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I learned the English word order SVOMPT (Subject, Verb, Objects, Manner, Place, Time) rule at school. Although it was a quite straightforward rule when I was studying, now (under more influence from Slavic languages) I find myself not obeying it sometimes.

So far, I haven't noticed that others do not understand what I say, but that could be because most of the people I speak English with are also from the Slavic language group.

We usually put the most important part (the one we want to emphasise) at the end in Slavic languages. Also, the word order is quite relaxed in general. How about English?

Is a sentence where one does not apply the SVOMPT rule easily understandable for an English native speaker?

I found this page on A guide to learn English which deals with direct and indirect objects. Is word order switching also common in other cases?

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8  
Talk like Yoda, we don't. But understand Yoda word order, we can. –  mcalex Feb 26 '13 at 17:28

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Word order is very important in English because it is so lightly inflected.

The core SVO sequence is usually obligatory in declarative sentences, and there are fixed transformations for negatives and interrogatives.

But your MPT pieces are 'Adjuncts' - not part of the core sequence - and may move around. Moves to the front of the sentence are common:

I bought a boat last summer. ... Last summer I bought a boat.
We take taxis a lot in New York. ... In New York we take taxis a lot.
He finished the job as quickly as he could. ... As quickly as he could, he finished the job.

And a 'light' Adjunct (one of few words) may sometimes be moved to the inside of the core sequence:

I quickly polished off the sandwiches.

Note that "I polished off quickly the sandwiches" is not acceptable (although as Russell Borogove points out, it's perfectly understandable). However, a light adjunct may occupy that position if the Object is markedly heavier:

We found to our dismay that he had already started working.

Such intrusions are often set off with pauses in speech, and commas in writing:

We found, to our dismay, that he had already started working.

ADDED:
As far as emphasis goes, we tend in English to rely more on vocal stress than on sentence position; position is more likely to be determined by contextual rhythm, what the previous sentence was or the previous speaker said. In both writing and we speech we also have 'information packaging' strategies that throw the focus of the sentence onto a specific piece of information: It was last summer that I bought a boat. What I bought last summer was a boat.

It's a very complicated subject about which many fat books have been written. By and large, if you keep your SVO together, your listeners will figure out what you mean pretty easily.

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3  
Mumble, mumble, royal order of adjectives, mumble. –  tchrist Feb 26 '13 at 14:11
    
Regarding the first example: I bought a boat last summer. ... Last summer I bought a boat.. Are there interpreted in the same way? In my language the first sentence would imply that the more important information (what the reader should follow) is when I bought rather then what I bought...in the second vice versa. –  MasterPJ Feb 26 '13 at 14:20
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@MasterPJ That sort of information resides more in vocal stress than sentence position; position will depend more on contextual flow. And we have 'information packaging' strategies for focus: It was last summer that I bought a boat, It was a boat I bought last summer, It was I who bought a boat last summer - that sort of thing. –  StoneyB Feb 26 '13 at 14:55
    
@MasterPJ and tchrist's link points you to some of the 'microordering' rules. –  StoneyB Feb 26 '13 at 14:56
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Word order can change emphasis in English, but there is no simple rule. In this boat-buying example, it doesn't make a difference. Mostly we show emphasis in speech by inflecting the word to be emphasized, i.e. saying it a little louder and with a rise in pitch (maybe someone else can explain this better if you don't know what I mean); in print we put it in italics or all caps, like "Yesterday I bought a BOAT" versus "YESTERDAY I bought a boat." –  Jay Feb 26 '13 at 14:57

This is someone's idea of what constitutes ideal word order in an English sentence. There are plenty of web pages that'll tell you all about it, e.g. this one and this one.

Good writers don't blindly follow such rules, however. They vary word order for many reasons: style, focus, emphasis, rhythm, sound, rhyme, etc.

What's important is knowing how changing the word order affects the meaning of your sentences. Unlike Japanese, Latin, and Basque, English is a word-order language: Man bites dog means something different from Dog bites man, and Bites man dog is ungrammatical.

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Subject-verb-object should almost always be given in that order for a declarative sentence. (The rules are slightly different for a question.) But the modifiers -- your MPT -- do not come in any fixed order like that.

Whether I say "I bought a boat with cash in Plymouth yesterday." or "I bought a boat yesterday in Plymouth with cash." or any of the other orderings makes no difference to the meaning of the sentence, while generally all these modifiers come at the end.

As Stoneyb says, there are times when you can move the modifiers around in relation to the SVO. The rules for this are not simple. I'm hard pressed to tell you what the rules are. Let's see...

Modifiers for time are often placed at the beginning: "Yesterday I bought a boat." "In June I bought a boat." These mean the same thing as putting the modifier at the end.

Less often, modifiers for place can be moved to the beginning: "In Plymouth I bought a boat." "On the beach the boat sat." This is unusual and tends to put an emphasis on the place.

Other modifiers, hmm. "With cash I bought a boat", with the intent to say that you paid cash rather than using a check or credit card, would be considered very odd and jarring. But if someone gave you money, and you then used it to buy a boat, you could say, "With the cash I bought a boat" and that would be considered very natural.

Anyone else able to give some rules for this?

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Really? We learned the "place before time - always, forever, in each case and absolutely!!!"-rule. (That is, when they go together. If "time" is at the beginning of a sentence, SPO follow, and "place" is at the end, that would be OK, too.) Does it no longer hold true? –  Stephen Feb 26 '13 at 20:42
    
"I bought a boat in Plymouth on Friday." "I bought a boat on Friday in Plymouth." Both are perfectly valid. "On Friday I bought a boat in Plymouth." Perfectly good. "In Plymouth I bought a boat on Friday." Sounds awkward but valid. Etc. I am not aware of the rule that you are talking about. I doubt that most native speakers have ever heard of such a rule. –  Jay Oct 1 '13 at 21:13
    
Interesting. There is a question at ELU about a rule "time before place", english.stackexchange.com/questions/60520/…. The "place before time" can be found at e.g. grammar-test.englet.com/word-order & de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Englische_Grammatik & englisch-hilfen.de/en/grammar/satzstellung_2.htm & (to be continued) –  Stephen Oct 9 '13 at 18:20
    
(continuation) bbc.co.uk/dna/mble/html/NF2712585?thread=4456962 where I found "At the end of the sentence: place before time; Its called linguistic typology and its the matter of adpositional phrases in a sentence. Sentence pattern is usually SVO, however, a lot of variations are possible. German and Japanese have a different word order (time before place)." i.e. "place before time" is used in contrast to "time before place"! Thus, don't tell the pupils "It is usually just the other way round than the usage in your native language", (to be continued) –  Stephen Oct 9 '13 at 18:21
1  
Yes, it shouldn't be a capital offense. Maybe a lower-case offense. –  Jay Oct 21 '13 at 13:24

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