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In linguistics, 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,[1] with other word orders considered "marked".[2]

Constituent word order is defined in terms of a finite verb (V) in combination with two arguments, namely the subject (S), and object (O).[3][4][5][6] Thus, a transitive sentence has six logically possible basic word orders:

Constituent word ordersEdit

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):

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 languages such as Latin, Greek, Persian, Romanian, Assyrian, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Finnish, and Basque have no strict word order; rather, the sentence structure is highly flexible and reflects the pragmatics of the utterance.

Topic-prominent languages 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.[citation needed] 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 languages, 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 typesEdit

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[9] surveyed 1228 languages, and the updated 2013 study[10] investigated 1377 languages. Percentage was not reported in his studies.

Word Order Number (2005) Percentage (2005) Number (2013) Percentage (2013)
SOV 497 40.5% 565 41.0%
SVO 435 35.4% 488 35.4%
VSO 85 6.9% 95 6.9%
VOS 26 2.1% 25 1.8%
OVS 9 0.7% 11 0.8%
OSV 4 0.3% 4 0.3%
UNFIXED 172 14.0% 189 13.7%

Hammarström (2016)[11] 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.

Word Order No. of Languages Percentage No. of Families Percentage
SOV 2275 43.3% 239 56.6%
SVO 2117 40.3% 55 13.0%
VSO 503 9.5% 27 6.3%
VOS 174 3.3% 15 3.5%
OVS 40 0.7% 3 0.7%
OSV 19 0.3% 1 0.2%
UNFIXED 124 2.3% 26 6.1%

Functions of constituent word orderEdit

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 arguments 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, agreement, 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.[1]

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.[12]

Grammaticality of word orderEdit

There is a difference between grammatical word order and natural word order. In many languages, topicalization and questions can change the grammatical word order. Languages such as O'odham and Hungarian, which are discussed below, have almost all iterations of the sentences as grammatical, but not all of them are used.[13] This surfaces in English and German as well, in question and answer sentences in Particular. Here is an example:

A: [Kate loves who/Who does Kate love?] (SVO/OSV)

B: [She loves Mark/Mark is who she loves.] (SVO/OSV)

In the (A) sentences, the first one is used when putting emphasis on who Kate loves, and the second is used with more of a quizzical tone. English uses stress and tone to emphasize different aspects of the sentences, which can also change the word order, as shown above.

In the (B) sentences, the first one is more likely to be used by a native English speaker. The second sentence is grammatical as well, but less likely to be said in natural speech. This is because English uses the SVO structure in regular sentences, but is able to answer questions using the same structure that was used in the sentence.

In German, however, the question and answer sentences follow a set structure:

A: "Liebt Kate Mark?" [Does Kate love Mark?] (VSO)

B: "Kate liebt Mark." [Kate loves Mark.] (SVO)

German, as opposed to English, has a very strict word order. In English, you can change the word order depending on what you want to emphasize. in German, stress and tone are used almost exclusively in which part of the sentence is the topic. as well, the question and answer sentences in the example have different word order. This is also because of the stricter word order in German: Questions are almost exclusively VSO, and statements are SVO.

Phrase word orders and branchingEdit

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 modifiers 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 modifiers before heads and use postpositions. VSO languages tend to place modifiers after their heads, and use prepositions. 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.)

Pragmatic word orderEdit

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).[14]

Most languages with a high degree of morphological marking have rather flexible word orders, such as Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Latin, Albanian, and O'odham. In some languages, a general word order can be identified, but is much harder in others.[15] When the word order is free, different choices of word order can be used to help identify the theme and the rheme.


The 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:

  1. "Kati megevett egy szelet tortát." (same word order as English) ["Kate ate a piece of cake."]
  2. "Egy szelet tortát Kati evett meg." (emphasis on agent [Kate]) ["A piece of cake Kate ate."] (One of the pieces of cake was eaten by Kate.)
  3. "Kati evett meg egy szelet tortát." (also emphasis on agent [Kate]) ["Kate ate a piece of cake."] (Kate was the one eating one piece of cake.)
  4. "Kati egy szelet tortát evett meg." (emphasis on object [cake]) ["Kate a piece of cake ate."] (Kate ate a piece of cake – cf. not a piece of bread.)
  5. "Egy szelet tortát evett meg Kati." (emphasis on number [a piece, i.e. only one piece]) ["A piece of cake ate Kate."] (Only one piece of cake was eaten by Kate.)
  6. "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.)
  7. "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'.


In Portuguese, clitic pronouns and commas allow many different orders:[citation needed]

  • "Eu vou entregar para você amanhã." ["I will deliver to you tomorrow."] (same word order as English)
  • "Entregarei para você amanhã." ["{I} will deliver to you tomorrow."]
  • "Eu lhe entregarei amanhã." ["I to you will deliver tomorrow."]
  • "Entregar-lhe-ei amanhã." ["Deliver to you {I} will tomorrow."] (mesoclisis)
  • "A si, eu entregarei amanhã." ["To you I will deliver tomorrow."]
  • "A si, entregarei amanhã." ["To you deliver {I} will tomorrow."]
  • "Amanhã, entregarei para você." ["Tomorrow {I} 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 is recovered.


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.[16] Pragmatic factors, such as topic and focus, play a large part in determining the order. Thus the following sentences each answer a different question:[17]

  • "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"] (What happened?)

