Word Order and the Magic of Information Structure in English and Turkish
Updated: May 5
The twentieth century marked the start of our navel gazing era. Away from the outward explorations of distant foreign lands, we decidedly turned inward—to introspectively discover the far-away worlds inside us.
As part of this self-exploration, linguists discovered universal mechanisms of communication. One such mechanism governs the way we present—or structure—information. Linguists call this mechanism the principle of information structure.
Cross-linguistically, information structure has been found to be remarkably universal. Its main points are somewhat intuitive:
We find it easier to communicate by breaking our massages into individual pieces of information.
A piece of information can be defined as an intonation unit containing a stress. A single clause must have at least one intonation unit, but a longer clause may have more than one intonation unit.
Old vs. New Information (Topic vs. Focus)
Each piece of information we want to communicate, we tend to start with some old or given information and end with the new or the most important information.
Linguists refer to old / given information as topic and to new / important information as focus.
In many languages, the basic structure of a clause requires that the subject be placed in the beginning, meaning that the subject and the topic typically coincide. In contrast, the focus typically occurs towards the end of a sentence.
Canonical Word Order & Neutral Stress
We use intonation, stress, and word order variations to distinguish old piece of information from new piece of information and to make certain elements prominent in the conversation.
Linguists have established that each language favors a specific word order, called canonical (basic, default). In English, it is Subject–Verb–Object (SVO). In Turkish, it is Subject–Object–Verb (SOV).
They also discovered that the canonical word order is emphatically neutral, with no element particularly standing out.
When we want to sound or appear neutral and objective, we tend to speak in proper (canonical) sentences. In such sentences, we use only neutral stress to distinguish between the topic or the old information (by applying a milder neutral topic-stress) and the focus or the new information (by applying a stronger neutral focus-stress).
Focus Stress in Canonical Sentences
In any given language, the canonical word order follows a certain characteristic natural stress pattern. Canonical sentences tend to emphasize its focus position, the position that expresses the new or the most important information.
As a sentence moves from its subject/topic to its predicate, it shifts from a milder topic-stress to the stronger focus-stress:
Subject ⟹ Verb ⟹ Object
TOPIC ⟹ FOCUS
Topic-Stress ⟹ Focus-Stress
In canonical sentences, the focus tends to be a predicate element: an object (verb complement), subject complement, object complement, or adverbial.
In English, the focus-stress thus occurs post-verbally and falls on the last stressed word within a sentence:
My mother saw John AT THE MARKET.
In Turkish, predicate elements precede main verbs, so the most typical position of the focus stress in Turkish is preverbal—specifically, on the word immediately before the main verb:
Annem, John’u PAZARDA görmüş.
Emphatic (Contrastive) Stress
In conversations, however, we get emotional. To produce different emotional meanings, we have to break the linear, neutral flow of canonical sentences by:
(i) shifting words around,
(ii) shifting the stress around,
(iii) shifting both words and stress around.
And here comes the magic of information structure!
As if by the law of physics, any friction in the stress’s movement adds to it an additional informative load. In other words, any deviation from the linear, neutral flow of the canonical word order triggers a much stronger, emphatic stress—the so-called contrastive stress.
Stress shifting makes this an excellent strategy for making elements truly prominent. Vocally, we can change the meaning just by placing stress on any stressable words in a sentence. Since almost all words are stressable, save for function words (English particles or Turkish clitics), any sentence may have as many discursive meanings as the number of stressable words within it, depending on the focus-stress position.
To verify the focus position, linguists often apply a question & answer test, as shown below. It is often assumed that answers to specific questions are focused elements.
Here is an example of a canonical sentence and the focusing strategies used in speech and writing. Notice that, in speech, focus-stress can be vocally shifted just by changing the stress position, while in writing, focusing almost always requires rephrasing (the new focuses shown in CAPS):
In speech, to emphasize something, we simply place the prosodic (sentence) stress on the position we want. Moreover, using intonation and stress, we are able to differentiate between structures with the same word order, as shown above.
In writing, however, as our options are limited to word order variations, we have had to develop punctuation, which, among other things, have become an effective supplementary tool for information structure.
Punctuation as a Stressing Device
While in speech we use intonation, stress, and word order variations to communicate, in writing we have learned to manipulate word order variations and punctuation to signal semantic and pragmatic differences between statements.
While no punctuation is allowed in a canonical or unmarked sentence between its main elements, regarded as its CORE, in a noncanonical sentence, punctuation signals its markedness, i.e., its disrupted word order.
