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Your Guide to Basic English Sentence Structures & Word Order

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Word order and sentence structure are essential for any language-learner. They can determine the meaning of a sentence, help you emphasize certain aspects of the sentence, and allow your speech and writing to sound more natural. 

In this article, I’ll guide you through the following two topics:

  • Correct sentence structure in English
  • English word order rules

I’ll also provide you with several English word order examples along the way, so you can see how it all works together. 

Once you understand the most basic English sentence structures, you’ll be a much more effective communicator. Before we continue, you may find it helpful to take a look at our English grammar page and familiarize yourself with some of the topics I’ll cover. 

Let’s get started!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in English Table of Contents
  1. Overview of Word Order in English
  2. Basic Sentence Structure Rules
  3. Let’s Add Prepositional Phrases
  4. And Now Modifiers
  5. Sentence Transformations!
  6. Final Thoughts

1. Overview of Word Order in English

Woman Cuddling Cat

What is the order of an English sentence?

Overall, the sentence structures in English are very flexible. Which structure you use depends on context and personal preference, although Subject + Verb + Object (SVO) is the most common structure. For example:

I pet the cat.

It’s also possible to form very simple sentences with only the subject and verb as long as they form a complete thought (SV):

He ran.

That said, there are four types of sentence structures that are commonly used in English.

1- The Four Types of Sentence Structures

Before we go any further, you need to know the difference between dependent and independent clauses. 

1. Dependent vs. Independent

Dependent: 

A dependent clause is one that requires an independent clause to be a complete sentence. Dependent clauses do not contain enough information (a subject, verb, and complete idea) to be a sentence. An example would be the clause “Since Kaitlyn didn’t come.” 

This clause leaves the listener wanting more information. What was the result of Kaitlyn not coming? 

Independent:

An independent clause is one that can be used by itself and contains all the information it needs to be complete. An example would be the clause “I felt lonely.” 

Although we don’t have tons of information available to us, the above clause represents a complete idea. It has a subject (I), a verb (felt), and a word that adds necessary information to the verb (lonely).

Putting Them Together:

Sitting Alone in Cold Weather

Remember how I said that a dependent clause needs an independent clause to be complete? Check this out:

“Since Kaitlyn didn’t come, I felt lonely.”

Now we have an answer to what was previously a dependent clause. And now we have even added more information to the already-completed independent clause. It’s a win-win! 

2. What are Four Types of Sentence Structures?

There are four basic English sentence structure types (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex). We’ve outlined them below.

DefinitionExamples
SimpleRequires a subject and a verb

Consists of one independent clause.

Sometimes it has an object as well.
I worked.” OR “I worked on the book.”

He proposed. OR “He proposed to her.”

She smiled.” OR “She smiled at him.”
CompoundConsists of two (or more) independent clauses.

The independent clauses are usually connected by a linking word or phrase (as shown in these examples), a semicolon, or a colon.
I worked, and then I made dinner.”

He proposed, and she said yes.”

She smiled and (she) took his hand.”
ComplexConsists of one independent clause and one dependent clause.I worked, even though I was tired.

Though nervous, he proposed.

Because she smiled, he was happy.
Compound-ComplexConsists of two independent clauses and one dependent clause.I worked, even though I was tired, and then I made dinner.

Though nervous, he proposed, and she said yes.

Because she smiled, he was happy; then she took his hand.

This is just an overview. In the following sections, I’ll go into more detail about how these sentence transformations work, starting with the basics of word order in English.

2. Basic Sentence Structure Rules

Woman Writing on Couch

As mentioned earlier, in English, you only need two words to create a whole sentence: The subject (S) and the verb (V). This is the SV sentence structure.

Sarah writes.

You can add more information to this simple sentence by adding an object (O) to the end. This becomes the SVO sentence structure.

Sarah writes poetry.

The SV and SVO sentence structures are the most common structures in the United States. The only real exception is when people are giving a command or asking a question. In this case, they may be able to get away with using one word or an incomplete thought:

  • “Peter!” (S)
  • “Stop!” (V)
  • “The book!” (O)
  • “Why?” (Question)

In the cases above, the context will help you determine the meaning. 

