Teaching grammar basics: word order

By Cameron Tricker

16 Jan 2023

Two students writing together.

Sentences are like a puzzle. Many pieces must fall in place, and the keywords are often like the glue that holds everything together. This article will look at the basic pieces of grammar that allow sentences to communicate clearly.

Word order refers to the grammatically correct arrangement of words in a sentence. Basic sentences in the English language usually conform to certain rules. For instance, the bedrock of standard sentences is the SVO order. These sentences contain a Subject, Verb (sometimes known as a predicate) and Object. An example would be: ‘Clara loves bagels.’ We know who’s taking the action, ‘Clara’, the action itself, ‘loves’, and the object in question, ‘bagels’.

When a sentence deviates from this structure, it becomes defunct. ‘’Clara bagels loves’ is grammatically incorrect. The word order doesn’t conform to the SVO standard, and fails to communicate a complete thought in an effective manner. Word order is crucial for clarity of expression, as well as the development of excellent writers.

The SVO order isn’t the only structure that sentences can follow. Complex or compound sentences are formed when multiple clauses are involved. Complex sentences require a conjunction to link the independent and dependent clause. To expand on Clara’s passion: ‘Clara loves bagels because they’re so versatile.’ We’ve developed upon the SVO word order, creating an extended sentence with more information.

The established word order also changes in the case of a question; they entail different rules. Questions usually conform to the ASV word order. They begin with an auxiliary verb or a modal auxiliary, the subject follows, before being rounded off with another verb (and in some cases, an object - ASVO).

  • Does Sarah run?
  • Does John like olives?

The established word order becomes inverted, with the subject being swapped for the verb at the start of the question. It’s easy to see why confusion may arise from these complexities when learning word order rules for the first time.

Questions are not the only stumbling blocks to understanding word order conventions. Other agreements beyond SVO must also be considered when constructing a sentence. For instance, the Subject-Verb Agreement.

This agreement ensures the subject and main verb of a sentence act in accordance with one another. If a subject is singular, so is the verb. If the subject is plural, the verb becomes plural as well. However, an ‘s’ on the end of a subject or a verb works in reverse, which may confuse some learners when writing.

For example, in the sentence: ‘The dog chases the cat,’ the subject of ‘dog’ is singular, so it takes the singular verb of ‘chases’. If there were multiple dogs chasing the poor feline, the sentence would function as follows: ‘Dogs chase the cat’. The ‘s’ has been dropped from the end of ‘chase’ and added to ‘dogs’. With all this talk of adding and dropping, it's easy to see why grammar is sometimes referred to as the ‘mathematics of writing.’

Complex sentences add another layer of difficulty in understanding this agreement. When prepositions and objects are thrown into the mix, learners can run the risk of confusing those aspects for the subject itself, which means the wrong form of the verb will follow.

Apostrophes are handy and multi-purpose. However, their functionality runs the risk of confusing established word order rules. Apostrophes can function as contractions, demonstrating that two words have been connected. They are also needed when showing possession or a close relationship - Liza’s handbag. This may become tricky for learners when initially working out the relationship between apostrophes and singular or plural objects.

Incomplete sentences occur when the subject or verb is absent from the sentence. Illuminating an incomplete sentence may help reinforce the typical structure that sentences must follow to be grammatically correct, so they still serve a great purpose!

  • In there? No chance.
  • Went to the store.
  • Bacon and eggs!

However, sentence fragments are more difficult to reconcile, as they function perfectly fine in scenarios requiring spoken English.

  • Looking forward to the pool party tomorrow.
  • Why?
  • Because of the sunshine.

This is because certain pronouns and verbs can be implied by virtue of being in a particular situation. In certain dialects or situations, entire conjunctions can even be dropped and the conversation will run without issue. Fragments can also make dialogue in fiction more realistic and compelling, but they should be avoided in written academic work. Teachers are hard-pressed to balance this tension between what learners might say and what they should write.

Another tension exists for a student understanding effective word order; the battle between being concise whilst retaining a flare of creativity!

