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Non-native English speakers often have difficulty deciding where words should be placed in a sentence. This can create problems, as word order is extremely important in English. Unlike ‘free word order’ languages like Latin, English does not rely heavily on inflection to create meaning. In Latin, words can be moved around (to some extent) within a sentence whilst maintaining the same meaning. In English this is not possible – valid sentence structure is vital.

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Knowledge of syntax, therefore – the rules and processes that govern the structure of sentences – is very useful. It is believed that most native speakers possess an intuitive understanding of syntax by the age of six. They may not be able to identify or explain the rules – but they know they exist. (The word ‘syntax’, like many words, comes from Ancient Greek. It is comprised of the Greek words syn – ‘together’ – and taxis – ‘an ordering’.)

It might be helpful for us to learn some terminology regarding the words we use – and how they fit together.

Grammarians (people who study grammar) differ in their opinions on the different parts of speech, but a generally accepted list would at least include the following types of words:

• Verbs – action words like ‘play’, ‘learn’, etc. or stative verbs like ‘seem’ and ‘be’
• Nouns – names of things, including pronouns, e.g. dog, chair, Barcelona, students, happiness. Includes pronouns such as he, she, it, etc.
• Adjectives – words that describe nouns, e.g. big, blue, beautiful
• Adverbs – words that modify verbs to describe how an action is done, e.g. quickly
• Prepositions – words that locate a noun in time or space, e.g. at, on, between, before
• Conjunctions – used to connect words, phrases and clauses, e.g. and, or, but, if (see below for more information)
•Determiners – including articles like a, an, the

As mentioned above, there are differences of opinion in this area. Some grammarians believe that ‘pronouns’ should constitute a different part of speech to ‘nouns’. Some prefer to refer to ‘coordinators’ and ‘subordinators’, rather than the catch-all term ‘conjunctions’ (‘and’ is considered a coordinator, as it links two clauses that are grammatically equal; ‘if’, however, introduces a subordinate clause, and is thus labelled a subordinator). Others take issue with ‘determiners’, believing that there should be a separate category for ‘articles’ – or that the category should be labelled ‘determinatives’ instead.

Some words can belong to more than one part of speech. The word ‘text’ can be a noun, verb or adjective, for example.

So how do we know whether a word is being used as an adjective verb or a noun? It helps to look at the purpose it serves in the sentence structure.

The main parts of a sentence are Subject, Verb and Object (SVO). The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that does the action. The action itself is, of course, denoted by the verb. The object of a sentence is the person or thing that is having something done to it.

Although English generally follows the SVO structure, Subject Object Verb (SOV) is the world’s most common syntactical framework. Other languages that use the SVO standard include Chinese, French and Spanish. (Apparently, Tamil is the only language in the world where sentences can be formed through any combination of SVO.)

By looking at the structure we can start to apply some rules about the correct order. In English, we know that if a word is being used as an object in a sentence it will generally come after the verb, not before it (at least in the active voice). We also know that adjectives in English generally go before nouns rather than after them.

These rules must be followed for a sentence to make sense. If we say ‘kicked the boy the ball’, it means nothing. If we change the sentence to say ‘the boy kicked the ball’ – thus imposing the SVO structure on the sentence – its meaning becomes clear. Similarly, if we say ‘the ball red’, we realise we have made a mistake – it should be ‘the red ball’.

Try our blog test to see how you do with identifying incorrect word order – and correcting it, of course!


A. Porter

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