Punctuation functions as a system of syntactic stressing strategies, which mirrors semantic and pragmatic stresses we vocalize in sentences.
Such disruption typically results from two main strategies employed:
Fronting (topicalization): Refers to moving a non-subject element in front before the subject to render it more prominent. Fronting often involves moving an element that is normally focused in a sentence to convert it from neutral focus to a more emphatic contrastive focus. The fronted element may also become a contrastive topic if it represents old information that refers to the previous sentence(s).
Backgrounding: Refers to moving an element to the end of a sentence to render it less prominent. Backgrounding typically create an effect of an afterthought.
In English, which has a very strict word order, these strategies are more common in speech than in writing. In Turkish, which syntactically has a “freer” word order, both strategies are widely employed in both speech and writing.
Fronting & Backgrounding
Two main strategies for changing the word order are fronting and backgrounding.
By shifting a non-subject element to the sentence-initial position, before the subject, we make it prominent and the sentence marked. Such shifting is called fronting or topicalization. Likewise, shifting an element to the end of the sentence is called backgrounding. It often creates an effect of afterthought.
English Fronting & Introductory Comma
In English, fronting is often used to move a normally focused element to create a contrastive focus. Therefore, the elements that get fronted tend to be essential complements, and they must be separated by a comma from the rest of the sentence. Such comma is often referred to as an introductory comma.
The elements that are typically fronted in English are:
Direct or indirect objects (verb complements)
Nominal or adjectival predicatives (subject complements)
Prepositional phrases (object complements)
Comment that-clause, object wh-clause (complement clauses)
Here are a few examples, with the subjects underlined and topic shown in bold:
Some things, you forget. Other things, you never do. fronted direct object
Skillful, he wasn't. fronted subject predicative (adjective)
Of fourteen women, ten were highly critical of the proposal. fronted prepositional phrase
It’s a good idea, I think. fronted that-clause
Why he chose to do it that way, we will probably never know. fronted wh-clause
Their heads in their hands, the defendants sat in the dock. fronted absolute clause
Other fronted elements include nonessential elements, namely dependent (subordinate) clauses and adverbials:
Adverbial clauses (place, time, purpose, reason, condition)
Infinitival clauses (reason, purpose)
Participle clauses (-ing and -ed)
Adverb (verb modifier)
Adverbials (place, time, manner)
In legal documents, many words used are legalese jargon. fronted (place) adverbial
To please her mother, Alan cleaned the table. fronted infinitival clause
After we have studied all aspects of the complaint, we will make a recommendation. fronted time clause
Because she wasn't tired, Ellen skipped on her nap. fronted adverbial (reason) clause
If so, I will call you tomorrow. fronted elliptical condition clause
Angry, the man sat down. fronted reduced relative clause
Dented, the old scooter still stood there. fronted reduced relative clause or reduced -ed participle clause
Established in 1905, our company takes great pride in its reputation. fronted -ed participle clause
Seizing the opportunity, I presented an overview of our plans. fronted -ing participle clause
Because, non-CORE elements are considered optional (save for adverbial complements), they are expected to move more freely.
English Backgrounding & Afterthought
In English, any dependent element that is not normally or canonically terminal may be backgrounded.
I presented an overview of our plans, seizing the opportunity. backgrounded -ing participle clause
The man sat down, angry. backgrounded reduced relative clause
The old scooter still stood there, dented. backgrounded reduced -ed participle or reduced relative clause terminal
Ten women were highly critical of the proposal—out of fourteen women. backgrounded prepositional phrase
The defendants sat in the dock, their heads in their hands. backgrounded absolute clause
In English, backgrounded elements may be joined asyndetically (without a conjunction) or syndetically (with a conjunction), with the effect of an afterthought:
Each boy’s parents pay $2,000 a term in fees, plus extras. backgrounded phrase
I was subjected to crippling fines, in addition to usurious interest on unpaid debts. backgrounded phrase
We don’t have anyone to captain the team, now Tina’s resigned—unless you’re interested, of course. backgrounded summative modifier
Syndetically added elements are often postposed coordinated or new elements—often for a contrastive effect:
They had found Kim but not Pat guilty of perjury.
They had found Kim guilty of perjury, but not Pat. postposed afterthought
I spoke to her only briefly.
