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April 1, 2001 - Grammar Lady: English Sentence Order - 2002-01-31

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- Grammar Lady Mary Newton Bruder joins us to talk about the proper word order for an English sentence.

RS: And you know what? She says it's pretty simple. Just remember the abbreviation S-V-O.


MARY BRUDER: "You have the subject first, then the verb and then the object. And it's pretty much fixed in English. We have to know which one of the words is the subject. In some languages the subject words are marked by an ending, so they can go almost anyplace in a sentence. But that's not true in English. If you have, for example, 'the dog bit the man,' you know which happened first. But if you have 'the man bit the dog,' you have quite a different kind of action. We know the relationships of the words by the place in the sentence."

RS: "So, as you say, this is pretty well fixed in American English."

BRUDER: "Right, but there are some places where the verb moves around. For example, in a question, you have 'did the dog bite the man?" You have the auxiliary that comes before the subject. So that's one thing that the learners of English have to look out for. There's another case where if you're giving emphasis to something, you might get the object first. For example, if you say, 'I need a book and a hat. The hat I'll get tomorrow' -- in the second sentence you have the direct object at the beginning of the sentence. And again, as I say, that's for emphasis. But learners need to look out for these kinds of little pitfalls."

AA: "So basically you can't go wrong, if you're writing a standard English sentence, if you follow the subject-verb-object (pattern)."

BRUDER: "That's correct. In writing you'll never go wrong that way. The only thing that might be troublesome is (with reading some kind of novels) where the author (fools) around with the verb structure a little bit and the sentence structure a little bit, then you might have some of these exceptions, but they will be rare."

AA: "Now what about passive versus active voice. Plain language advocates always say 'keep it active.' Why is that?"

BRUDER: "Well, partly because of efficiency and partly because of understanding. If the subject comes first -- let's take this example: 'The man was bitten by the dog.' 'The dog was bitten by the man.' You've sort of reversed the place of the subject in the sentence. You've also added some extra words. And it's easier for English speakers to process the language if the subject comes first, so that's why they say to keep it in the active voice. There are, however, some examples when you can't do that. If you say 'French is spoken in Montreal,' in order to make that an active sentence, you'd have to do something like; 'They speak French in Montreal.' And then people will say, 'who do you mean by they -- the Montrealers?' that kind of thing. 'The doors were opened at 4 a.m.,' those kinds of things, where you don't actually care who did the object, you can have them in the passive voice without any trouble at all."

AA: "I know that in, from what I've read, in Russian, in certain languages, it really doesn't matter where the verb goes because the rest of the sentence makes clear the point you're trying to make."

BRUDER: "Right, when all the words have the endings, say you have a subject-ending on the subject words, so everybody knows which word is the subject, it doesn't matter where it comes in the sentence. But in English we've lost all of those inflections, all of those endings that tell which part of speech is which. Basically the inflections were lost after the Norman Conquest of William the Conqueror, and French became more and more involved with English, and French didn't have as many inflections, and so many of them were lost in English as well."

RS: There you have it, a grammar lesson wrapped up in a history lesson from 1066! Grammar Lady Mary Newton Bruder is author of the book "Much a Do About a Lot."

AA She also posts her advice at You can send questions to Rosanne and me at VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20237 USA or //end

RS: Until next week, with Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC "Background to History"/Monty Python