Word Order in English for ESL learners: who, what, where, how and why


Word order is super important in English.  This is true for native speakers and for those who are not native speakers. Either way you cut it, especially in the context of business and law, word order can change the meaning of a statement to the point of incurring liability for the speaker or drafter.

Here is the rub: many English learners have a strange perception of word order in English. Some of what they say is cute; but often, it is either dangerously wrong or so cumbersome it becomes confusing.

Here is an example of what I mean. Let’s say I said:

The goods will be, by overnight train, delivered to XZP by TCL, because there is an airline strike, on May 1 2014.

There are a couple of things going on here. First is the use of the passive voice.  This is hardly ever the preferred way to write a sentence like this. The other is the breaking up of verb with an intervening phrase and having to use all these commas because of the awkward structure. The last but not least is that the word order used creates unnecessary confusion and ambiguity. Right off the bat I am tempted to ask: what does the date refer to? The airline strike? Or the date TCL must deliver the goods?

How about the following edit:

TCL will deliver the goods to XZP on May 1, 2014 by overnight train because there is an airline strike.


Because there is an airline strike, TCL will deliver the goods to XZP on May 1, 2014 by overnight train.

In the first version, we have used the active voice and so the subject, “TCL” is at the very head of the sentence. This is the preferred style in English and especially in legal English except in very rare circumstances. The other thing that is good about this sentence is that the main verb and its auxiliary are close together with nothing coming between. To the extent possible you want to follow this style in constructing verbs in English sentences. Never break up your verb unless absolutely essential. (For example with an adverb that is meant to show emphasis.) The last thing that is better about this sentence is that the word order is preferred in English.

This brings me to a brief discussion about word order. In English, we follow the following order (as a general rule).

  1. Subject
  2. Verb
  3. Object

These three parts of a sentence fit under the following paradigm: Who or what; what, where, when, how and why. In that order. So, first comes the subject which answers the question who or what. Then comes the verb which answers the question what. So for example:

TCL will deliver the goods… In this sentence, the subject (or who/what) is TCL. The verb “will deliver” answers the question, “what will TCL do.”

“The goods” is a noun that functions as the object but it is also part of the second what – what is the verb referring to? So in fact, in English, the object goes with the verb which goes with the second “what” question as far as placement in the sentence.

We are left with where, when, how and why. So, in the sentence at bar, ask yourself “where” are the goods being delivered? To XZP. So this comes next. TCL will deliver the goods to XZP. Importantly, “where” comes before “when”on May 1, 2014 ;  and “when” is followed by “how” – by overnight train. Finally, the “why” is explained “because there is an airline strike.”

In the second example we used, we put the “how” at the head of the sentence, separating it off from the rest of the sentence.

Because there is an airline strike, TCL will deliver the goods to XZP on May 1, 2014 by overnight train.

It is what is called an “adverbial clause.” Here it is a dépendent clause that explains the action in the sentence; but don’t ask me to elaborate on adverbial clauses since I am not really a grammarian and this is just too Advanced for me to go into right now.

That said, obviously, not all sentences contain as many moving parts as in our example. So these rule apply only when a sentence contains multiple parts and you have to decide how to order all the words.

The short of it to recap: keep subject and verb as close together as possible. Do not split your verbs and put words in between the auxiliary and main verb if possible. Finally, follow the basic rule of ordering your sentence this way: who, what, where, when, how, and why – in that order.

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