I spoke to her, but only briefly. new element as afterthought
They are often attached as free modifiers that depend on the same word, only in a fuller (summative) or more particularizing way (resumptive):
Hughie wanted to be a star, a footballer in the big league. backgrounded summative modifier
He had been a fool, a presumptuous fool. backgrounded resumptive modifier
Backgrounded elements should be marked off graphically by a comma or a dash, especially if they do not fit into the structure of the sentence:
There was only one road: the main road, the road that struck due east. backgrounded resumptive modifier
And we’ll talk it over, every bit of it. backgrounded summative modifier
His daily trips were really very easy—about a mile and a half. backgrounded summative modifier
Her face was very pale—a greyish pallor. backgrounded summative modifier
Sentences with a backgrounded modifier may have fronted as well as backgrounded elements. The modifying part may also repeat the word the modifier depends on—usually for an emphatic effect:
In silence they stood, in mortal silence. fronted adverbial and backgrounded resumptive modifier
English Introductory Comma = Topic/Subject-Marker
One can argue, for instance, that the so-called introductory comma essentially functions as a topic-marker in both English. As English topic and subject often coincide, the introductory comma is also a subject-marker.
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.
Placed right before the subject, an introductory comma essentially functions as both a topic-marker and a subject-marker in English noncanonical sentences.
In English, comma placed after an introductory element—known as an introductory comma—does three things:
By separating the topic and the subject of the sentence, it draws attention to both of them.
By creating a short pause after the topic and before the subject, it gives us time to process the disruption of the canonical word order (through fronting).
In case of a fronted object or a noun phrase, a comma may also prevent confusion by keeping the object and the subject separate.
A Special Case of English Fronting: Subject-Verb Inversion
Not all fronting cases are the same. Some trigger subject-verb inversion, which moves elements to the front of the sentence while simultaneously moving the subject after the verb. As no punctuation can separate the essential elements of the English sentence, no introductory comma should be used in such sentences:
Across the plains flew a mighty eagle.
Some things were easy to forget.
Only after we have studied all aspects of the complaint will we make a recommendation.
Notice that in cases of English subject-verb inversion, NO introductory comma should interrupt the core linking between the subject and the verb of the sentence.
In Turkish, many sentences are structured around topics, rather than subjects (as in English).
Moreover, when the subject of a sentence is a pronoun, it is not always overtly expressed within the sentence. The subject is then inferred from the predicate’s person and number suffix markings, with the 3rd singular-person predicate being effected by the absence of a person suffix:
yaptın buradayım gideceklerdi sevmişti
you’ve done I am here they would have gone she/he/they had loved
Turkish is thus a null-subject language: It is abounded with independent clauses and sentences that lack an explicit (overt) subject.
The obligatory marking of the Turkish predicates renders the use of subject pronouns redundant. So, many sentences end up “dropping” their pronoun subjects. Linguists refer to the languages that “drop” their pronouns as pro-drop languages.
Düşünüyorum, öyleyse varım.
I think; therefore, I am.
Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum.”
Turkish is a null-subject, pro-drop, and topic-prominent language, while English is a subject-prominent language.
In Turkish literature, there is NO consensus on the nature of this comma. In fact, this particular case of punctuation is badly understudied.
I have encountered all kinds of descriptions/ explanations about the nature of this comma placed after the subject. While almost everyone appreciates the importance of its disambiguating (clarifying) role in the sentence (by separating the subject from any subsequent look-alike objects), it is never prescribed but somewhat recommended an under unclear terms.
The Turkish Language Society (Türk Dil Kurumu, TDK) recommends that a comma be used in long sentences to indicate the subject if it is placed far from the predicate.
But how long is a long sentence and how far should a subject be from the predicate? What about shorter sentences with a disambiguating comma, like this one:
O, saldırını göstermeye başladı.
He began to show aggression.
Turkish Noncanonical Sentence: Inverted (Devrik) Structure (OSV / OVS / VSO / VOS)
In the Turkish prescriptive framework, a noncanonical sentence, commonly referred to as an inverted (devrik) sentence, is regarded as a deviation, an anomaly, or, at best, the author’s stylistic choice.
While English speakers only occasionally deviate from the canonical word order (SVO), Turkish speakers reportedly alternate between sentences with the canonical (SOV) and noncanonical (OSV / OVS / VSO) word order.
Another difference between English and Turkish inversion is that the Turkish model does not differentiate between subject-verb inversion, which is regarded a special case of inversion in English. In fact, Turkish speakers often start their sentences with verbs, including imperative ones.
As the Turkish word order is more “flexible” comparing to the English word order, the shifting positions of the subject and the verb in a Turkish sentence do not trigger any distinctive classification.
