Flexible Word Order

Does English have a strict word order?

The word order within a phrase is usually quite strict. However, after we start a sentence, the order that we arrange phrases is more flexible.

in the park – there is a strict order here. A different word order would be very strange.

I’m sitting by a tree in the park. – This is OK.

I’m sitting in the park by a tree. – This is also OK.

 How is the phrase order of English flexible?

Language is flexible and there is often more than one way we can say something. When there are options, what is the difference between choosing one phrase rather than another? Why do we sometimes put a phrase in one position in a sentence (like in the middle), but in another position at other times (like at the end)?

Using well-formed phrases is important (correct grammar). However, there is more to grammar than being correct.

To truly master grammar we need to know grammatically correct phrases, understand the meaning included in these phrases, and understand how the order of the phrases helps us communicate.

The order we present information

The basic idea of order of information in English is quite simple and applies to a range of situations. Consider the following:

Let’s clean it up.

Let’s clean the mess up.

Let’s clean up the mess.

The above sentences are all good English sentences. However, “Let’s clean up it” (with it last) seems a bit odd to most people.

It is strange to end the sentence with it because the end of the sentence is a powerful position. It is weak in terms of meaning, so a different phrase is preferred. A phrase with a clear meaning like the mess fits well.

There are other situations when students are told that we can phrase things in two ways, for example:

I gave them a present.

I gave a present to them.

I cooked them dinner.

I cooked dinner for them.

Notice same basic concept still applies, and that the phrase that is last has more emphasis – what I gave (a present), who I gave it to (them), and what I cooked (dinner), who I cooked it for (them).

Try applying this same idea to other sentences with several phrases:

I saw them on Monday last week.

I saw them last week on Monday.

Any time you notice there are different ways something can be phrased, you can apply this idea. What is last? The end is a strong position.

(or should I say, the strongest position is the end.)


The Order of Adjectives

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