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In linguistic typology, a verbobjectsubject or verb–object–agent language – commonly abbreviated VOS or VOA – is one in which the most-typical sentences arrange their elements in that order which would (in English) equate to something like "Ate oranges Sam."

VOS is the fourth-most common word order among the world’s languages, after SOV (as in Hindi and Japanese), SVO (as in English and Mandarin) and VSO (as in Filipino and Irish). However, it only accounts for 3% of the word’s languages.

Families where all or many of the languages are VOS include the following:



VOS word order is fourth most common among the world's languages,[1] and is considered to have verb-initial word order, like VSO. Very few languages have a fixed VOS word order, most primarily coming from Austronesian and Mayan language families.[2] Many verb-initial languages exhibit flexible word order (such as St'át'imcets, Chamorro, and Tongan), alternating between VOS and VSO.[3] VOS and VSO word orders are usually classified as verb-initial because they share many similar properties, such as the absence of the verb "have" and predicate-initial grammar.

Though not as universal, many verb-initial languages also have ergative clauses. For instance, most Mayan languages have an ergative-absolutive system of verb agreement and most Austronesian languages have an ergative-absolutive system of case marking.[2]

of languages
SOV "She him loves." 45% 45
Ancient Greek, Bengali, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Persian Sanskrit
SVO "She loves him." 42% 42
Chinese, English, French, Hausa, Italian, Malay, Russian, Spanish, Thai
VSO "Loves she him." 9% 9
Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Irish, Filipino, Tuareg-Berber, Welsh
VOS "Loves him she." 3% 3
Malagasy, Baure, Car
OVS "Him loves she." 1% 1
Apalaí, Hixkaryana, Klingon
OSV "Him she loves." 0% Warao
Frequency distribution of word order in languages surveyed by Russell S. Tomlin in 1980s[4][1]


There is ongoing debate as to how VOS clauses are derived, however there is significant evidence for verb-phrase-raising. Kayne's theory of antisymmetry suggests that VOS clauses are derived from SVO structure via leftward movement of a VP constituent that contains a verb and object.[2] The Principles and Parameters theory sets VOS and SVO clause structure as syntactically identical, but the theory does not account for why SVO is typologically more common than VOS structure. According to the Principles and Parameters theory, the difference between SVO and VOS clauses lies in the direction in which parameters are set for projection of a T category's specifier. When the parameter is to the right of T(ense)'s specifier, VOS is realized, and when it is to the left, SVO is realized.[2]

The motivation for movement from SVO to VOS structure is still undetermined, as some languages show inconsistencies with SVO underlying structure and an absence of VP-raising (such as Chamorro and Tzotzil).[2] In verb-initial languages, the extended projection principle causes overt specifier movement due to either strong tense [T], verb [V], or predicate [Pred] features.[2]

Chung proposes a syntactic profile for verb-initial languages that are derived through VP-raising:[2]

  1. VP coordination is allowed.
  2. The subject and other constituents outside of the verb phrase can be extracted.
  3. The subject has narrow scope over sentential elements.

While it is possible that VOS structure is derived from SVO, others suggested that verb-initial languages (V1 languages) are

Subject-Only RestrictionEdit

The Subject-Only Restriction (SOR) exists in most if not all Austronesian languages, and it follows from the VP-Raising account of VOS order.[5]

In a given clause, only one argument such as the external arguments, the subjects (or the sentence's most prominent argument) are attainable for "extraction" to undergo movements, which includes any A bar movements such as wh-movement, topicalization, relativization.[6] No other arguments, such as the internal arguments or VP adjuncts, are eligible to such movement. Since SOR restricts any internal arguments and VP adjuncts from undergoing any movements, these VP-internal or low adjuncts are not qualified to behave like they are stranded by VP-Raising.[5] As a result, VOS orders are retained in these languages.

