5.1 Word Order

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the basic structures of sentences.
  2. Determine ways to turn sentences into questions.
  3. Define adjectives and how they are used.

If your first language is not English, you will most likely need some extra help when writing in Standard, or formal, English. New students of Standard English often make similar kinds of errors. Even if you have been speaking English for a long time, you may not feel as confident in your written English skills. This chapter covers the most common errors made by English language learners and helps you avoid similar mistakes in your writing.

Basic Sentence Structures

The most basic sentence structure in English is a subject plus a verb. A subject performs the action in the sentence, and the verb identifies the action. Keep in mind that in some languages, such as Spanish and Italian, an obvious subject does not always perform the action in a sentence; the subject is often implied by the verb. However, every sentence in English must have a subject and a verb to express a complete thought.

subject + verb
Samantha sleeps.

Not all sentences are as simple as a subject plus a verb. To form more complex sentences, writers build upon this basic structure. Adding a prepositional phrase to the basic sentence creates a more complex sentence. A preposition is a part of speech that relates a noun or a pronoun to another word in a sentence. It also introduces a prepositional phrase. If you can identify a preposition, you will be able to identify a prepositional phrase.

subject + verb + prepositional phrase
Samantha sleeps on the couch.

On is the preposition. On the couch is the prepositional phrase.

Common Prepositions
about beside off
above between on
across by over
after during through
against except to
along for toward
among from under
around in until
at into up
before like with
behind of without

Exercise 1

Copy the following sentences onto your own sheet of paper and underline the prepositional phrases.

  1. Linda and Javier danced under the stars.
  2. Each person has an opinion about the topic.
  3. The fans walked through the gates.
  4. Jamyra ran around the track.
  5. Maria celebrated her birthday in January.

Another sentence structure that is important to understand is subject + verb + object. There are two types of objects: direct objects and indirect objects.

A direct object receives the action of the verb.

subject + verb + direct object
Janice writes a letter.

The letter directly receives the action of the verb writes.


A quick way to find the direct object is to ask what? or who?

Sentence: Maurice kicked the ball.

What did Maurice kick? The direct object, ball.

Sentence: Maurice kicked Tom by accident.

Who did Maurice kick? The direct object, Tom.

An indirect object does not receive the action of the verb.

subject + verb + indirect object
Janice writes me a letter

The action (writes) is performed for or to the indirect object (me).


Even though the indirect object is not found after a preposition in English, it can be discovered by asking to whom? or for whom? after the verb.

Sentence: Dad baked the children some cookies.

For whom did Dad bake the cookies? The indirect object, children.

Exercise 2

On a separate sheet of paper, identify the subject, verb, direct object, and indirect object in the following sentences.

  1. Captain Kirk told the crew a story.
  2. Jermaine gave his girlfriend a dozen yellow tulips.
  3. That hospital offers nurses better pay.
  4. Dad served Grandma a delicious dinner.
  5. Mom bought herself a new car.

Exercise 3

On a separate sheet of paper, rewrite the sentences in the correct order. If the sentence is correct as it is, write OK.

  1. The pizza Jeannine burnt.
  2. To the Mexican restaurant we had to go for dinner.
  3. Jeannine loved the food.
  4. So full were we during the walk home.
  5. I will make the pizza next time.


English speakers rely on the following two common ways to turn sentences into questions:

  1. Move the helping verb and add a question mark.
  2. Add the verb do, does, or did and add a question mark.

Move the helping verb and add a question mark.

Sentence: Sierra can pack these boxes.

Question: Can Sierra pack these boxes?

Add the verb do, does, or did, and add a question mark:

Sentence: Jolene skated across the pond.

Question: Did Jolene skate across the pond?

Exercise 4

On a separate sheet of paper, create questions from the following sentences.

  1. Slumdog Millionaire is a film directed by Danny Boyle.
  2. The story centers on a character named Jamal Malik.
  3. He and his older brother find different ways to escape the slums.
  4. His brother, Salim, pursues a life of crime.
  5. Jamal ends up on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?


An adjective is a kind of descriptive word that describes a noun or a pronoun. It tells which one, what kind, and how many. Adjectives make your writing more lively and interesting. Keep in mind, a common error that English language learners make is misplacing the adjectives in a sentence. It is important to know where to place the adjective in a sentence so that readers are not confused.

If you are using more than one adjective to describe a noun, place the adjectives in the following order before the noun:

  1. Opinion: an interesting book, a boring movie, a fun ride
  2. Size: a large box, a tiny turtle, a tall woman
  3. Shape: a round ball, a long hose, a square field
  4. Age: a new day, an old horse, a modern building
  5. Color: an orange sunset, a green jacket, a red bug
  6. Ethnicity: Italian cheese, French wine, Chinese tea
  7. Material: silk shirt, wool socks, a cotton dress


Adjectives can also be placed at the end of a sentence if they describe the subject of a sentence and appear after the verb.

Sentence: My English teacher is excellent.

Exercise 5

On a separate sheet of paper, place the following sets of adjectives in the correct order before the noun. The first one has been done for you.

  1. book: old, small, Spanish

    a small old Spanish book (age, size, ethnicity)

  2. photograph: new, strange
  3. suit: wool, green, funny
  4. opinion: refreshing, new
  5. dress: fashionable, purple

Key Takeaways

  • The most basic sentence structure is a subject plus a verb that expresses a complete thought.
  • Adding a prepositional phrase or a direct or indirect object to a sentence makes it more complex.
  • English speakers change a sentence into a question in one of the following two ways: moving the helping verb and adding a question mark or adding the verb do, does, or did and adding a question mark.
  • Adjectives follow a particular order before the noun they describe. The order is opinion, size, shape, age, color, ethnicity, and material.

Writing Application

Write a paragraph about a memorable family trip. Use at least two adjectives to describe each noun in your paragraph. Proofread your paragraph, and then exchange papers with a classmate. Check your classmate’s use of adjectives to make sure they are correct.


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