The English Language On Word Order Depends

I-need-you-I-miss-you-I-love-you-3-love-10112773-1024-768While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published October 22, 2013.

The English language on word order depends.

If that sentence doesn’t convince you, try this:

Take the adverb “only” and place it in different positions in the following sentence.

He said, “I love you.” (Nice thought.)

Only he said, “I love you.” (No one else said it.)

He only said, “I love you.” (He said nothing else.)

He said, “Only I love you.” (No one else does.)

He said, “I love only you.” (He doesn’t love any one else.)

He said, “I love you only.” (His love is exclusive.)

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White advise that “Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the word they modify.” When modifiers are misplaced, the result is always  ambiguity – and often hilarity as well. Consider this Classified Ad: “Piano for sale by lady with carved legs.”

Because English depends on word order, “with carved legs” describes the lady, not the piano. The prepositional phrase needs to be placed in proximity to what it describes – the piano.

Here’s an example from The Harbrace College Handbook. “The doctor said that there was nothing seriously wrong with a smile.” I used Harbrace when I taught college nearly thirty years ago. Surely there have been advances in medicine since then, but smiles have always been terrific, especially when it’s the doctor who’s smiling while delivering the good news. The doctor said with a smile that there was nothing seriously wrong.

The rule for clarity is to always place modifiers as close as possible to the words they describe. Modifers include adverbs, adjectives, phrases or clauses, and they become misplaced when they are too far from what they describe. Here’s an example from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well.

 Chason-sisters-old2           The two sisters were reunited after 18 years at the checkout counter.

            I know, I know – it sometimes seems as if it does take forever to check out, but more likely, the author really meant, After 18 years, the two sisters were reunited at the checkout counter.

            Here are some other examples of misplaced prepositional phrases that should make you laugh – and help you keep your words in order.

  • “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”  -Groucho Marx
  • Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. (Was the envelope harnessed to a coach?)
  •  We found the address he gave me without difficulty. (What’s so hard about giving someone an address?)
  •  We watched the tree come crashing down with bated breath. (Trees have bated breath?)
  •  Squirrels ran up the tree with their mouths full of nuts. (Trees have mouths full of nuts?)
  •  Under the couch, Dave spotted the cat playing with catnip. (What’s Dave doing under the couch?)
  •  On the hay wagon, the horse pulled the group of students. In the ice, several skaters saw the large crack. (Why is the horse on the wagon, and how did the skaters get in the ice?)
  •  A lion startled the hunter with a ferocious roar. (Oh, those roaring hunters . . . )
  •  The profits were deposited safely in the bank from the bake sale. (Did the baked goods taste like money?)
  •  “He dialed the number at the hospital of Dr. X.” (Who did he dial? Was Dr. X holding him hostage at his hospital?)

             While it’s great to make your readers laugh, you can make sure they’re laughing at what you say and not how you’ve said it by observing the English language’s dependency on word order.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin taught grammar and rhetoric at Columbia, where she earned her PhD in English Literature before moving to Vermont to write novels and raise chickens and daughters. She is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness. Learn more at

133 thoughts on “The English Language On Word Order Depends

  1. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends | Tascha's Blog

  2. Made me smile too, Deborah. I hear that sort of word order confusion on the news all the time. Then again, I also think of inserting something into the word order for good effect. That also makes me smile. 🙂 ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before.’

  3. I teach English as a second language. Sometimes it is a challenge to explain the importance of order, with similarly funny results.

  4. Pingback: The Elements of My Style | Escaping the Inkwell

  5. Funny! I might have to snag a couple of these for future use. I especially like the one about Lincoln. Since we recently visited Gettysburg, I can just see him riding in on an envelope.

    • No, ‘depends’ is not a modifier; it’s a verb. For clarity, English demands clear word order for all parts of speech.

      • Oh I know. I write language courses – it’s just your examples and the title couldn’t be more different. with a commar, your title was perfectly grammatical.

        I’m certainly not criticising, as I wrote – I quite like these sorts of things.

  6. Oh, man, you know you’re a writer when you belly laugh at mangled grammar as if it were a SNL skit. Have you seen the classic church signs and announcements?


    “The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday.”

    “Wednesday the ladies liturgy will meet. Mrs. Johnson will sing “Put me in my little bed accompanied by the pastor.”

    “For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.”

  7. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends | Blithe Spirit

  8. As a non native speaker I gotta admit Im not certain I wouldnt make these…mistakes.

    Whats wrong with We found the address he gave me without difficulty. (What’s so hard about giving someone an address?)? xD How do u wanna say it? We didn’t have any difficulties finding the address he gave me? Still, sounded right to me 😀 And maybe a few others too.