Of course, we want learners to be expressive in their writing. The problem is that this runs the potential for the use of unnecessary language, convoluting the meaning of a sentence. Vague pronouns, a multitude of prepositions and redundancies can lead to this language, muddying the word order and the conveyed meaning.

With less of a focus on the agent of a sentence, passive voice can lead to the established SVO order being muddled. This is because passivity in writing leads to elongated sentences.

  • The bag was put on the table, versus I put the bag on the table.

This unnecessary length may lead to problems in identifying the agent, as well as the agent’s relationship to particular thoughts, feelings or actions. From these examples alone, it’s clear that an array of challenges must be overcome by learners to understand and deploy an effective word order in their writing.

It’s integral for learners to understand that their choices, in the words they deploy, have a tangible consequence on the acceptable word order. Words and phrases that modify and enhance speech and writing cause repercussions that must be understood and mastered.

Adverbs may cause disruption as they can be placed at the beginning, middle or end of a sentence. They usually have close proximity to the word they’re modifying, but that’s not always the case. To best counter this, it’ll be useful to illuminate the four types of adverbs in lesson time: manner, place, frequency and time.

Whilst noting the differences in adverb classifications, it would also be useful to dissect adjectives - as they also adhere to their own hierarchy when more than of them is deployed. Adjectives usually fall in before the object of a sentence. Adjectives that describe opinions are prioritised, before leaving room for more objective and factual descriptors to follow.

Modifiers exist to inject description into a sentence, infusing it with colour. They inhabit the space closest to the noun that they’re modifying, before or after. Confusion can occur when a modifier may be suitably placed both before a noun and after it.

There exists a family of determiners, but their placement is always constant. They may be quantifiers, possessors, demonstratives or an article. They’re placed before the noun that they’re determining the ownership, number or specificity of.

Prepositions are crucial in demonstrating spatial and logical relationships, as well as those that are bound by time. Prepositions are usually placed before the noun they’re linked with: ‘The two investigators met under the streetlight.’

That being said, prepositions are flexible; they can even be used to end sentences. Again, there is some debate over this - it sounds more natural in speech than it does in writing. Weighing up where to place a preposition with learners would also be an opportune time to dissect sentence fragments, as they’re closely linked with the intricacies of speech and dialect.

The comparative form differs depending on the number of objects being compared. For example, in the instance of a subject being compared with a group, the superlative adjective is suitable. This will insert itself before the object in a standard SVO format: ‘Eleanor was the fastest runner.’

In a comparative adjective, the adjective is usually paired with ‘than’ to elicit a comparison between one thing and another. For example: ‘Eleanor’s faster than me!’.

There are many factors for a learner to take into account when considering proper word order. However, practising and embedding the rules doesn’t need to be onerous - far from it. The breadth of the importance of word order in sentence formation and speech leaves the door wide open for innovative games to be played, inclusive of the entire class.

Building a story one sentence at a time works for a number of reasons. Each student can compound and build on what the previous student has contributed. The sentences may begin simple and become more complex, with learners adding fragments and adverbs - which people are naturally inclined to do when speaking. The story can also be entwined with a cross-curricular theme, cementing the topical learning that’s taking place.

From an individual or home learning perspective, worksheets are always useful for getting to the crux of the issue - proper sentence formation. Learners can work with a jumbled sentence, which they then have to rewrite to form a grammatically correct one. Capitalising the word the sentence should begin with can then give learners the platform to decipher the rest, empowering them each step of the way. Deploying a digital curriculum which covers these bases and more may help to ease the already heavy class-time load, whilst delivering tangible developments in grammar mastery.

Context is always useful for embedding tricky concepts, which is why a topical story-building exercise is always effective - this could include bespoke fiction and nonfiction texts, accessed through an online grammar curriculum, or could be as simple as relating grammar instruction to prior knowledge in the classroom. Combining this with differentiated instruction gives every learner the tools to achieve their potential, not just in literacy but across the curriculum.

Explore teaching activities, videos, mastery tasks and formative assessment opportunities on Bedrock's digital literacy curriculum.