As it happens, Turkish inverted (devrik) structures, previously viewed as a rare occasion mostly encountered in poetry, are much more prevalent and important than previously thought.
Pragmatic Functions of Inverted (Devrik) Sentences in Turkish
The inversion, as it turns out, serves a crucial pragmatic function in Turkish. For example, if you read these sentences aloud, you will pronounce them with different emphases:
Canonical (SOV) Cem konuşmayı veriyor.
Noncanonical (OSV) Konuşmayı Cem veriyor.
Noncanonical (OVS) Konuşmayı veriyor Cem.
Noncanonical (VSO) Veriyor Cem konuşmayı.
Noncanonical (VOS) Veriyor konuşmayı Cem.
You will mildly stress the first word (underlined), strongly emphasize the word positioned immediately before the verb (IN CAPS), and deemphasize the words in the end of some sentences (in italics):
Canonical (SOV) Cem, KONUŞMAYI veriyor.
Cem is giving the talk.
Noncanonical (OSV) Konuşmayı(,) CEM veriyor.
The talk is being given by Cem.
or It’s Cem who is giving the talk
Noncanonical (OVS) KONUŞMAYI veriyor Cem.
It’s the talk that Cem is giving.
or It’s the talk that is being given by Cem.
Noncanonical (VSO) VERİYOR Cem konuşmayı.
Noncanonical (VOS) VERİYOR konuşmayı Cem.
Linguists refer to the mild stress as TOPIC-STRESS, to the stronger stress as FOCUS-STRESS, and to the deemphasizing as BACKGROUNDING.
Turkish Canonical Topic & Focus
In the Turkish canonical word order, the subject/topic is positioned sentence-initially and the focus is positioned preverbally.
Cem, KONUŞMAYI veriyor.
Cem is giving the talk.
In this sentence, the sentence-initial subject and the topic is Cem and the focus is the preverbal konuşmayı.
Canonical Topic: Aboutness Topic
The topic of the sentence (Cem), which is also the subject of the sentence, tells us what or who the sentence is about. So, we call it the aboutness topic.
The topic presents information we may be familiar with (the given information) or have learned from the previous conversation (the old information). In Turkish, the topic is generally sentence-initial.
Turkish Canonical Focus: Presentational Focus
The focus (konuşmayı), on the other hand, marks the point we want to make, i.e., the new or the most important information we want to convey.
In canonical sentences, the focus-stress is referred to as the presentational focus. In Turkish, the focus is always preverbal.
In this canonical sentence, the focus-stress, which is supposed to present new information, falls on the definite direct object, the talk, which obviously cannot be new.
The way out of this conundrum is to pronounce the sentence with a neutral emphasis that has a presentational quality.
Although both the subject, Cem, and the direct object, konuşmayı, are definite, they are not presupposed by the discourse. It means that, even though the focus information in the sentence is new, such information is distributed throughout the entire sentence, making the entire context sound neutral or presentational.
It would help to imagine this sentence as part of the following conversation:
A. Ne yapıyorsunuz? Bize gelsenize.
B. Cem, konuşmayı veriyor. Sonra belki geliriz.
A. What are you doing? Want to come over?
B. Cem is giving the talk. We may stop by later.
In Turkish speech, discourse-presuppositional information is likely to be omitted, including discourse-related subjects and pronouns, and even objects. Here, however, we cannot omit anything. All the elements have an informative value, i.e., they all present some new (neutral) information.
Presentational Focus ⇒ General Information Questions
Presentational focus is typically found in answers to general information questions:
A: Ne oldu?
A: What happened?
B1: Ayşe, kitabı kaybetmiş.
B1: It seems Ayşe lost the book.
B2: Ayşe, kitabı Ali’ye vermiş.
B2: It seems Ayşe gave the book to Ali.
Turkish Noncanonical Contrastive (Emphatic) Topic & Focus
The topic-focus stress pattern applies to the noncanonical variant as well:
Konuşmayı (,) CEM veriyor.
The talk is being given by Cem. (or It’s Cem who is giving the talk.)
However, when you read it, you will pronounce both the sentence-initial topic-stress and the preverbal focus-stress with a touch stronger emphasis, as if you are emphatically responding to someone’s specific question. This emphatic stress is called contrastive.
If we shift the word order in a sentence, it means that we want to emphasize something in the sentence.
In this case, the definite object is moved to the front, ahead of the subject. Such movement is called fronting or topicalization.