    • This one’s tricky, and I had to think it through. In fact, spoken, no one would blink (which is why it “sounds” right to you). But as written, “without difficulty” modifies how he gave the address, not what was intended, which is that finding the address wasn’t difficult. Any clearer?
      If I weren’t a native speaker, I’d be hopeless at this language.

      • Eh, I get the logic, but as u said, it wouldnt bother me 😛 I think its better, already bothered by mistakes in my mother tongue lol. But yea good post though 😀

  9. “Squirrels ran up the tree with their mouths full of nuts.”

    I can’t see how this one would be misinterpreted, since the noun ‘squirrels’ agrees with the relative pronoun ‘their’ in number (plural), but not ‘tree’ (singular).

  10. Haha, I got a good giggle out of these! I remember learning about this in Year Five or Six. The sentence that sticks with me went something like, ‘The hungry passengers cheered when the food arrived, waving their knives and forks in the air.’ And it had a little picture of the plates of food waving knives and forks 😀 Tickled my ten-year-old humour!

    When I learnt German, I discovered that they use quite a different word order sometimes. It was amusing to come home and re-read letters I’d written in English, because sometimes I’d forget, and would write English sentences with German word order!

    Language is so much fun 🙂 Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  11. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends | Book Culture Blog

  12. Very lively and interesting. I want to mention one feature of your “only” examples at the beginning: “only” is usually thought of as an adverb, but it is an adjective as well, modifying nouns, as in “Only he said, “I love you” and “I love only you.”

  13. Your post really cracked me up!! =-)
    You reminded me of a punctuation lesson I was taught many moons ago.
    Punctuate this sentence:
    Woman without her man is useless.
    The meanings can be completely different all because of comma placement.
    Woman, without her, man is useless.
    Woman, without her man, is useless.

    Congrats on getting pressed!!

  14. Very timely post for me. I have the word “only” on the first page of my site. I have it in the wrong spot. I noticed the error after reading your post.

  15. This was such an interesting and amusing way of remind people of the importance of word order in the english language. I remember learning this lesson, or at least a similar lesson, in multiple English classes throughout High School. I think people often make this mistake when they are talking or having a conversation because nobody really thinks about the “grammatically correct” way to say what they’re trying to say. In writing, however, it’s easier to focus on something like this. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if I’m trying to find a good laugh), I have seen these mistakes very often in writing. I can tell it drives you crazy, as much as it drives me crazy. Thanks for the funny insight!

  16. I decided I didn’t want to comment anymore because I’d end up saying something silly causing you to frown at me for it!
    I actually enjoyed this post very much. It made me realise how blind we are, how tailored we’ve become to reading bad sentences and understating them anyway (by context). 🙂

  17. I remember my mom getting seriously upset we hadn’t learned about misplaced modifiers in school and going off on a rant about this one from her old textbook: “My parents bought a bicycle for my sister with red handlebars.”
    In other news, I enjoy your blog (:

  18. thank you very much, deborah! i am a german studying english language and culture and i have to admit that learning something about word order is much more fun when it actually makes you laugh 😉

  19. Love it, love it, love it. I’m a missionary in Ukraine, and I really enjoy the ability I have with the Ukrainian language to speak my mind without almost any thought to word order. (The grammar system is similar to Latin.) Sometimes I wonder if it’s affected my English. I’ve taught English a little here, and that is one of the first things I tell people – English is dependent upon word order. It’s like a train, while Ukrainian is like a box. As long as all the ingredients are there, you can give the box to someone else.

  20. Word order matters, right you are. And the next question is: Why does word order matter so much in English? I thought for a sec that you were going to resort to the standard American argument: “Because Strunk and White say it does!” Omit needless words, write directly! By all means, and do so first because the language doesn’t like it when you move sentence parts around, and second because Strunk and White tell you to. If they had had a cross-linguistic perspective they could have really helped undergraduates. For other languages word order is secondary to inflection when assigning function. See Hawkins, A Comparative Typology of English and German. Humor is fun and here linguistics is more helpful.

  21. Hi Deborah!

    I’m simply loving this post! And, i’m gonna share this on my Facebook, and with my colleagues.

    I’m just a new writer in the block, and i seriously believe i should follow your blog, and check out your site often.

    Thanks so much for this post!


