SVO – Subject-Verb-Object
English may at times appear jumbled and in no particular order; however, it does in fact follow a particular pattern. While there are a couple of variations, the standard order of a typical English sentence is: SUBJECT–VERB–OBJECT (SVO).
The golden rule is this: The FIRST NOUN or PRONOUN in a sentence takes the position of SUBJECT.
The SUBJECT is THE MOST important position in a sentence. It’s the prime position and indicates to the reader what the sentence is about.
If you’re in any doubt as to the importance of placing the most important noun/pronoun first then look at the following two examples. Example 1 doesn’t place the most important noun/pronoun at the beginning of the sentence, example 2 does. Example 1 is unclear while example 2 is easy to follow. Read the highlighted (black) part of each section only.
In the examples below the first noun/pronoun (subjects) are highlighted in each sentence:
Example 1 makes the mistake of placing storm, July and December in the position of subject. Each sentence is weak and confusing from the start.
SVO is the where the SUBJECT comes first, the VERB second and the OBJECT third.
The subject and object of a sentence can only ever be a noun or pronoun. At times there may be articles, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions in between SVO, which are all used to provide additional information, but the framework of the sentence is SVO; everything else is secondary.
Note: The object is a second person or thing in the sentence; however, not every sentence has an object, but more about that in Tip 3 Active Voice.
Let’s talk about the subject: the most important person or thing in the sentence. Everything you talk, write or read about has a subject. It can be the weather, a person, an animal or an idea. What the subject is doesn’t matter; however, where you position it in a sentence DOES matter. The subject directs the flow of the sentence. It says to the reader: “Hello, this is what the sentence is all about”.
The subject is only every going to be a NOUN or a PRONOUN. And here is the secret that every good writer knows: a sentence will often have more than one noun or pronoun. It’s up to you, the writer, to place the most important noun or pronoun at the front of the sentence in the position of subject. You are the director. You decide who gets top billing and who will be the star of the sentence.
There is no hard and fast rule on this, but as a general guide it’s whether the noun or pronoun can stand alone and make sense by itself. If you take a sentence back to basics, its main purpose is to tell you about someone or something; everything else is extra. So, don’t be tempted to put the additional information before the subject.
In the example below night and ship are the two nouns in the sentence, and only one of them can be the subject (in the first position).
- On a cold, wet, windy night the ship sank.
- The ship sank on a cold, wet, windy night.
In Example 1, night is in the position of subject because it’s the first noun in the sentence. However, you have to read seven words before you come to ship, which is what the sentence is really about.
In Example 2, you only have to read one word before you know what the sentence is about: ship. Therefore, example 2 is the better option as it’s more direct and tells the reader immediately what the subject (sentence) is about.
- On a cold, wet, windy night.
- The ship sank.
In Example 1, night can’t stand by itself because it doesn’t make sense. It needs the word ship and the verb “sank” to make sense. Also night, which is the subject, is buried at the back of the sentence. It’s never a good idea to have your subject at the back of the sentence as it can confuse the reader as to what the real point of the sentence is. Therefore, night shouldn’t be in the first position but instead the second position, as it’s additional information and doesn’t make sense by itself.
In Example 2 ship is in the correct position of being first (subject) and is directly followed by the verb “sank”. The three words make sense; everything else that follows is additional information.
Your writing style is something you will be marked on. Good writing skills are worth top marks, so learn to write well and clearly. It’s important that you learn to organise your sentences to flow in a logical fashion. Good sentence structure is needed for clarity and in identifying the subject, which is the foundation of your sentence.
How well your response reads is an important part in answering the question. Your argument should be clear and well laid out. The reader should always know what the subject is.
In most cases you should place the most important noun (or pronoun) at the FRONT of the sentence to indicate the subject.
However, don’t stress and think that you have to get the noun (or pronoun) placement right in every sentence, because you don’t. Sometimes dates, for example, need to go first. The point is you need to be aware of the overall importance of subject placement. You can get away with burying the subject at the back of the sentence every now and then, and it won’t make any difference to your writing. However, do that over a whole document or essay and it will make a HUGE difference. The reader will struggle to understand what the subject is and the point you’re trying to make.
Also, keep in mind your style of writing. If it’s creative, then you may want to set a particular scene, e.g. “a cold, wet, wind night” before you announce who or what the subject is (it might be a creative story). In that case you‘d choose example 1. However, if you were writing a report style essay and with limited word count then you’d choose example 2; up-front, direct and to the point.