Several years ago we went to a Russian dance performance and bought these very pretty Matryoshka dolls. We have them nicely lined up in order, from the largest to the smallest, in our sitting room.
Today I had the thought, ‘What if I line them up in a different order?’
I took a photo of my new arrangement because it reminded me of something that English language learners don’t often hear: that word order in English is flexible, especially in advanced English.
In these two lesson posts, we will cover
- what does it mean to rearrange word order for emphasis and why,
- when you should consider changing normal word order for emphasis in your writing, and
- how you can accomplish this without writing a grammatically incorrect sentence.
THE ‘WHAT’ AND THE ‘WHY’:
Every English language student is taught that word order in English is very important because it offers a clue to the meaning of the sentence. Take for example ‘noun + verb + object’, which is the most common simple sentence structure, and think about the difference in meaning between the two following sentences: ‘The dog chases the cat’ vs ‘the cat chases the dog’.
There are several other sentence types, including complex, compound, and compound-complex – something we will cover in another lesson. Suffice it to say that English word order tends to be predictable because it is widely used in all sentence types.
📚 However, the more you read in English and improve your conversational skills, the more you will encounter native structures that diverge from this neat order.
Before I show you some examples from literature, you may wonder why would a writer or speaker wish to change the established sentence structure?
✒️ Because by moving phrases or words around in a sentence, we are able to emphasise certain words differently than would be possible in a typical sentence format.
And once you can do this correctly and effectively in your own writing, your writing skills will advance to a new level.
Here are some fitting examples from Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849). I have included my own version of her sentences in italics, to illustrate how the sentence would appear according to ‘normal’ sentence structures. Take the opportunity to contrast these with Charlotte Bronte’s own more emphatic sentences:
It would appear that cheerfulness [is a matter which] depends fully as much on the state of things within as on the state of things without and around us. – Joyce
📙 ‘Cheerfulness, it would appear, is a matter which depends fully as much on the state of things within as on the state of things without and around us.’ – Charlotte Bronte, Shirley
Mr. Helstone was but half aware of the nature and strength of this animosity. – Joyce
📙 ‘Of the nature and strength of this animosity Mr. Helstone was but half aware.’ – Charlotte Bronte, Shirley
Or even this peculiar thought:
It is a noble occupation to hunt down vermin … – Joyce
📙 ‘To hunt down vermin is a noble occupation …’ – Charlotte Bronte, Shirley
What do these examples have in common?
👉 They all emphasise a particular clause by placing it at the opening of the sentence, ahead of the main simple sentence structure. So as readers we are introduced right away to the importance of these phrases or words – ‘cheerfulness’ in the first example, ‘of the nature and strength of this animosity’ in the second, and ‘to hunt down vermin’ in the third.
Some of these are verbal phrases, others simple nouns, etc. Yet the important point here is that it is possible to rearrange English word orders and maintain the original meaning.
Do we always move the phrases or words we wish to emphasise to the front of the sentence to achieve this effect? No, not necessarily.
👉 We can also move them to the end of a sentence, such as in this line from Shirley:
📙 ‘Mr. Helstone returned the salutation of the individual in the gig very stiffly indeed‘. – Charlotte Bronte, Shirley
Mr. Helstone stiffly returned the salutation of the individual in the gig. – Joyce
In other words, any complement to the noun, object, an adjective or adverb can be emphasised by placing them either before or after the main simple sentence structure. If they are placed at the front of the sentence, they are normally followed by a comma; if at the end of the sentence, they usually will be written without any comma separating them from the rest of the sentence. In the next lesson post we will look at how you can begin to achieve the same effect in your own writing without breaking any grammatical rules!