Examples in Seediq[7]

VP-external constituents are the only accessible constituents when structures require movements (e.g. relative clauses or topicalization). In other words, structures requiring movements can only access constituents that are external to VP; any movements regarding the VP-internal or adjuncts constituents fails to satisfy the Subject-Only Restriction.[5]

Sentence M-n-ari inu patis Ape
Gloss buy where book Ape
Parts V O S
Translation Where did Ape buy books?
Sentence *Inu m-n-ari patis Ape
Gloss where buy book Ape
Parts V O S
Translation *Where did Ape buy books?

Since we can see that in Seediq, movements with respect to internal arguments and VP adjuncts are not allowed, and that only VP-external movement is possible (unless the predicate undergo a change in voice morphology[5]), only a VOS order is grammatical.

Right BranchingEdit

Scrambling VSOEdit

Scrambling in languages following a VSO order allows the derivation of VOS languages. A primary example of this would be from the Tongan language:

Tongan VSOEdit

Sentence Na’a tamate’i ‘e T ̄evita ‘a K ̄olaiate.
Gloss PST kill.TR ERG David ABS Goliath
Parts V-transitive Subject Object
Translation "David killed Goliath."

Tongan VOSEdit

Sentence Na'e tamate’i 'a K ̄olaiate ‘e T ̄evita
Gloss PST kill.TR ABS Goliath ERG David
Parts V-transitive Object Subject
Translation ‘David killed Goliath.’

The 2 sentences listed above are identical in every way aside from two things:

  1. 'a' versus 'e' difference in the past tense indicator (Na'a vs. Na'e)
  2. Ergative versus absolutative order difference

One may conclude that the subtle change in the suffix of the Past tense indicator results in the switching of ergative and absolutive words, but more data is needed to affirm this hypothesis.


VOS occurs in many languages, including Austronesian languages (such as Malagasy, Old Javanese, Toba Batak, Dusun and Fijian), Mayan languages (such as Kaqchikel and Tzotzil) and even Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, as it has a very free word order with inversions.

In Hadza, the default order is VSO, but VOS is very common as well.[8] This is also the case for some Salishan languages.

In Arabic, while the typical order is VSO, it is possible to follow VOS as an option. There are also cases where it is mandatory to follow VOS.[9]


Malagasy is in the Austronesian language family and is the national language of Madagascar.[10] It is a classic example of a language that has fixed-VOS structure:[2][11]

Sentence Namùnji àzi àhu
Gloss help.out him I
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation I helped him out

The following sentence shows the consistency in VOS order in Malagasy with transitive verbs:[2]

Sentence Manolotra ny vary ny vahiny aho
Gloss offer.AT the rice the guests I
Parts Verb (Indirect) Object (Direct) Object Subject
Translation 'I offered the rice to the guests.'

The extraction pattern in Malagasy, in which subjects can be relativized but non-subjects within the VP lead to ungrammaticality, is consistent with a VP-raising hypothesis.[2]

This sentence show the possibility of relativizing surface subjects:

Sentence ny zazavavy [CP izay [VP manasa ny lamba] < ___ > ]
Gloss the girl C wash.AT the clothes
Parts Subject Verb Object <Subject>
Translation 'the girl that washed the clothes …'

The following sentence shows how extraction from within the VP is ungrammatical (*):

Sentence *ny lamba [CP izay [VP manasa < ___ > ] ny zazavavy ]
Gloss the clothes C wash.AT the girl
Parts Object Verb <Object> Subject
Translation Intended: 'the clothes that the girl washed …'

The empty spaces (___) are the extraction sites and the square brackets indicate the VP phrase.


