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  • Galina Blankenship

English Word Order Patterns and Information Structure

Updated: May 4


(Read more about How to Write Better (in Any Language): The Universal Principles of Information Structure.)


The painting "Cashmere" by John Singer Sargent
Cashmere by John Singer Sargent

How We Organize Information When We Communicate: Information Structure (Packaging)




Stress & Intonation


When we communicate about an event or situation, we can organize the information in different ways, depending on the meaning we try to convey. In the spoken forms of the English language, we communicate our messages by breaking them down into individual units of information, which we express using intonation and stress.


We also arrange our messages in a specific word order. With intonation, we indicate which unit of information we want to stress or emphasize. In other words, we try to match the units of information we want to communicate with the units of intonation.


 

Word Order


The organization of a message into information units often reflects a division between the information that is already known or assumed to be known to the hearer (old information) and the information that is new or important (new information):




Variations in word orders, together with the stress position, produce the meaning of the sentence.


 

Topic (Old) & Focus (New)


Linguists refer to the old information as topic and the new information as focus. This constitutes the principle of information structure signaled by a special sequence of elements (word order) in the sentence.


For example, we organize the main and dependent clauses according to the main point we want to convey:


Alan failed the test because he did not study.
(If your main point (focus) is to provide the reason of Alan’s failing the test)

Because Alan did not study, he failed the test.
(If your main point (focus) is to provide the result of Alan’s not studying)

Since in writing, we cannot use intonation for emphasizing, we have to rely on specific word orders, coordination and subordination strategies, use of pronouns, articles (definite, indefinite, and zero), and punctuation.


Grammar allows us to present—or package—the information in a variety of ways. Of these ways, the syntactically most basic way is what linguists call the canonical (unmarked, default, neutral, constituent) word order.


Cross-linguistically, word order variations—e.g., as a declarative, interrogative, imperative, or exclamative clause as well as the so-called inverted sentence—is one of the main syntactic devices used to convey specific information messages.


 

Canonical (Unmarked, Default) Word Order



The English canonical word order is SVO, or:

SUBJECT

+

VERB

+

[Direct Object

+

Indirect Object]

My son

gave

his report

to the teacher.

If we read a basic sentence in English without specific context, we would, by default, place a light stress on the subject (topic) and a stronger stress on the last word (focus) in the sentence:

TOPIC

FOCUS

His WIFE

will call you TOMORROW.

The SVO formula defines the CORE of an English sentence, which, to make sense, should not be broken or interrupted. In fact, English has one of the strictest word order systems.


Other canonical positions in the English language involve:

  • Conventionally, a dependent clause follows its related main clause:

MAIN CLAUSE

DEPENDENT CLAUSE

I’ll call you tomorrow

if I am free.

  • A relative clause always follows the related noun (noun phrase):

NOUN (NOUN PHRASE)

RELATIVE CLAUSE

​Please read the book

that your teacher has assigned to you.

  • A noun is typically preceded by its modifying adjective:

ADJECTIVE

NOUN

red

balloon

  • English uses prepositions (as opposed to Turkish postpositions), which:

- Precede related nouns (in the school)

- Follow related verbs (to vote for)

  • Auxiliary verbs precede main verbs (will help)

  • Adjectives are preceded by modifying adverbs (very pretty)

  • Adverbs may be preceded by modifying adverbs (outrageously fast)

  • Verb-modifying adverbs can go before and after the main verb (slowly moved; moved slowly)


 

SVO vs. OSV


The canonical word order is also considered unmarked, as it conveys the most neutral message, with the stress (focus) naturally falling on the last lexical item of the sentence. This would be a sentence with which we start a conversation or an essay. Basically, this is the most common pattern of an opening sentence.


In writing, the canonical word order is presented as having no punctuation between the CORE elements:


Grammar | rules even kings. (Molière)

T F

On the other hand, the far less typical word order Object + Subject + Verb (OSV) is defined as noncanonical and, as such, is marked, as the disrupted word order causes the stress (focus) to shift, which, in writing, is often signaled by a comma:


Even kings, | grammar rules.

