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of languages
SOV "She him loves." 45% 45
Sanskrit, Hindi, Ancient Greek, Latin, Japanese, Korean, Persian
SVO "She loves him." 42% 42
Chinese, English, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Hausa, Thai, Malay
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[1][2]

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 word order is fourth most common among the world's languages,[2] 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.[3] Many verb-initial languages exhibit flexible word order (such as St'át'imcets, Chamorro, and Tongan), alternating between VOS and VSO.[4] 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.[3]


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.[3] 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.[3]

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).[3] In verb-initial languages, the extended projection principle causes overt specifier movement due to either strong tense [T], verb [V], or predicate [Pred] features.[3]

Chung proposes a syntactic profile for verb-initial languages that are derived through VP-raising:[3]

  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


VOS occurs in many languages, including Austronesian languages (such as Malagasy, Old Javanese, Toba Batak, Dusun and Fijian), Mayan languages (such as 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.[5] 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. [6]


Malagasy is in the Austronesian language family and is the national language of Madagascar.[7] It is a classic example of a language that has fixed-VOS structure:[3][8]

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:[3]

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.[3]

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.[9]

Also, VOS is used is if the content of the phrase disambiguates the agent from the patient.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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.[3]

An sample Tzotzil sentence is in the table below. The "ʔ" represent a glottal stop.[13]

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.[3] Aissen, however, showed that Tzotzil allows direct objects to be extracted, as wh-movement occurs:[14]

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 .[14]

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 proposest that languages without VP-raising can be assumed to have their basic order to be VOS, instead of SVO.[3]

Italian (special case)Edit

Italian is most commonly a SVO language. However, inversion can occur.[15]

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.[3]

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

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Meyer, Charles F. (2010). Introducing English Linguistics International (Student ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ a b Tomlin, Russell S. (1986). Basic Word Order: Functional Principles. London: Croom Helm. p. 22. ISBN 9780709924999. OCLC 13423631.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Dryer, Matthew S. (2000). "Word Order" (PDF). University of Tübingen Department of Linguistics. Retrieved 28 April 2017.
  6. ^تقديم_المفعول_به_على_الفاعل
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Adelaar, Alexander; Ritsuko, Kikusawa (23 December 2014). "Malagasy Personal Pronouns: A Lexical History". Oceanic Linguistics. 53 (2): 480–416. doi:10.1353/ol.2014.0020. ISSN 1527-9421.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Kiyosawa, Kaoru; Gerdts, Donna B. (2010), Salish Applicatives, Leiden: Brill, p. 25, ISBN 978-9004183933
  11. ^ Wiltschko, Martina (February 2002). "The Syntax of Pronouns: Evidence from Halkomelem Salish". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 20 (1): 177–179. JSTOR 4048052.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Aissen, J. L. (1987). Tzotzil Clause Structure. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Netherlands. ISBN 978-94-009-3741-3.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Burzio, Luigi (1986). Italian Syntax: A Government-Binding Approach. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Netherlands. pp. 85–90. ISBN 9789400945227. OCLC 851386374.