Subject–verb–object word order

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In linguistic typology, subject–verb–object (SVO) is a sentence structure where the subject comes first, the verb second, and the object third. Languages may be classified according to the dominant sequence of these elements in unmarked sentences (i.e., sentences in which an unusual word order is not used for emphasis). English is included in this group. An example is "Sam ate oranges."

of languages
SOV "Cows grass eat." 45% 45
Ancient Greek, Bengali, Burmese, Hindi/Urdu, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Oromo, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Turkish, etc
SVO "Cows eat grass." 42% 42
Chinese, English, French, Hausa, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Malay, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Thai, Vietnamese, etc
VSO "Eat cows grass." 9% 9
Biblical Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Filipino, Geʽez, Irish, Māori, Tuareg-Berber, Welsh
VOS "Eat grass cows." 3% 3
Car, Fijian, Malagasy, Qʼeqchiʼ, Terêna
OVS "Grass eat cows." 1% 1
Hixkaryana, Urarina
OSV "Grass cows eat." 0% Tobati, Warao
Frequency distribution of word order in languages surveyed by Russell S. Tomlin in the 1980s[1][2] ()

SVO is the second-most common order by number of known languages, after SOV. Together, SVO and SOV account for more than 87% of the world's languages.[3] The label SVO often includes ergative languages although they do not have nominative subjects.


Subject–verb–object languages almost always place relative clauses after the nouns which they modify and adverbial subordinators before the clause modified, with varieties of Chinese being notable exceptions.

Although some subject–verb–object languages in West Africa, the best known being Ewe, use postpositions in noun phrases, the vast majority of them, such as English, have prepositions. Most subject–verb–object languages place genitives after the noun, but a significant minority, including the postpositional SVO languages of West Africa, the Hmong–Mien languages, some Sino-Tibetan languages, and European languages like Swedish, Danish, Lithuanian and Latvian have prenominal genitives[4] (as would be expected in an SOV language).

Non-European SVO languages usually have a strong tendency to place adjectives, demonstratives and numerals after the nouns that they modify, but Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian place numerals before nouns, as in English. Some linguists have come to view the numeral as the head in the relationship to fit the rigid right-branching of these languages.[5]

There is a strong tendency, as in English, for main verbs to be preceded by auxiliaries: I am thinking. He should reconsider.

Language differences and variation[edit]

An example of SVO order in English is:

Andy ate cereal.

In an analytic language such as English, subject–verb–object order is relatively inflexible because it identifies which part of the sentence is the subject and which one is the object. ("The dog bit Andy" and "Andy bit the dog" mean two completely different things, while, in case of "Bit Andy the dog", it may be difficult to determine whether it's a complete sentence or a fragment, with "Andy the dog" the object and an omitted/implied subject.)

The situation is more complex in languages that have no strict order of V and O imposed by their grammar. e.g. Russian, Finnish, Ukrainian, or Hungarian. Here, the ordering is rather governed by emphasis.

Russian allows the use of subject, verb, and object in any order and "shuffles" parts to bring up a slightly different contextual meaning each time. E.g. "любит она его" (loves she him) may be used to point out "she acts this way because she LOVES him", or "его она любит" (him she loves) is used in the context "if you pay attention, you'll see that HE is the one she truly loves", or "его любит она" (him loves she) may appear along the lines "I agree that cat is a disaster, but since my wife adores it and I adore her...". Regardless of order, it is clear that "его" is the object because it is in the accusative case.

In Polish, SVO order is basic in an affirmative sentence, and a different order is used to either emphasize some part of it or to adapt it to a broader context logic. For example, "Roweru ci nie kupię" (I won't buy you a bicycle), "Od piątej czekam" (I've been waiting since five).[6]

In Turkish, it is normal to use SOV, but SVO may be used sometimes to emphasize the verb. For example, "John terketti Mary'yi" (Lit. John/left/Mary: John left Mary) is the answer to the question "What did John do with Mary?" instead of the regular [SOV] sentence "John Mary'yi terketti" (Lit. John/Mary/left).

German, Dutch, and Kashmiri display the order subject-verb-object in some, especially main clauses, but really are verb-second languages, not SVO languages in the sense of a word order type.[7] They have SOV in subordinate clauses, as given in Example 1 below. Example 2 shows the effect of verb second order: the first element in the clause that comes before the V need not be the subject. In Kashmiri, the word order in embedded clauses is conditioned by the category of the subordinating conjunction, as in Example 3.

  1. "Er weiß, dass ich jeden Sonntag das Auto wasche."/"Hij weet dat ik elke zondag de auto was." (German & Dutch respectively: "He knows that I wash the car each Sunday", lit. "He knows that I each Sunday the car wash".) Cf. the simple sentence "Ich wasche das Auto jeden Sonntag."/ "Ik was de auto elke zondag.", "I wash the car each Sunday."
  2. "Jeden Sonntag wasche ich das Auto."/"Elke zondag was ik de auto." (German & Dutch respectively: "Each Sunday I wash the car.", lit. "Each Sunday wash I the car."). "Ich wasche das Auto jeden Sonntag"/"Ik was de auto elke zondag" translates perfectly into English "I wash the car each Sunday", but preposing the adverbial results in a structure that is different from the English one.
  3. Kashmiri:















mye ees phyikyir tsi temyis ciThy dyikh was worry lest you to.him letter will.give

"I was afraid you might give him the letter"

If the embedded clause is introduced by the transparent conjunction zyi the SOV order changes to SVO. "mye ees phyikyir (zyi) tsi maa dyikh temyis ciThy".[8]

English developed from such a reordering language and still bears traces of this word order, for example in locative inversion ("In the garden sat a cat.") and some clauses beginning with negative expressions: "only" ("Only then do we find X."), "not only" ("Not only did he storm away but also slammed the door."), "under no circumstances" ("under no circumstances are the students allowed to use a mobile phone"), "never" ("Never have I done that."), "on no account" and the like. In such cases, do-support is sometimes required, depending on the construction.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meyer, Charles F. (2010). Introducing English Linguistics (Student ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Tomlin, Russell S. (1986). Basic Word Order: Functional Principles. London: Croom Helm. p. 22. ISBN 9780709924999. OCLC 13423631.
  3. ^ Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55967-7.
  4. ^ "Order of Genitive and Noun".
  5. ^ Donohue, Mark (2007). "Word order in Austronesian from north to south and west to east". Linguistic Typology. 11 (2): 379. doi:10.1515/LINGTY.2007.026. S2CID 49214413.
  6. ^ Bielec, Dana (2007). "Polish, An Essential Grammar". Routledge: 272. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ The typological database WALS treats German as a language without fixed basic order; see WALS chapter 81.
  8. ^ Hook, P. E. & Koul, O. N. (1996). Lakshmi, V.S. & Mukherjee, A. (eds.). "Kashmiri as a V-2 language". Word order in Indian languages. Osmania University: Centre of Advanced Study in Linguistics. p. 102. ISBN 81-85194-42-4.