Halkomelem, an aboriginal language in British Columbia, has the same basic characteristics of all Salish languages in that it is inherently VSO. However, VOS is also sometimes possible. While some speakers do not accept VOS as grammatical, others do permit the order depending on the context. VOS can occur if there are two direct noun phrases present in a clause and the object is inanimate.[12]

Also, VOS is used is if the content of the phrase disambiguates the agent from the patient.[13] An example of this would be:

Sentence niʔ pən-ət-əs ɫə q́emiʔ θə sqewθ
Gloss AUX plant-TR-3SUB DET girl DET potato
Parts Verb Subject Object
Translation The girl planted the potatoes
Sentence niʔ pən-ət-əs kʷθə sqewθ ɫə q́emiʔ
Gloss AUX plant-TR-3SUB DET potato DET girl
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation The girl planted the potatoes

The sentences below indicate that the object in a VOS sentence in Halkomelem is interpreted in its base position (VSO) for the purposes of binding theory.[14]

Sentence hélpex-es [te sthóq’i-s]ₒ [te Strang]s
Gloss eat-3S DET fish-3POSS DET Strang
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation Strang is eating his fish
Sentence *hélpex-es [te sthóq’i-s tú-tl’òᵢ]ₒ [te Strangᵢ]s
Gloss eat-3S DET fish-3POSS DET-3INDEP DET Strang
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation Strang is eating his fish


Tzotzil, like almost all other Mayan languages except Ch'orti', is a verb-initial word order language. It is predominantly VOS but has been shown to permit SVO readily.[15]

In Tzotzil, the subject is not assumed to raise (in overt syntax) to the specifier of the clausal head, unlike Italian, which is a special case.[2]

An sample Tzotzil sentence is in the table below. The "ʔ" represent a glottal stop.[16]

Sentence ʔi- s- pet lok'el ʔantz ti t'ul -e
Gloss cp A3 carry away woman the rabbit cl
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation The rabbit carried away the woman

Simply put, VP-raising, as expressed in the previous section, cannot account for Tzotzil's normal word order. If VP-raising had occurred, any further movement of direct objects or prepositional phrases would have been made inaccessible.[2] Aissen, however, showed that Tzotzil allows direct objects to be extracted, as wh-movement occurs:[17]

Sentence Buch'u s- pas mantal ___?
Gloss who? A3- do order
Parts Subjects Verb Objects
Translation Who's giving the orders?

Tzotzil also allows propositional phrases that surface to the left of the subject and all within a verb phrases to undergo wh-movement. Also, an interrogative phrase of a transitive verb must entirely be pied-piped to be grammatical .[17]

Sentence [Buch'u ta s- na] av- ik'ta komel l- -a- -bolsa -e ___?
Gloss who? P A3- house A2- leave Dir the- -A2- -bag- -cl
Parts Subject Verb Object
Translation In whose house did you leave your bag?
Sentence *Buch'u av- ik'ta komel a- -bolsa [ta s- na ___?]
Gloss who? A2- leave Dir A2- bag P A3- house
Parts Subject Verb Object
Translation Whose house did you leave your bag? at

VOS clauses found in Tzotzil cannot thus be derived by VP-raising. Chung proposes that languages without VP-raising can be assumed to have their basic order to be VOS, instead of SVO.[2]

Italian (special case)Edit

Italian is most commonly a SVO language. However, inversion can occur.[18]

If the subject can appear before the verb, it can also appear after the verb. VSO and VOS order, however, are notably rare, especially the latter.[2]

Sentence Esamineranno il caso molti esperti.
Gloss will.examine the case many experts
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation Many experts will examine the case

Arabic (special cases)Edit

Cantonese (special cases)Edit

Despite being a SVO language, there is evidence to suggest that Cantonese obtain VOS word order in some cases, such as in casual speech or relative clauses.

Relative ClauseEdit

Unlike English (which places relative clauses after the head noun that it modifies), Cantonese is very unusual among SVO languages in placing relative clauses before the head nouns, or having prenominal RCs, which yields a VOS word order, as seen in most subject-gapped RCs.[19] Object-gapped RCs do not follow a VOS word order.

Subject-gapped RCs vs Object-gapped RCs in English:

Subject-gapped RC:

Sentence The mouse that's kissing the chicken
Parts Subject Verb Object
Head Noun and RC Gap Head noun Relative Clause

We see that the head noun, mouse, is placed before the relative clause (postnominal RC) in a subject-gapped RC in English. We do not see this in Cantonese and or Mandarin, as the head nouns are always placed after the RC (prenominal RC).

