Get It In Order

‘We have a meeting tomorrow’ and ‘Tomorrow, we have a meeting,’ not only contain the identical words but also are both grammatically correct. So, what’s the difference and why is that important?

The difference is that English is a fixed word order language. This means there is a standard word order that is part of what conveys meaning in its sentences, not just the words themselves.

The standard word order of English is Subject – Verb – Object, followed by the elements of Time, Place, Manner and Reason. English speaker uses this order to convey information And therefore meaning in their sentences.

When you introduce variations into this order, you break the standard pattern of English. At its worst, this makes sentences hard to understand and introduces ambiguities that confuse those who hear or read those sentences.

Of course, there are exceptions tot eh standard word order but what is important to realise is that, while there ARE exceptions, these changes to word order still impact on perceived meaning, even if identical words are used.

To go back to the original example, ‘We have a meeting tomorrow’ is in standard word order and therefore reads and sounds like a standard chunk of information. Likely, a native speaker would respond to this with a shrug, knowing that this sentence refers to a regular, repeating meeting. ‘Have’ is a present simple verb in this sense, conveying that idea of an established, regular thing.

‘Tomorrow, we have a meeting’ however, does not start with the subject of the sentence, it starts with the element of time.  The order is not standard. What this does to the native ear is make it stand out as if it is being emphasised, in fact in spoken English, it would be emphasised.

This emphasis has the effect of drawing attention to the Time, in this case tomorrow. The impact this has on a native speaker is that they now consider the time of the meeting to be the most important information, said first possibly because it is new or unusual. In other words, we don’t normally have a meeting then, this is a new or exceptional meeting.

By moving the element of time to the front, the person who forms this sentence prioritises this information, causing their listener to consider that this is not a usual situation.

People who speak languages with flexible word orders often do not grasp the impact of shuffling word order on English. IN confuses the pattern, which confuses the meaning. Yes, there are exceptions, but the speaker/writer must have a good reason to use the exception to draw attention to the moved element…

English word order may seem boring to you but stay with it. You will find you are far more easily understood.

Here at TalenInstituut Nederland (The Dutch Language Institute) we understand the needs that companies face as well as the fears individual learners feel. This is why we offer flexible, fully customised Business language courses to businesses and individuals. Through a process of interviews and meetings we establish the unique needs and competence of our clients and design each and every course around those. To find out more about our Business Language courses, visit our website and ask us for a quote:

© Taleninstituut Nederland

By: David Chislett
Trainer Business English