How Does Word Order Work?

English puts the subject first, then the verb, and then the object, but that’s not the case in every language.
How Does Word Order Work?

Word order, as the name implies, is how words are arranged in a sentence. The words “I saw Sam” can’t be rearranged as “I Sam saw,” “Saw Sam I” or any other configuration without either changing the meaning or descending into gibberish. But if you were to translate this sentence into another language, the word order would need to change to fit the norms. It’s one of the biggest reasons that translating a sentence word-by-word doesn’t work: if the word order in a language is different, the whole sentence needs to be restructured.

Here, we’ll give you an overview of all seven possible word orders and the basics of how they work. When you’re learning a new language, it might be a good idea to check which order it uses so you’ll be ready from the beginning.

The Parts Of Word Order

A sentence, at its most basic level, has three parts: the subject, the object and the verb. Sentences can certainly be more complicated, with prepositional phrases, adjectives, adverbs and more, but it’s these three parts that decide word order. If you need to know more about these components, though, you might need to brush up on the parts of speech.

Subject

The subject is the person, place or thing that’s performing an action. In English, the subject is the noun or noun phrase that appears before the verb. In “I saw Sam,” the subject is “I.” In “Italy is beautiful,” the subject is “Italy.” In “Mike and Sarah went to the movies,” the subject is “Mike and Sarah.” There can also be multiple subjects in a sentence. In “I saw Sam, and Jake waved,” both “I” and “Jake” are subjects because they are part of separate clauses.

Object

The object is the noun to which the action is being done. In “I saw Sam,” the object is “Sam.” At its simplest, the object is the noun that appears after the verb. Unlike the other two parts of word order, a sentence doesn’t require an object. You can just say “I walked,” where there’s no object at all.

While this isn’t important for word order more generally, we’ll briefly mention that there are direct objects and indirect objects. The direct object is the person, place or thing that the action is being done to, and the indirect object is the person, place or thing the action is being done for. In the sentence “I gave Sam a present,” the direct object is “a present” because it’s the thing being given, and the indirect object is “Sam” because the present is for him.

Verb

This is probably the simplest of the parts. The verb is the action word in the sentence. In “I saw Sam,” the verb is “saw.” There can be more than one verb per sentence. In “I came, I saw and I conquered,” you have “came,” “saw” and “conquered.”

The Seven Word Orders

Below, we’ll show you the seven word orders, roughly what percentage of languages use them, what they would look like in English and a few languages that use them.

And before we begin, a quick disclaimer that while word order can seem simple, it is actually a pretty murky linguistic topic. Classifications for languages have changed over time, and some languages can use more than one word order pretty interchangeably. English word order can shift in certain sentences, even. For example, if someone asked “Do you like beer or wine?” you could answer “Beer I love, wine I hate,” where both of the clauses put the object first and then the subject and then the verb. It’s not very common, but it’s possible.

We’re sticking to the basics here, but it’s not hard to get sucked into semantic arguments about what a sentence even is, really.

Subject-Object-Verb (SOV)

Percentage Of Languages: 41%
If English Used SOV: “I Sam saw.”

In SOV, the verb appears at the end of the sentence, and the subject is first. It’s also the most common word order in the world, and it’s used across the continents. A few languages that use SOV are Ainu, Basque, Cherokee, Korean, Persian, Tibetan and Turkish, among many others.

Subject-Verb-Object (SVO)

Percentage Of Languages: 35%
If English Used SVO: “I saw Sam.”

As the example above makes clear, English uses SVO. And taken together with SOV, these subject-first sentence types are by far the most commonly used word orders. Other languages that use SVO are Chinese, French, Igbo, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Swahili, Swedish and Yoruba.

There are also a few languages that are considered mostly SVO, but that have a few exceptions. Russian and Finnish, for example, use both SVO and SOV pretty commonly. German also can sometimes shift verbs to the end of a clause.

Verb-Subject-Object (VSO)

Percentage Of Languages: 7%
If English Used VSO: Saw I Sam.

In VSO, the verb is first, followed by the noun performing the action, followed by the noun that the action is being done to. Languages that use VSO include Arabic, Classic Maya, Egyptian, Filipino, Hawaiian, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Tongan.

Verb-Object-Subject (VOS)

Percentage Of Languages: 2%
If English Used VOS: Saw Sam I. 

VOS is just like VSO, except the subject and the object are flipped. Languages that use it include Alsea, Fijian, Malagasy, Ojibwa and Yucatec.

Object-Verb-Subject (OVS)

Percentage Of Languages: <1%
If English Used OVS: Sam saw I.

Languages that put the object first are exceedingly rare. OVS is basically the exact opposite of English. There are a few theories as to why certain word orders are more popular than others. Some theorize that it’s evidence of a human Universal Grammar, which means we’re genetically predisposed to picking certain word orders (though that should mean that there are no OVS or OSV languages at all, which is not the case). One study also posits that subject-first languages are more effective at transmitting information, meaning there is a logical bias to the languages.

In any case, languages that use OVS include Hixkaryana and Selknam. It is also used in the constructed language Klingon, which was created for the film and television franchise Star Trek

Object-Subject-Verb (OSV)

Percentage Of Languages: <1%
If English Used OSV: Sam I saw.

Coming in last is OSV, used in barely half a percentage of classified languages. Most OSV languages come from the same area: the Amazon basin in South America. These include Aparinã, Warao and Xavante. The OSV word order also comes up in discussions of Star Wars, because the character Yoda uses it to say things like “Much to learn, you still have” (the subject is “you,” the verb is “still have” and the object is “much to learn”). 

Free Word Order

Percentage Of Languages: 13.7%

After SOV and SVO, the most popular word order is unfixed. What this means is that these languages can put subject, object and verb into various orders, all of which are grammatically correct. This doesn’t mean that it’s total anarchy, however. Free word order languages usually have a dominant word order that writers default to. “Unfixed” just means that it’s possible to use any word order without sacrificing proper grammar.

Free word order languages have other ways to mark which word is the subject, the object and the verb. One of the most common methods is through morphology, meaning that there is a complicated system of word endings. Anyone who has ever taken Latin, for example, knows the huge number of declensions that replace word order.

Free word order languages include Albanian (predominantly SVO), Hindi-Urdu (predominantly SOV), Latin (predominantly SOV or OSV) and Portuguese (predominantly SVO).

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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