Object-gapped RC:

Sentence The chicken that the mouse's kissing
Parts Object Subject Verb
Head Noun and RC Gap Head noun Relative Clause

For object-gapped RC, the object is placed before the relative clause in English.

Example of Subject-gapped RC in Cantonese:[19]Edit
Sentence 公雞 老鼠
Romanization sek3 gung1 gai1 go2 zek3 lou5 syu2
Gloss kiss chicken that classifier mouse
Parts Verb Object Subject
Head Noun and RC Gap Relative Clause Head Noun
Translation The mouse that kisses the chicken.

Subject-gapped RC behaves differently in Cantonese than English, as the relative clause is placed after the head noun (prenominal RC), which always yield a VOS order.

It is considered extremely rare that a SVO language can adopt such pre-nominal RC structure. In a sample of 756 languages, only 5 languages have this VOS combination (which is less than 0.01%). Cantonese belong in such subset.[20]

Causal SpeechEdit

In casual speech, Cantonese speakers often produce a VOS sentence when answering a question.


Below is a typical response for a question such as "你食左飯未呀?" which translates to "did you eat yet?" in English.

Romanization sik6 zo2 faan6 laa1 ngo5
Gloss ate rice sentence-final particle me
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation I ate rice.

Mandarin (special cases)Edit

Unlike English, which places head nouns before relative clauses, Chinese Mandarin places head nouns after relative clauses. As a result, subject-gapped relative clauses in Mandarin, just like Cantonese, result in a VOS order.

Example of Subject-gapped RC in Mandarin:[19]Edit
Sentence 公雞 老鼠
Romanization qīn gōng jī lǎo shǔ
Gloss kiss chicken chinese particle mouse
Parts Verb Object Subject
Head Noun and RC Gap Relative Clause Head Noun
Translation The mouse that kisses the chicken.

It is considered extremely rare that a SVO language can adopt such pre-nominal RC structure. In a sample of 756 languages, only 5 languages have this VOS combination (which is less than 0.01%). Mandarin belong in such subset.[20]

Modern Greek (special cases)Edit

Greek is a relatively flexible word order language.[21] However, there is an ongoing discussion of how the VOS order is rendered. The table below shows an example of a VOS sentence in Greek:[22]

Sentence efaje tin turta o janis
Gloss ate-3sg the cake-Acc the Janis-Nom
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation John ate the cake.

Georgiafentis and Sfakianaki provide claims of four different researchers who focus on how prosody affects the generated VOS order in the Greek language:[22]

Alexiadou suggests that the prominent constituent in VOS is the DP-subject.[22] The DP-object moves over the DP-subject into a specifier position of VoiceP to derive the VOS order. The object movement to the specifier position is a result of scrambled objects and manner adverbs wanting to both move to VoiceP.[23] Thus, the main stress is given to the DP-subject.

Philippakki-Warburton’s claim is that there are two intonation patterns which render the VOS order in Greek:[22]

  1. The prominent constituent is something other than the DP-subject, such as the verb or DP-object. Therefore, the DP-subject is unstressed.
  2. VOS order produced by p-movement (prosodic movement),[24] either from the DP-subject being emphatically stressed or stressed via Chomsky and Halle’s Nuclear Stress Rule (NSR)[25]

Haidou proposes the VOS order has two possible intonations: whether a pause or not precedes the DP-subject will change the focus of the sentence. If there is a preceding pause (indicated with a comma intonation), the DP-subject does not possess the main focus. The focus is on the object instead, as demonstrated in the table below.[22]

Sentence efaje ti supa, o janis
Gloss ate-3sg the soup-Acc the Janis-Nom
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation He at the soup, John.

Georgiafentis argues that subject focusing in VOS is derived from three intonational situations.