There are at least two different scenarios for the contrastive reading. Imagine this sentence as part of two different conversations:
1. Interrogative wh-questions (notice that, by definition, the focus-stress always falls on the wh-question):
A. Konuşmayı KİM veriyor?
B. Konuşmayı (,) CEM veriyor.
A. Who is giving the talk?
B.The talk is being given by Cem.
2. Yes/No or alternative interrogative questions:
A. Konuşmayı (,) ALI mi veriyor?
B. Hayır, konuşmayı (,) CEM veriyor.
A. Is Ali giving the talk?
B. No, it’s Cem who is giving the talk.
A. Konuşmayı ALI mi yoksa Cem mi veriyor?
B. Konuşmayı (,) CEM veriyor.
A. Is the talk being given by Ali or Cem? (or Is it Ali or Cem who is giving the talk?)
B. It’s Cem who is giving the talk.
This clearly shows that the interpretation of the marked sentence depends on the context. Thus, the contrastive emphasis has a strong pragmatic property.
Contrastive Focus ⇒ Yes/No and Alternative Questions
Yes/No and alternative questions produce answers with contrastive information. Any word positioned immediately before the verb can be contrastively focused.
For instance, here, the speaker B corrects the speaker A’s misinformation by contrastively focusing the correct information in the canonical word order:
A: Sanırım Ayşe (,) kitabı Ali'ye vermiş. presentational focus
A: I believe Ayşe gave the book to Ali.
B1: Hayır, kitabı Ali'ye MEHMET verdi. contrastive focus
B1: No, it was MEHMET who gave the book to Ali.
B2: Hayır, Ayşe (,) Ali'ye NOTLARI verdi. contrastive focus
B2: No, it was THE LECTURE NOTES that Ayşe gave to Ali.
B3: Hayır, Ayşe (,) kitabı BANA verdi. contrastive focus
B3: No, Ayşe gave the book to ME.
While in speech, mere intonation is sufficient to mark the stress, in writing, the stressed word(s) needs to be positioned immediately before the verb.
Read about what types of Turkish words/phrases tend to occur in the canonical (immediately preverbal) focus position in different types of sentences.
Turkish Topicalization by Fronting (Defocusing) & Focusing Strategies
In Turkish, direct/indirect objects and time/place/manner adverbials often receive a topic interpretation when they are fronted to the sentence-initial position before the subject.
Such strategy is called topicalization or defocusing.
Londra’da(,) biz iki sene yaşadık.
In London, we lived for two years.
Bana parayı(,) Ali verdi.
It was Ali who gave me the money.
The last sentence demonstrates an instance of topicalization when constituents may leave the subject in the immediately preverbal position, where it is contrastively focused.
By topicalizing both the direct and indirect objects, we end up defocusing them. Moreover, by shifting the subject Ali to the immediately preverbal position, we end up focusing the subject.
In fact, placing an element immediately before the verb is one of the most common focusing strategies in Turkish.
Post-Verbal Backgrounding in Turkish
Finally, there is a widespread agreement in the Turkish literature that the post-verbal area is syntactically and pragmatically different. Unlike the preverbal elements, postverbal elements cannot be focused.
Post-verbal elements are always understandable from the previous discourse:
[Bu ev], [benim İŞ YERİME uzak], hem de [VEREmem] [ben bu evin kirasını].
Topic Focus Focus Background
This house is far from my workplace; besides, I can't afford it.
The noun phrase bu evin kirası (the rent of this house) has been backgrounded to the post-verbal position. Since the same noun phrase has been introduced to the discourse in the previous clause, the hearer easily recovers it.
Sentences with post-predicate elements are very common in both written and spoken Turkish.
In speech, backgrounding is used as a common verb-focusing strategy.
Yapma sen bunu, ne olursun!
Don’t do that, I am begging you!
In Turkish literary, this marked word-order is often exploited to capture the reader’s attention by creating a dramatic or humorous effect of surprise, suspense, or shock.
Kıvılcım gibi çıkıyordu hanımın dudakları arasından, her kelime.
Each word came out like sparks of fire from between the lady’s lips.
Bogradic Bey vurulmuştu sonunda. Gençti, üzülmüştü vurulmasına.
The Bey from Bogradic was shot, in the end. He was young. He was upset at his being shot.
Çıkıp kendilerini savunsunlar(,) bu haksızlıkları yapanlar.
Let them come out and defend themselves—those who committed those injustices.
Backgrounding is often used in poetry and , allowing the author to play with rhythm, stress, and emphasis.