of languages
SOV "She him loves." 45% 45
Proto-Indo-European, Sanskrit, Hindi, Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Japanese
SVO "She loves him." 42% 42
English, Hausa, Indonesian, Mandarin, Russian
VSO "Loves she him." 9% 9
Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Irish, Filipino, Tuareg
VOS "Loves him she." 3% 3
Malagasy, Baure, Proto-Austronesian
OVS "Him loves she." 1% 1
Apalaí, Hixkaryana
OSV "Him she loves." 0% Warao

Frequency distribution of word order in languages
surveyed by Russell S. Tomlin in 1980s[1][2] (


In linguistic typology, subject–verb–object (SVO) is a sentence structure where the subject comes first, the verb second, and the object third. Languages may be classified according to the dominant sequence of these elements. The label is often used for ergative languages which do not have subjects, but have an agent–verb–object order.

SVO is the second most common order by number of known languages, after SOV. Together, SVO and SOV account for more than 75% of the world's languages.[3] It is also the most common order developed in Creole languages, suggesting that it may be somehow more initially 'obvious' to human psychology.[4]

Languages regarded as SVO include: Albanian, Chinese, English, Estonian, Finnish (but see below), French, Ganda, Greek, Hausa, Icelandic (with the V2 restriction), Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), Italian, Javanese, Kashubian, Khmer, Kurdish, Latvian, Macedonian, Malay (Bahasa Melayu), Modern Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, Quiche, Romanian, Rotuman, Russian (but see below), Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, Spanish, Swahili, Thai, Vietnamese, Yoruba and Zulu.

Ancient Greek has free syntactic order, although SOV tended to be preferred by Classical Greeks. Many famous phrases are SVO, however.


Subject–verb–object languages almost always place relative clauses after the nouns they modify and adverbial subordinators before the clause modified, with varieties of Chinese being notable exceptions.

Although some subject–verb–object languages in West Africa, the best known being Ewe, use postpositions in noun phrases, the vast majority of them have prepositions as in English. Most subject–verb–object languages place genitives after the noun, but a significant minority, including the postpositional SVO languages of West Africa, the Hmong–Mien languages, some Sino-Tibetan languages, and European languages such as Swedish, Danish, Lithuanian and Latvian, have prenominal genitives[5] (as would be expected in a SOV language).

Outside Europe, subject–verb–object languages have a strong tendency to place adjectives, demonstratives and numerals after the noun they modify, but Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Malay place numerals before nouns, as in English. Some linguists have come to view the numeral as the head in this relationship to fit the rigid right-branching of these languages.[6]

There is a strong tendency for SO languages to have auxiliaries precede main verbs: I am thinking. He should reconsider. Etc.

Example sentences

An example of SVO order in English is:

Andy ate cereal.

The situation is more complex in languages that have no word order imposed by their grammar; example: the Russian, Finnish and Hungarian languages have both the VO and OV constructs in their common word order uses. In some languages, some word orders are considered more "natural" than others. In some the order is the matter of emphasis. For ex., the Russian allows the use of subject-verb-object in any order and "shuffles" parts to bring up a slightly different contextual meaning each time. E.g. "любит она его" (Loves she him) may be used to point out "she acts this way because she LOVES him", or "его она любит" (Him she loves) is used in context "if you pay attention, you'll see that He is the one she truly loves", or "его любит она" (him loves She) may appear along the lines "I agree that cat is a disaster, but since my wife adores it and I adore her...". In Polish an SVO order is basic in an affirmative sentence and different order is used to either emphasize some part of it or to adapt it to a broader context logic. E.g. "Roweru ci nie kupię" (I won't buy you a bicycle), "Od piątej czekam" (I've been waiting since five).[7]

In Turkish where normally SOV is used, SVO can be used to emphasize the verb in some instances. For example, "John terketti Mary'yi" (Lit. John/left/Mary: John left Mary) is the answer to the question "What did John do with Mary?" instead of the regular [SOV] sentence "John Mary'yi terketti" (Lit. John/Mary/left).

In German, Dutch, and Kashmiri, SOV with V2 in main clauses coexists with SOV in subordinate clauses, as given in Example 1 below; and a change in syntax – for instance, by bringing an adpositional phrase to the front of the sentence for emphasis – may also dictate the use of VSO, as in Example 2. (See V2 word order.) In Kashmiri the word order in embedded clauses is conditioned by the category of the subordinating conjunction, as in Example 3.

  1. "Er weiß, dass ich jeden Sonntag das Auto wasche" (German: "He knows that I wash the car every Sunday", lit. "He knows, that I every Sunday the car wash"). Cf. the simple sentence "Ich wasche das Auto jeden Sonntag", "I wash the car every Sunday".
  2. "Elke zondag was ik de auto" (Dutch: "Every Sunday I wash the car", lit. "Every Sunday wash I the car"). "Ik was de auto elke zondag" translates perfectly into English "I wash the car every Sunday", but, as a result of changing the syntax, inversion SV->VS takes place.
  3. "mye ees phyikyir tsi temyis ciThy dyikh" (Kashmiri: "I was afraid you might give him the letter", lit. " was worry lest you to.him letter will.give"). If the embedded clause is introduced by the transparent conjunction zyi the SOV order changes to SVO. "mye ees phyikyir (zyi) tsi maa dyikh temyis ciThy".[8]

English developed from such a reordering language and still bears traces of this word order, for example in locative inversion ("In the garden sat a cat.") and some clauses beginning with negative expressions: "only" ("Only then do we find X."), "not only" ("Not only did he storm away but also slammed the door."), "under no circumstances" ("under no circumstances are the students allowed to use a mobile phone"), "never" ("Never have I done that."), "on no account" and the like. In these cases do-support may or may not be required, depending on the construction.

See also


  1. Introducing English Linguistics International Student Edition by Charles F. Meyer
  2. Russell Tomlin, "Basic Word Order: Functional Principles", Croom Helm, London, 1986, page 22
  3. Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55967-7.
  4. Diamond, Jared. The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. p. 143
  5. Order of Genitive and Noun
  6. Donohue, Mark; "Word order in Austronesian from north to south and west to east" in Linguistic Typology 11 (2007); p. 379
  7. Polish, An Essential Grammar by Dana Bielec (Routledge, 2007), p. 272
  8. Hook, P.E. & O.N. Koul. (1996). In V.S. Lakshmi and A. Mukherjee, eds. "Kashmiri as a V-2 language". Word order in Indian languages. Osmania University: Centre of Advanced Study in Linguistics. p. 102. ISBN 81-85194-42-4.
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