ESL grammar · Grammar · sentence types

Word Order of Subject and Verb

This morning I got a phone call from a friend. He was crafting (= writing) a business email to a friendly organization in Argentina that he needed an answer from. My friend wasn’t sure whether the sentence he had written was correct.

Here is the sentence:

Just a gentle reminder to ask you when can we expect your response.

Can you help? Is this a correct sentence?

No, I’m afraid it isn’t. If you quickly copy this sentence to your Word document, you will see a green squiggly line appear under can we. Often, you can safely ignore those squiggly lines, but in this case the squiggly line is right!  The two words, can and we, should be in reverse order. So, first we and then can.

Here is the correct sentence:

Just a gentle reminder to ask you when we can expect your response.

Why is that?

I can talk to you about complex sentences and dependent clauses now, but that won’t help you much. The only thing you need to remember is that the usual word order in English is subject first, then verb.

Subject Verb1 (1)

We is the subject. And expect is the verb.

Don’t be fooled by the verb ask in the first part of the sentence. The sentence is not a question.

Because in a question you do put the verb first. We’ll talk about this in a minute.

Anyway, here is the rule: Subject, Verb.

If you don’t know what subject and verb are, click on the links to check.

 

 

 

First let’s look at another example.

The question is whether everyone will understand the program.

And not: The question is whether will everyone understand the program.

We apply the same rule, do you see? You just need to know which words are the subject and which are the verb(s). (There are two verbs here.)

The subject is everyone. So that comes first.

Then the two verbs: will understand.

Subject Verb

Another example:

My line manager wanted to know what I did with the sketches.

And not: My line manager wanted to know what did I with the sketches.

Or sometimes I will hear this: My line manager wanted to know what did I do with the sketches.

That is incorrect, because it’s not a question, so I don’t need the question form with did I do?

Again, the right order is Subject – Verb:

Subject: I

Verb: did

Last example before you are on your own:

We had a long talk about what the best way is to raise children.

And not: We had a long talk about what is the best way to raise children.

What is the best way to raise children is again a question, do you see it?

I can ask: What is the best way to raise children?

For a question with is, you need to put is first.

However, the original sentence is not a question, so we need the regular subject and verb order.

Subject: the best way (to raise children).

Verb: is

As you notice, when the subject is very long, it sounds better when you break it up into shorter parts and put the verb in the middle.

Technically, this is a good sentence: We had a long talk about what the best way to raise children is. (I’ve put is at the end.)

But “is” comes as a bit of a surprise after such a long subject, and it sounds better when you put it after “the best way.” Why it sounds better, sorry, I’m not able to explain that to you. I guess you just need to develop an intuition for what sounds good in English. Don’t worry, you will get it.

Subject Verb3 (1)

The Rule Doesn’t Change When the First Part of Your Sentence is a Question.

Just one more example, because I also want to show you that the rule of subject and then verb doesn’t change when the sentence is in the form of a question.

That is to say, the first part of the sentence is a question.

Here is the example:

Can you tell me what time the meeting is?

And not: Can you tell me what time is the meeting?

Only the first part of the sentence is a question. So that is with will first: Can you tell me?

The second part of the sentence is not a question, but describes a situation/fact: What time the meeting is.

Now you can do a quiz.

Quiz

word order of subject and verbClick here to go to the online quiz.

Still confused?
Do the quiz together with me or just listen to the explanation:

For more practice about word order, have a look here:

Word Order of Time Expressions

Still have questions about the subject of this post? Let other learners know in a comment.

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