In all other situations, it’s most proper to use the SV or SVO structure (unless you want to talk like Yoda with OSV).

3. Let’s Add Prepositional Phrases

Improve Listening

1- The Basics

What happens to a sentence when you add a prepositional phrase? What does that look like?

A prepositional phrase adds information to simple sentences. Often, it answers the questions of where, when, how, and why something happened. 

Here are four examples of prepositional phrases:

  • In the park (Where)

“Sarah writes poetry in the park.”

  • At night (When)

“Sarah writes poetry at night.”

  • By herself (How)

“Sarah writes poetry by herself.”

  • Because it’s fun (Why)

“Sarah writes poetry because it’s fun.”

2- Position in a Sentence

Moonlit Field

In the above examples, the prepositional phrases are at the end of the sentence. But, a prepositional phrase can also come at the beginning of a sentence, although this is less common. The order you choose depends on what you want to emphasize in your sentence.

For example, if you want to emphasize what time Sarah writes poetry, you could say: 

At night, Sarah writes poetry.

This indicates when Sarah chooses to write. It also suggests that when she writes is more important than the fact that she writes poetry in general.

3- What to do with Multiple Prepositions

What if you wanted to tell someone all the information above in one sentence? Well, here are a few different ways:

  • Sarah writes poetry in the park by herself at night because it’s fun.
  • In the park, Sarah writes poetry at night by herself because it’s fun.
  • At night, Sarah writes poetry in the park by herself because it’s fun.
  • “Sarah writes poetry by herself in the park at night because it’s fun.
  • At night, in the park by herself, Sarah writes poetry because it’s fun.

Note that, usually, the why prepositional phrase comes at the end of the sentence. It tends to sound better there, and people are still able to emphasize it when it’s at the end through tone of voice. 

As you can see, the word order in English sentences for prepositional phrases is flexible. In general, you can choose the order that makes the most sense to you. 

And don’t worry too much. In most cases, people don’t use sentences this long in conversations! Instead, you’re more likely to hear a simple: “Sarah writes poetry in the park at night.

4. And Now Modifiers

A modifier is a word that modifies (adds info or meaning to) another word, usually a noun or verb. Below is an English word order chart describing each type of modifier with examples.

DefinitionExamplesUsagePlacement
AdjectivesWords that describe a noun.Hot


Easy
1. “It was a hot day.” 


2. “The test was easy.”
1. Before the noun it describes.

2. After the noun it describes, with a “be” verb in between.
AdverbsWords that describe a verb.Quickly


Carefully



Hopefully



Currently
1. “Quickly, I ran.”


2. “She put the knife down carefully.”

3. “The cat followed hopefully after its owner.”

4. “I currently don’t own a cat.”
1. Beginning of a sentence.

2. End of a sentence.

3. After the verb it describes.


4. After the subject performing the verb.
DeterminersWords that indicate which of something you’re talking about.This


That


These


Those
1. “This is good.”


2. “He didn’t know that.”

3. “These cookies are delicious.”

4. “Aren’t those strange?”
1. Beginning of a sentence.

2. End of a sentence.

3. Before a noun.


4. After a verb and before an adjective.
NumeralsNumbers that describe how many.One


Two


Three
1. “One more, please.”

2. “Can I have two?”


3. “I want three donuts.”
1. Beginning of a sentence.

2. End of a sentence.

3. After a verb.
PossessorsWords that indicate who possesses something.His



Her
1. “That book is his.”


2. “Where’s her backpack?”
1. End of a sentence.

2. Before a noun, usually an object.
Relative ClausesA series of words that add information to a sentence.That I ordered



That he saw



Of the color



That she wore
1. “That I ordered a bicycle is strange.”


2. “Where’s the squirrel that he saw?”

3. “The flower was of the color red.”


4. “The dress that she wore was very pretty.”
1. Beginning of a sentence. [uncommon]

2. End of a sentence.


3. After a be verb and before an adjective.

4. After a noun, usually an object.

Confused about how a relative clause differs from a prepositional phrase? You can find more information on this page.

