuratë Marku (mua)." Gave a present to me Mark."
(probably is the cause of an event being introduced later.)
* "Më dha (mua) Marku një dhurate." Gave to me Mark a present."
(same as above.)
* "Më dha një dhuratë mua Marku" (Me) gave a present to me Mark."
(puts emphasis on the fact that the receiver is her and not someone else.)
* "Një dhuratë më dha Marku (mua)" A present gave Mark to me."
(meaning it was a present and not something else.)
* "Një dhuratë Marku më dha (mua)" A present Mark gave to me."
(puts emphasis on the fact that she got the present and someone else got something different.)
* "Një dhuratë (mua) më dha Marku." A present to me gave Mark."
(no particular emphasis, but can be used to list different actions from different subjects.)
* "Një dhuratë (mua) Marku më dha." A present to me Mark (me) gave"
(remembers that at least a present was given to her by Mark.)
* "Mua më dha Marku një dhuratë." To me (me) gave Mark a present." (is used when Mark gave something else to others.)
* "Mua një dhuratë më dha Marku." ["To me a present (me) gave Mark."
(emphasis on "to me" and the fact that it was a present, only one present or it was something different from usual.)
* "Mua Marku një dhuratë më dha" ["To me Mark a present (me) gave."] (Mark gave her only one present.)
* "Mua Marku më dha një dhuratë" ["To me Mark (me) gave a present."] (puts emphasis on Mark. Probably the others didn't give her present, they gave something else or the present wasn't expected at all.)
In these examples, "(mua)" can be omitted when not in first position, causing a perceivable change in emphasis; the latter being of different intensity. "Më" is always followed by the verb. Thus, a sentence consisting of a subject, a verb and two objects (a direct and an indirect one), can be
expressed in six different ways without "mua", and in twenty-four different ways with "mua", adding up to thirty possible combinations.
O'odham is a language that is spoken in southern Arizona and Northern Sonora, Mexico. It has free word order, with only the Auxiliary bound to one spot
. Here is an example, in literal translation:
* "Wakial 'o g wipsilo ha-cecposid." owboy is the calves them branding.
(The cowboy is branding the calves.)
*"Wipsilo 'o ha-cecposid g wakial." alves is them branding the cowboy.
*"Ha-cecposid 'o g wakial g wipsilo." hem Branding is the cowboy the calves.
*"Wipsilo 'o g wakial ha-cecposid." alves is the cowboy them branding.
*"Ha-cecposid 'o g wipsilo g wakial." hem branding is the calves the cowboy.
*"Wakial 'o ha-cecposid g wipsilo." owboy is them branding the calves.
These examples are all grammatically-valid variations on the sentence, "The cowboy is branding the calves," though some are rarely found in natural speech. This is discussed in Grammaticality.
Other issues with word order
Languages change over time. When language change involves a shift in a language's syntax, this is called syntactic change
. An example of this is found in Old English, which at one point had flexible word order, before losing it over the course of its evolution. In Old English, both of the following sentences would be considered grammatically correct:
* "Martianus hæfde his sunu ær befæst." artianus had his son earlier established.
(Martianus had earlier established his son.)
* "Se wolde gelytlian þone lyfigendan hælend." e would diminish the living saviour.
This flexibility continues into early Middle English, where it seems to drop out of usage. Shakespeare's plays use OV word order frequently, as can be seen from these examples:
* "It was our selfe thou didst abuse."
* "Well then, go you into hell?"
A modern speaker of English would possibly recognise these as grammatically acceptable sentences, but nonetheless archaic; that person would likely change the latter sentence to "are you going into hell?"—they would use the present continuous tense instead of the simple present. There are some verbs, however, that are acceptable in this format:
* "Are they good?"
This is acceptable to a modern English speaker and is not considered archaic. This is due to the verb "to be", which acts as both auxiliary
and main verb. Similarly, other auxiliary and modal verb
s allow for VSO word order ("Must he perish?"). Non-auxiliary and non-modal verbs require insertion of an auxiliary to conform to modern usage ("Did he buy the book?"). Shakespeare's usage of word order is not indicative of English at the time, which had dropped OV order at least a century before.
This variation between archaic and modern can also be shown in the change between VSO to SVO in Coptic
, the language of the Christian Church in Egypt.
There are some languages where certain word order is preferred by one or more dialects, while others use a different order. One such case is Andean Spanish, spoken in Peru. While Spanish is classified as an SVO language, the variation of Spanish spoken in Peru has been influenced by contact with Quechua and Aymara, both SOV languages.
This has had the effect of introducing OV (object-verb) word order into the clauses of some L1 Spanish speakers (moreso than would usually be expected), with more L2 speakers using similar constructions.
Poetry and stories can use different word orders to emphasize certain aspects of the sentence. In English, this is called anastrophe
. here is an example:
"Kate loves Mark."
"Mark, Kate loves."
Here SVO is changed to OSV to emphasize the object.
Differences in word order complicate translation and language education – in addition to changing the individual words, the order must also be changed. The area in Linguistics that is concerned with translation and education is language acquisition
. The reordering of words can run into problems, however, when transcribing stories. Rhyme scheme can change, as well as the meaning behind the words. This can be especially problematic when translating poetry
* Information flow
A collection of papers on word order by a leading scholar, some downloadable
clearly illustrated with examples.
, ''Language Universals
and Linguistic Typology
'' (1981) – this is the authoritative introduction to word order and related subjects.Order of Subject, Object, and Verb
). A basic overview of word order variations across languages.
*Haugan, Jens ''Old Norse Word Order and Information Structure''
Norwegian University of Science and Technology. 2001.
*Song, Jae Jung (2012), ''Word Order''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. &