Word Order Rules in English

In theory, English sentences take a simple form much of the time. The basic rules for which words appear in a sentence can help you with most of the sentences you’ll need in academic writing.

If we push on these rules, we’ll find many exceptions, but the point here is only to provide a kind of template that can be followed much of the time.

This article outlines some basic sentence structures that can be used as templates and provides rules for the ordering of adverbs and adjectives in English sentences.

Basic sentence structure

Sentences are made of clauses, and the simplest sentence has only clause. In fact, sentences with only one clause are called “simple sentences”. We’re going to look at variations of only this kind of sentence, since these patterns are simply repeated in the additional clauses added to more complicated sentences (“compound sentences,” “complex sentences,” and “compound-complex sentences”).

The following is an explanation of the most common and easily used clause patterns you’ll use or find used in English.

A clause is a string of words with a subject (the thing doing the action) and a predicate (the action itself). A subject must contain a noun, and a predicate must contain a verb. That said, the subject is usually made up of not only that noun but all of the words that come along with it (e.g. “The large book…”), and the predicate is made up of not only that verb, but all of the words that come along with it (e.g. “…sits on the table).

In the example sentences below, the verb position and all that follows it are part of the predicate.

Intransitive verb

Some sentences use verbs that require nothing to follow them, and these are called intransitive verbs. With these we can form our most basic sentences, since all that’s necessary is a subject made of one noun and predicate made of one verb.

Example: Intransitive verb
subject + verb
Smaug sleeps.

Linking verb

When a sentence uses a different kind of verb, that verb can be either a transitive verb or a linking verb. A linking verb connects a subject to a quality of that subject. This quality is called a “subject compliment” or a “predicate adjective.”

Example: Linking verb
subject + verb + subject compliment
The sun was bright.

Transative verb

A transitive verb tells what the subject did to something else. This “something else” we call the direct object.

Example: Transitive verb
subject + verb + direct object
The big man kicked the round ball.

Indirect object

We can add another position to a sentence like the last one, though. A sentence with a transitive verb can add to the mix an indirect object, the audience of the action or the thing that receives the direct object.

Example: Indirect object
subject + verb + indirect object + direct object
The generous man fed the dog a bone.
She sang the crowd a quiet song.

Reserved direct and indirect object

This ordering of the direct object and indirect object can also be reversed. Notice the necessary addition of the preposition “to” when the order is reversed.

We could add “to” in the examples above (e.g. “She sang to the crowd a quiet song”), but it’s not necessary. When “to” is necessary, you know the ordering is as below.

Example: Reserved direct and indirect object
subject + verb + direct object + indirect object
The generous man fed a bone to the dog.
She sang a quiet song to the crowd.

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