1- Using Multiple Modifiers

What happens if you need to use more than one modifier in a sentence? 

Key: Adjective, Adverb, Possessor, Relative Clause.

I quickly sat on the green grass and dropped my book beside me.

I dropped my book beside me and quickly sat on the green grass.

The two sentences above use all the same words, but the two clauses are in a different order. Yet, note that the order of the modifiers within those clauses remains the same, even though the order of what happens in the sentence differs. 

  • The adjective is before the noun it describes (green grass).
  • The adverb is before the verb it describes (quickly sat).
  • The possessor is before the object that’s owned (my book).
  • The relative clause explains where the book was dropped (beside me).

Note that for the adverb, one could also say “sat quickly,” and it would be correct.

5. Sentence Transformations! 

Okay. So how do you use this information to create longer, more specific sentences? 

Because the English language is flexible with its word order, there are no solid rules for how to do this. The word order of modifiers and prepositional phrases often depends on the context. 

Below are a couple of English word order exercises to show you how this works. 

Minestrone Soup

1) Let’s take a look at this simple S + V sentence, and go from there.

Carol ate.

2) Add an object to create an SVO sentence. This will let the reader know what Carol ate.

Carol ate soup.

3) Now, how much soup did Carol eat?

Carol ate three bowls of soup.

4) When did Carol eat the soup?

Carol ate three bowls of soup yesterday.

5) What kind of soup did Carol eat?

Carol ate three bowls of minestrone soup yesterday.

Keep in mind that this is only one example of how you can transform a sentence. For example, you could also say, “Yesterday, Carol ate three bowls of minestrone soup.” And it would mean the same thing.

Now let’s look at another example:

1) Wendy played.

2) Wendy played chess.

3) Wendy played two games of chess.

4) Wendy played two games of chess last night.

5) Wendy played two difficult games of chess last night

Here, we did exactly the same thing, except in the final step when we added the modifier “difficult.” Instead of saying “the chess” was difficult, we said that the games of chess were difficult, which sounds more natural in English. 

1- Bonus: Making it a Yes-or-No Question

You’ve learned about simple and complex sentences, but what about English word order in questions? 

There are two main ways that you can turn sentences into simple questions. 

Option 1

1) Add the appropriate verb to the very beginning of the sentence. 

2) Conjugate the verb accordingly.

3) Put a question mark at the very end of the sentence.

Here’s how this would look using our example sentences:

Did Carol eat three bowls of minestrone soup yesterday?

Did Wendy play two difficult games of chess last night?

You may be wondering why the verbs are in the present tense in the questions, instead of the past tense. Although the events took place in the past (yesterday and last night), when asking a question about past events, the verbs should be in the present tense. 

For a more detailed explanation of how to conjugate verbs, make sure to visit my article on English verb conjugation! 

Option 2

1) Simply put a question mark at the end of the original sentence.

Carol ate three bowls of minestrone soup yesterday?

Wendy played two difficult games of chess last night?

This option is a little less formal than the first option. It’s typically used when you’re astonished or amazed at something. In the first example, you may emphasize “three bowls” because that’s a lot of soup

6. Final Thoughts

Girl Stressed about Studying

Because there are so many ways you can compose sentences in English, you may feel overwhelmed. Even though flexibility can be handy, it can take a long time to get used to English sentence structures. 

The word orders I outlined in this article are the most commonly used ones and are what you should focus on when you start learning English. Review the examples as many times, and as often, as you need to. The more you expose yourself to these sentence structures, the more familiar you’ll become with them. 

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to practice! You may want to start by writing or typing out simple sentences, and then expanding them step-by-step as I did above. And once you’re comfortable with the process, try using longer sentences in conversations with friends or family! 

For more English language content from EnglishClass101.com, check out the following pages:

  • Top 100 English Nouns
  • Top 100 English Adjectives
  • Top 100 English Verbs
  • Top 100 English Adverbs
  • Pronouns in English

Is there anything you’re still struggling with, or any topic we haven’t covered yet? Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns in the comments section, and we’ll do our best to help you out! 

Happy learning!

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