Word order can make or ruin a sentence. Word order refers the arrangement of words in a phrase, clause, or sentence. In many languages, including English, word order plays an important part in determining the meaning of an expression.
Like other aspects of language use, word order is guided by rules. As noted in an earlier post – Grammar Rules for Effective Writing – the rules of grammar are designed to help us communicate clearly, both in our speech and in our writing. The rules of grammar shape the structures of any language from the smallest to the largest unit. When proper grammar is absent, writing is sloppy, inconsistent, and difficult to read. To put it bluntly, we need grammar to make sense.
In this article, we’ll examine some rules guiding word order.
If you start a sentence with an incomplete phrase or clause, such as While crossing the street or Forgotten by history, it must be followed closely by the person or thing it describes. Furthermore, that person or thing is always the main subject of the sentence. Breaking this rule results in the dreaded, all-too-common dangling modifier, or dangler.
Dangler: Forgotten by history, his autograph was worthless.
The problem: his autograph shouldn’t come right after history, because he was forgotten, not his autograph.
Correct: He was forgotten by history, and his autograph was worthless.
Dangler: Born in Chicago, my first book was about the 1871 fire.
The problem: the sentence wants to say I was born in Chicago, but to a careful reader, it says that my first book was born there.
Correct: I was born in Chicago, and my first book was about the 1871 fire.
Adding ‘-ing’ to a verb (as in crossing in the example that follows) results in a versatile word called a participle, which can be a noun, adjective, or adverb. Rule 1 applies to all sentences with a participle in the beginning. Participles require placing the actor immediately after the opening phrase or clause.
Dangler: While crossing the street, the bus hit her. (Wrong: the bus was not crossing.)
While crossing the street, she was hit by a bus.
She was hit by a bus while crossing the street.
Place descriptive words and phrases as close as is practical to the words they modify.
Ill-advised: I have a cake that mum baked in my lunch bag.
The word cake is too far from lunch bag, making the sentence ambiguous and silly.
Better: In my lunch bag is a cake that Mollie baked.
A sentence fragment is usually an oversight, or a bad idea. It occurs when you have only a phrase or dependent clause but are missing an independent clause.
Sentence fragment: After the show ended.
Full sentence: After the show ended, we had coffee.
Where a number of adjectives are used together, the order depends on the function of the adjective. Generally, the order of adjectives in English is:
Quantity or determiner
The quantity or determiner tells us if the noun is singular or plural, definite or indefinite.
For example, a, an, the, my, your, four, those, some etc.
Quality or opinion
Explains what we think about something. This is usually our opinion, attitude or observations. These adjectives almost always come before all other adjectives. For example: beautiful, boring, stupid, delicious, useful, lovely, comfortable
Tells us how big or small something is. Words like big, small, tall, huge, tiny, skinny, fat, etc., fall here.
Shape / Weight / Length
Tells us about the shape of something or how long or short it is. It can also refer to the weight of someone or something. Examples include round, square, circular, skinny, fat, heavy, straight, long, short, etc.
Tells us the general condition or state of something, e.g., broken, cold, hot, wet, hungry, rich, easy, difficult, dirty, etc.
Tells us how old someone or something is. For example, old, young, new, ancient, antique, etc.
The colour or approximate colour of something. Adjectives in this class include green, white, blue, reddish, purple, etc.
The pattern or design of something. Examples are striped, spotted, checked, flowery, etc.
Tells us where something is from. American, British, Italian, eastern, Australian, Chilean, etc.
What is the thing made of or constructed of? Examples are gold, wooden, silk, paper, synthetic, cotton, woollen, etc.
What is it for? These adjectives often end in ‘–ing’ such as sleeping (bag), gardening (gloves), shopping (bag), wedding (dress), etc.
If you look at the examples above, you can ask… what are the gloves used for? (gardening) What is the bag used for? (shopping)
And after these adjectives, we have the Noun: The person or thing that is being described.
Let’s apply this in some sentences.
She was a beautiful, tall, thin, young, black-haired, Scottish woman.
What an amazing, little, old, Chinese cup and saucer!
I love that really big old green antique car that always parked at the end of the street.
My sister has a big, beautiful, tan and white bulldog.