  1. The main stress is acquired by a constituent other than the DP-subject (same discussion as Philippaki-Warbuton)
  2. DP-subject acquires main stress through NSR
  3. DP-subject is contrastively focused

Below is an example of contrastively focused DP-subject in Greek (capitalized words indicate contrastive focus):[22]

Sentence efaje tin turta O JANIS (oxi o θanasis)
Gloss ate-3sg the cake-Acc the Janis-Nom (not the Thanissis-Nom)
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation JOHN ate the cake (not Thanassis).

Georgiafentis states that the second and third situations given above are both derived from p-movement.[24]


Baure is an Arawakan language that also follows the verb-initial word order. One of the primary features of Baure emphasized on is the importance in agreement of phi features. The example below illustrates not just the verb-object-subject order, but the immense number of affixes for each verb.

Sentence Pi-am-ri wapoeri-ye pi=kowyo-čo ti monči
Gloss 2SG = take = 3SG.F river-LOC 2SG=bath-APPL dem1.F child
Parts V-transitive Object V-transitive Subject
Translation Take her to the river and bathe the child.





Kaqchikel is an ergative and head-marking Mayan language used in Guatemala. There is no case-marking on the subjects or objects. Instead, the verb classifies the person and numeric (plural or singular) agreement of the subjects and objects.[26]

Although Kaqchikel's basic structure is VOS, the language allows for grammatical word orders such as SVO. Since the language is head-marking, a sentence will have focus on the subect if it is positioned before the verb.

A sentence can be represented as either VOS or VSO if switching the subject and object semantically disrupts the meaning, but VOS is favoured more. An example is shown in the table below:

Sentence X-∅-u-chöy ri chäj / ajanel ri ajanel / chäj
Gloss CP-ABS3sg-ERG3sg-cut DET pine.tree / carpenter DET carpenter / pine.tree
Parts Verb Object / Subject Subject / Object
Translation The carpenter cut the pine tree.



Seediq is an Atayalic language is a VOS language, spoken by Taiwanese indigenous people in Northern Taiwan and the Taroko. Only the subject, which is always fixed in its clause-final position, can correspond to an argument with an absolutive case. No other clause-internal constituents can have an absolutive DP in Seediq.[7]

Sentence Wada big-un hulama na Ape ka laqi
Gloss Past give-TR treat ERG Ape ABS child
Parts Verb Object Subject
Translation Ape gave the child a treat