  22. Pingback: Three Bits of Bad Writing Advice | Joyful Girl

  23. Fine, but it’s easy to be too prescriptive in ruling how language is to be used. Understanding relies on context and interpretation too. Where a sentence is ambiguous, then adjacency of modifier and modified terms is important. “I spoke to the man with a microphone” could be ambiguous: but your example (not the silliet) “We watched the tree come crashing down with bated breath” is perfectly clear. There is no sensible alternative meaning. The alternative would have to be “We watched, with bated breath, the tree come crashing down” (inelegant to distance the object “tree” from its verb “watched”) or “With bated breath we watched the tree come crashing down” which is acceptable but foregrounds the bated breath, perhaps not the intention of the speaker.
    More on word order here :

  24. What a wonderful post. It’s amazing, isn’t it, the way in which meaning can be subtly (or markedly) altered by the positioning of words? It allows such precision and nuance. I studied physics at uni and in written work it was imperative that meanings were not messed with – writing had to be specific and unambiguous. Agh, gotta love language!

  25. Once upon a time, English was a case based language and as such, did not depend primarily on word order for comprehension or cohesion. The only remainder of this we have is in the genitive (possessive) ‘s marking, wherein the apostrophe + -s signifies that the marked noun possesses the thing that follows, as in ‘Rose’s book’: ROSE possess the book. Case based languages do not need to necessarily depend upon word order because they have extra inflectional markings to designate what grammatical function the noun in question is performing, as in the above example. Learners of English whose native tongue is cased based have a hard time with the word order concept. What’s important, however, is comprehension, and context is key. There are plenty of ‘correct’ sentences that are ambiguous: That’s a German car dealership (a dealership of German cars? A car dealership owned by Germans?), the man saw the alien with the telescope (the man used a telescope to see the alien? The man saw an alien who had a telescope?), etc. etc. Beware prescriptive English! It serves to alienate.

  26. I also love language! The quirks of English are pretty unique because its rather dogmatic word order leads to the classic funnies that you mentioned. Other languages that I know, where gender and number are inevitably expressed, there is an impersonal pronoun, and word order is not so military, can hardly keep up with the ‘funnies’ in the confusion of English.
    Those sentences do not sound funny when spoken because the tone of voice, and the slight stops, make them more comprehensible. I think that prescriptive English must always be taken into consideration when writing, and violated only when the writer is very sure of communicating what he/she meant, not only how he/she said.
    Great blog, yours. (there! i violated the norm of sentence-making with a phrase that – however – is effective…) Best, Vera

  27. BTW: I am re-reading Moby Dick and I am amazed at Whitman’s superior skill with the English language. I had read it when I was learning English and it was very difficult to follow then. Now it is a feast. V.

  28. Been looking at this a bit more… If the title of the blog doesn’t give the lie to its thesis, and if my earlier comment isn’t convincing, then this surely does:
    How many ways can you shuffle “the plowman homeward plods his weary way” and still keep more or less the same meaning? Mathematically there are 5,040 ways to assemble the words, each as good as any other. Poetically are are many ways, but Gray has found the only one to give the sentence immortality. Semantically, it’s hard to find a word order that is syntactically convincing that provides a different meaning.
    And this all goes to show the infinite flexibility of the Egglish language, and the ability of the user to extract meaning.

  29. Pingback: » Depending on Word Order, English (or…Misplaced Modifiers)

  30. It’s things like these that remind me how hopelessly complicated English is. I feel bad for the foreigners who lose themselves in the myriad of tenses and rules and irregularities, while we native speakers can go off and learn others’ far simpler languages with not even half the effort.

  31. Excellent post! I enjoyed the examples in the post and a few of the comments. Reminds me of a book: Anguished English by Richard Lederer. (I think that’s how you spell his last name.)

  32. Thank you for writing this the way you did, made me nod and smile a lot.. I understand exactly what you mean, I am pretty annoyed by this fact too and also words like “ArkanSAS & KanSAS”
    Honestly, why are they pronounced so differently? Arrr!

  33. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends | Stark Writing Mad

  34. Pingback: business writers handbook

  35. Pingback: 129: Between Pastel Colour and Word Order. | Almofate's Likes

  36. Pingback: A Sentence is a Complete Thought | Live to Write - Write to Live

  37. Pingback: Friday Fun – Creating Emphasis in Your Writing | Live to Write – Write to Live

  38. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends — Live to Write – Write to Live – The Stray Russian Blue

  39. Pingback: spudbudette

  40. As an aspiring linguist, I find this very interesting. 😀
    I’ve recently started blogging about language and linguistics and I’d love for you to check out my blog. Thanks .

  41. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends — Live to Write – Write to Live – Paul's Courses

  42. Pingback: The English Language On Word Order Depends — Live to Write – Write to Live – 101millennials

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s