What Is Word Order?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 24 February 2020
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Word order is a general term used in linguistics and literature to refer to the arrangement of words in a given linguistic structure. It is most commonly examined in the context of sentences, as word order can substantially affect the meaning of a given sentence. In some languages, word order is almost as important as the words used in specifying meaning while other languages permit a wide variety of word orders because the words themselves carry the most meaning. In literature, words are ordered differently in different situations in order to create a particular sound or rhythm, or to subtly alter the possible meaning of a given phrase. Poets, in particular, must often manipulate order to achieve the desired rhyme and rhythm schemes.

In almost all languages, word order has some effect on the meaning of a given sentence. Ordering words in a particular manner based on the grammatical rules of the language is necessary to ensure that the sentence or phrase isn't complete gibberish. The fact that, in English, "I went to the store" makes sense while "Store to went the I" is nonsensical is entirely based on the ordering of the sentence. Order is also commonly used to indicate the subjects and objects in a given sentence or phrase. In "the boy gave the card to sally," the words are ordered to indicate that "the boy" is the subject, "the card" is the direct object and "Sally" is the indirect object.


Speakers of most languages tend to follow a particular word order pattern even when alternatives are possible. English speakers, for instance, tend to favor a subject-verb-object order, such as "John bought a new car," in which "John" is the subject, "bought" is the verb, and "car" is the object. It is also permissible, however, to say "A new car John bought," though this structure is seldom used, and when it is, added emphasis is usually given to the object. Word order can also vary somewhat based on whether a sentence is written or spoken. This effect is more dramatic in some languages than in others.

Writers and poets often manipulate word order to bring about a variety of different effects. Poets tend to use order to bring about a certain rhythm or rhyme scheme. Word order may be used in prose for the same purpose, but it is more often used to subtly alter the meaning of a given sentence or phrase. It can, for instance, be used to introduce subtle ambiguity that serves some particular purpose.


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Post 1

Latin is an example of a language in which order has absolutely *no* meaning.

The article does a great job of explaining how in English, the placement of a noun in the sentence tells us what job the noun is doing in the sentence. The subject will always come before the verb in a declarative sentence, for instance.

But in Latin, each noun has a ending that tell us its job. The ending of -um on certain kinds of nouns, for instance, will always mark a direct object, no matter where it is found in the sentence. The same noun ending in -us must be the subject. As a result, Roman writers and poets were free to play around with word order, although certain patterns were more common, rather than being limited to subject-verb-object or subject-object-verb.

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