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Tomlin, Russell S. (1986). Basic Word Order: Functional Principles. London: Croom Helm. p. 22. ISBN 9780709924999. OCLC 13423631.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Chung, Sandra (2006). "Properties of VOS Languages". In Chung, Sandra; Everaert, Rtin; van Riemsdijk, Henk (eds.). The Blackwell Companion to Syntax. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 685–720. doi:10.1002/9780470996591.ch52. ISBN 9780470996591.
  3. ^ Bury, Dirk (February 2010). "Verb-second, particles, and flexible verb-initial orders". Lingua. 120 (2): 303–314. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2008.10.006.
  4. ^ Meyer, Charles F. (2010). Introducing English Linguistics International (Student ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ a b c d Clemens, Lauren Eby; Polinsky, Maria (2017-11-24), "Verb-Initial Word Orders, Primarily in Austronesian and Mayan Languages", The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Syntax, Second Edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 1–50, doi:10.1002/9781118358733.wbsyncom056, ISBN 978-1-118-35873-3
  6. ^ Beguš, G., In Preparation. The Origins of the Voice System and Subject-Only Restriction in Austronesian. pp. 30–31
  7. ^ a b Aldridge, Edith (2010), "Directionality in word-order change in Austronesian languages", Continuity and Change in Grammar, Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today, 159, John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 169–180, doi:10.1075/la.159.08ald, ISBN 978-90-272-5542-6
  8. ^ Dryer, Matthew S. (2000). "Word Order" (PDF). University of Tübingen Department of Linguistics. Retrieved 28 April 2017.
  9. ^تقديم_المفعول_به_على_الفاعل
  10. ^ Simons, Gary F; Fennig, Charles D, eds. (2017). "A macrolanguage of Madagascar". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
  11. ^ Adelaar, Alexander; Ritsuko, Kikusawa (23 December 2014). "Malagasy Personal Pronouns: A Lexical History" (PDF). Oceanic Linguistics. 53 (2): 480–416. doi:10.1353/ol.2014.0020. hdl:11343/122877. ISSN 1527-9421.
  12. ^ Gerdts, Donna B; Hukari, Thomas E (July 2000). "A-Subjects and Control in Halkomelem" (PDF). The Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (published March 2001): 100–123. ISSN 1535-1793 – via Stanford University.
  13. ^ Kiyosawa, Kaoru; Gerdts, Donna B. (2010), Salish Applicatives, Leiden: Brill, p. 25, ISBN 978-9004183933
  14. ^ Wiltschko, Martina (February 2002). "The Syntax of Pronouns: Evidence from Halkomelem Salish". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 20 (1): 177–179. JSTOR 4048052.
  15. ^ England, N. C. (1991). "Changes in Basic Word Order in Mayan Languages". International Journal of American Linguistics. 57 (4): 446–486. doi:10.1086/ijal.57.4.3519735.
  16. ^ Aissen, J. L. (1987). Tzotzil Clause Structure. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Netherlands. ISBN 978-94-009-3741-3.
  17. ^ a b Aissen, J. (1996). "Pied-piping, abstract agreement, and functional projections in Tzotzil". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 14 (3): 447–491. doi:10.1007/bf00133596.
  18. ^ Burzio, Luigi (1986). Italian Syntax: A Government-Binding Approach. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Netherlands. pp. 85–90. ISBN 9789400945227. OCLC 851386374.
  19. ^ a b c Chan, Angel & Matthews, Stephen & Yip, Virginia. (2011). The acquisition of relative clauses in Cantonese and Mandarin. 10.1075/tilar.8.10cha.
  20. ^ a b Dryer, M 2005. The relationship between the order of object and verb and the order of relative clause and non. In The World Altas of Language Structures, M. Hapselmath, M. Dryer, D. Gil, & B. Comrie (eds), Chapter 96, Oxford: OUP
  21. ^ Georgiafentis, Michalis; Lascaratou, Chryssoula (2013). "Word Order Flexibility and Adjacency Preferences: Competing Forces and Tension in the Greek VP". Journal of Greek Linguistics. 13 (2): 181–202. doi:10.1163/15699846-13130202. ISSN 1566-5844.
  22. ^ a b c d e f Georgiafentis, Michalis; Sfakianaki, Anna (2004). "Syntax interacts with prosody". Lingua. 114 (7): 935–961. doi:10.1016/S0024-3841(03)00099-8.
  23. ^ Merchant, Jason (2013). "Voice and Ellipsis". Linguistic Inquiry. 44 (1): 77–108. doi:10.1162/LING_a_00120. ISSN 0024-3892.
  24. ^ a b TOKIZAKI, HISAO (2000). "Prominence, Phrasing, and Movement (M. L. Zubizarreta, Prosody, Focus, and Word Order)". English Linguistics. 17 (2): 459–487. doi:10.9793/elsj1984.17.459. ISSN 0918-3701.
  25. ^ McCawley, James D. (1974). "The Sound Pattern of English. Noam A. Chomsky , Morris Halle". International Journal of American Linguistics. 40 (1): 50–88. doi:10.1086/465290. ISSN 0020-7071.
  26. ^ Koizumi, Masatoshi; Yasugi, Yoshiho; Tamaoka, Katsuo; Kiyama, Sachiko; Kim, Jungho; Ajsivinac Sian, Juan Esteban; García Mátzar, Lolmay Pedro Oscar (2014). "On the (non)universality of the preference for subject-object word order in sentence comprehension: A sentence-processing study in Kaqchikel Maya". Language. 90 (3): 722–736. doi:10.1353/lan.2014.0068. ISSN 1535-0665.