F1 T1 (F2)

In most cases, we place focus in the end of a sentence (end-focus). However, sometimes, we may choose to shift the focus to the beginning of the sentence to give it prominence (contrastive focus) or to establish a connection with the previous sentence (topicalization).


The result is a clause with the switched topic and focus positions or a clause with double focus (or even more than two points of focus).


 

Focus Fronting


In English, shifting an object to the beginning of a sentence makes it stand out—the process called focus fronting. Generally speaking, focus fronting refers to the initial placement of a core element that is normally found in post-verbal position. A comma placed after such an element—known as an introductory comma—helps identify the fronting, signaling disruption in the canonical word order.



Introductory Comma


An introductory comma in marked sentences signals the broken canonical word order and guides towards the core of the clause, specifically, its subject.



Placed immediately before the subject, an introductory comma functions as a topic-marker in an English sentence.

Unless it is very short, any introductory element in an English sentence, whether it’s a single word, a phrase, or an adverbial clause, is typically separated by a comma.


Here are a few examples, with the subjects being underlined:


That story, I will tell you another time. fronted direct object
Of fourteen women, ten were highly critical of the proposal. fronted prepositional phrase
In London, he did not commit any offence. fronted (introductory) adverbial (place) phrase
To please her mother, Alan cleaned the table. fronted (introductory) infinitival clause
Because she wasn't tired, Ellen skipped on her nap. fronted (introductory) adverbial (reason) clause
It’s a good idea, I think. fronted that-clause

 

Uses of Fronting


Speakers and writers often use fronting to:

  • Emphasize an element:

Why he chose to do it that way, we will probably never know.
Ten years, we’ve lived here.
Without my glasses, I can’t see a thing.
  • Emphasize a contrast (contrastive focus):

Pretty they aren't, but affordable they are.
  • Introduce the topic of an article:

Racked by drug scandals, rider departures, team withdrawals, and fighting among the leaders of the sport, the 94th Tour de France ended Sunday as one of the most tumultuous races in the event's history.
  • Introduce a topic shift (topicalization) while providing a bridge to old information (as at the start of a new paragraph):

Theories of global warming have been challenged by a small group of scientists. They claim that the warming occurs at various times and then slacks off for even longer periods of time. To test this theory, two scientists have mapped average climate temperature over several centuries.
  • Fronting may be applied to:

- Object noun phrases
- Prepositional phrases
- Adjectives phrases
- Various complements
- Reduced relative clauses

This, I don’t understand. fronted object
Across the plains, they galloped. fronted prepositional phrase
Skillful, he wasn't. fronted adjective
That he knows the answer, I don’t doubt. fronted that-clause
  • When adverbials of negative meaning (never, not once, rarely, seldom) are fronted for emphasis, they are followed by subject-verb inversion:

Not once did she thank me.
Seldom had we witnessed such bad behaviors.
Not a word would he say.
Not a moment did she waste.
Not one bottle did we leave behind.

No longer are they staying with us.
Never will I make that mistake again.
Under no circumstances will she return here.
Not until yesterday did he change his mind.
To no one will they admit their guilt.
  • Subject-verb inversion may be triggered by other elements (time/place adverbials, demonstrative pronouns, prepositional phrases) as well:

Down flew the jets.
Away goes my chance of winning!
Ah, here comes somebody—at last!
Along the road rolled the wagons.
Over the bridge marched the soldiers.
Ahead sat an old man.
Below is a restaurant.
In the doorway stood my brother.
On the very top of the hill lives a hermit.

📍 Notice that in cases of subject-verb inversion, no introductory comma should interrupt the core linking between the subject and the verb of the sentence.


(Read more about How to Write Better (in Any Language): The Universal Principles of Information Structure.)