Latin prose often follows the word order "Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Adverb, Verb",[18] but this is more of a guideline than a rule. Adjectives in most cases go before the noun they modify,[19] 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 (Papago-Pima)Edit

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:[13]

  • "Wakial 'o g wipsilo ha-cecposid." [Cowboy is the calves them branding.] (The cowboy is branding the calves.)
  • "Wipsilo 'o ha-cecposid g wakial." [Calves is them branding the cowboy.]
  • "Ha-cecposid 'o g wakial g wipsilo." [Them Branding is the cowboy the calves.]
  • "Wipsilo 'o g wakial ha-cecposid." [Calves is the cowboy them branding.]
  • "Ha-cecposid 'o g wipsilo g wakial." [them branding is the calves the cowboy.]
  • "Wakial 'o ha-cecposid g wipsilo." [Cowboy is them branding the calves.]

In these examples, they are all grammatical. they are all variations on the first sentence, "The cowboy is branding the calves." with all of these examples being grammatical, however, some of the iterations of the sentence are rarely found in natural speech. this is discussed in Grammaticality.

Other issues with word orderEdit

Language changeEdit

Languages can change over time. In syntax, this is called syntactic change. This change can be shown in the differences between Shakespeare's English and Modern English. English has its roots in the Germanic languages, where the word order for yes/no questions is thus:

Leon: Well then, go you into hell?[20]

A modern speaker of English would recognise this as an acceptable sentence, but would consider it archaic; that person would likely change the 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:

Leon: are they good?[20]

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 verbs 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?").

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.[21]


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. the rhyme scheme can change, as well as the meaning behind the words. this can be especially problematic when translating poetry.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b Comrie, Bernard. (1981). Language universals and linguistic typology: syntax and morphology (2nd ed). University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  2. ^ Sakel, Jeanette (2015). Study Skills for Linguistics. Routledge. p. 61. ISBN 9781317530107.
  3. ^ Hengeveld, Kees (1992). Non-verbal predication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-013713-5.
  4. ^ Sasse, H.J. (1993). "Das Nomen – eine universelle Kategorie?". Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung. 46: 3.
  5. ^ Jan Rijkhoff (2007), "Word Classes", Language and Linguistics Compass 1 (6) , 709–726 doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00030.x
  6. ^ Rijkhoff, Jan (2004), The Noun Phrase, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-926964-5.
  7. ^ Tomlin, Russel S. (1986). Basic Word Order: Functional Principles. London: Croom Helm. ISBN 0-415-72357-4.
  8. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2006) [1st pub. 1997]. Serbo-Croatian. Languages of the World/Materials ; 148. Munich & Newcastle: Lincom Europa. pp. 45–46. ISBN 3-89586-161-8. OCLC 37959860. OL 2863538W. Contents. Summary. [Grammar book].
  9. ^ Dryer, M. S. (2005). "Order of Subject, Object, and Verb". In Haspelmath, M. (ed.). The World Atlas of Language Structures.
  10. ^ Dryer, M. S. (2013). "Order of Subject, Object and Verb". In M. S. Dryer & M. Haspelmath (eds), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online.
  11. ^ Hammarström, H. (2016). "Linguistic diversity and language evolution". Journal of Language Evolution. 1 (1): 19–29. doi:10.1093/jole/lzw002.
  12. ^ Dryer, Matthew S. 1992. "The Greenbergian Word Order Correlations", Language 68: 81–138.
  13. ^ a b Hale, Ken (1992). Payne, Doris L. (ed.). "Basic Word Order in Two 'Free Word Order' Languages". Typological Studies in Linguistics. Typological Studies in Language. 22 (Pragmatics of Word Order Flexibility): 63–82. doi:10.1075/tsl.22.03hal. ISBN 978-90-272-2905-2.
  14. ^ Comrie, Bernard (1981). Language Universals and Linguistic Typology: Syntax and Morphology (2nd edn). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  15. ^ Rude, Noel (1992). Payne, Doris L. (ed.). "Word order and topicality in Nez Perce". Typological Studies in Language (Pragmatics of word order flexibility ed.). 22: 193–208. doi:10.1075/tsl.22.08rud. ISBN 978-90-272-2905-2.
  16. ^ Scrivner, Olga B. (2015). A Probabilistic Approach in Historical Linguistics: Word Order Change in Infinitival Clauses: From Latin to Old French. Indiana University PhD Thesis, p. 32, quoting Linde (1923).
  17. ^ Spevak, Olga (2010). Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose, p. 1, quoting Weil (1844).
  18. ^ Devine, Andrew M. & Laurence D. Stephens (2006), Latin Word Order, p. 79.
  19. ^ Walker, Arthur T. (1918) "Some Facts of Latin Word Order". The Classical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 9, pp. 644–657.
  20. ^ a b Shakespeare, William (1941). Much Ado about Nothing. Boston, USA: Ginn and Company. pp. 12, 16.
  21. ^ Loprieno, Antonio (2000). "From VSO to SVO? Word Order and Rear Extraposition in Coptic". Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (Stability, Variation and Change of Word Order Variation Over Time ed.). 213: 23–39. doi:10.1075/cilt.213.05lop. ISBN 978-90-272-3720-0.

Further readingEdit