Ideas for Teaching Word Order

It has been said that the true grammar of English lies in word order. Unlike many languages which are heavily inflected and word endings show whether it is, for example, the subject of a verb or its object, English words can usually only be distinguished by their position in the sentence or by the presence of a preposition.

So, in English the following sentences are very different in meaning.

  1. Tony kissed Melinda.
  2. Melinda kissed Tony.

In neither is it safe to assume that they kissed each other - only that one was kissed by the other. In the first sentence Tony did the kissing and so is the subject of the sentence while Melinda was on the receiving end and is therefore its object, whereas in the second sentence these roles are reversed.

The usual word order in a basic English sentence is

Subject/Verb/Object (SVO)

Obviously, it is essential that speakers of heavily inflected languages are made aware of this as quickly as possible in their studies. Hence this is usually introduced at the outset in the very first level. In teaching basic sentence word order (SVO) a great deal of repetition is necessary and all good books provide this. The usual method adopted by the books is to give example sentences and then to point out the word order to the students. They then get the opportunity to practice this before being asked to produce some examples of their own. This can often be a little dry and the example sentences are usually at best uninspiring. The teacher may be best advised to come up with some interesting sentences of their own using action verbs such as kiss, hit etc. They will, of course, need to be pre-taught but action verbs can usually be demonstrated and so present no difficulty.

One very simple way of giving students practice in this is to make cards with different verbs and nouns on then put them into pairs to see how many SVO sentences they can make in 5 minutes. Picture prompts to get them to make particular sentences are a good addition. The basic word sets can be expanded to include adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, etc. as the course progresses. Having mastered basic sentence word order students can then move on to sentences which have both direct and indirect objects, negative sentences and word order in questions. An element of competition can be added to the word card activity by conducting races to form correct sentences, by speed dictations, or by miming sentences for students to write down. Another activity might be for students to be given word cards and then asked to line themselves up so as to form a correct English sentence.

In later levels the idea of adjectival order is added – most native English speakers have no idea that there is such a thing but get it right intuitively. If you are uncertain what adjectival order is, consider the following sentence fragments.

A wonderful, long, silk scarf

A long, silk, wonderful, scarf*

No prizes for guessing which is right and which is wrong.

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