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Syntax is extremely important in the English language. Minor changes in word order can alter the entire meaning of a sentence. As a general rule, English is a SVO language. The subject, the verb, and the object(s) of a sentence typically appear in that order:

Madeline [subject] purchased [verb] the new J.K. Rowling novel [object].

Like countless other aspects of English, there are notable exceptions to the SVO “rule.” In this lesson, we’re going to look at some specific types of sentences that require you to deviate from the conventional subject-verb-object structure.

Yes/No Questions

When asking questions that require a “yes or no” answer, you will need to split the verb into two parts. The main verb of the sentence will still be located between the subject and the object. However, the auxiliary, or “helping,” verb appears at the beginning of the sentence:

Is [auxiliary verb] Ray [subject] taking [main verb] classes at the English Island in Atlanta [object]?

In other words, yes/no questions follow a VSVO structure. If we rewrite this question in the form of a statement, both parts of the verb appear after the subject in their more familiar role.

Ray [subject] is taking [verb] classes at the English Island in Atlanta [object].

“Why/How” Questions

When a question begins with a “question word,” such as who, why, where, when, or how, you must adjust the word order in a manner to similar to that of a yes/no question. In addition to the helping verb appearing before the subject, the question word becomes the object of the sentence:

When [object] does [auxiliary verb] the English exam [subject] start [main verb]?

This OVSV order applies only to the why/how question. If you were to answer this question, you’d follow the conventional SVO order:

The English exam [subject] starts [verb] at eight o’clock sharp [object].

Relative Clauses

A relative clause provides descriptive information about a noun clause in a sentence. Relative clauses are useful tools for consolidating sentences and linking closely related ideas. Without relative clauses, English sentences can quickly become repetitive:

Her friend [subject] brought [verb] the tickets [object]. Ellen [subject] had forgotten [verb] those tickets [object].

These two sentences are more effective if we combine then into a single sentence with a relative clause:

Her friend [subject] brought [verb] the tickets [object] which [object] Ellen [subject] had forgotten [verb].

Notice that while the independent clause retains its SVO word order, the relative clause follows an OSV word order.

Infinitive Clauses

Using infinitive clauses, which contain “to” plus a verb, can result a variety of unconventional sentence structures:

Shamin [subject] decided [verb] to take [verb] English classes [object]. (SVVO)

The tutor [subject] told [verb] the student [object] what [object] to study [verb]. (SVOOV)

The director [subject] convinced [verb] Will [object] to teach [verb] the English class [object]. (SVOVO)

That’s it for this English grammar lesson. Next time we’ll discuss some additional unconventional sentence structures (read this lesson).

Need Help with Your English?

The English Island offers ESL classes to non-native English speakers in the Atlanta area. We can improve your grammar, teach you how to read, and reduce your accent. If you want to test your knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, try our free English level test.
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