Constituent word orders
||"She him loves."
|Proto-Indo-European, Sanskrit, Hindi, Ancient Greek, Latin, Japanese, Korean
||"She loves him."
|Cantonese, English, French, Hausa, Italian, Malay, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish
||"Loves she him."
|Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Irish, Filipino, Tuareg-Berber, Welsh
||"Loves him she."
|Malagasy, Baure, Proto-Austronesian
||"Him loves she."
|Apalaí, Hixkaryana, tlhIngan Hol
||"Him she loves."
Frequency distribution of word order in languages surveyed by Russell S. Tomlin in 1980s
These are all possible word orders for the subject, verb, and object in the order of most common to rarest (the examples use "she" as the subject, "ate" as the verb, and "bread" as the object):
- SOV is the order used by the largest number of distinct languages; languages using it include Korean, Mongolian, Turkish, the Indo-Aryan languages and the Dravidian languages. Some, like Persian, Latin and Quechua, have SOV normal word order but conform less to the general tendencies of other such languages. A sentence glossing as "She bread ate" would be grammatically correct in these languages.
- SVO languages include English, the Romance languages, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, the Chinese languages and Swahili, among others. "She ate bread."
- VSO languages include Classical Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, the Insular Celtic languages, and Hawaiian. "Ate she bread" is grammatically correct in these languages.
- VOS languages include Fijian and Malagasy. "Ate bread she."
- OVS languages include Hixkaryana. "Bread ate she."
- OSV languages include Xavante and Warao. "Bread she ate."
Sometimes patterns are more complex: German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Frisian have SOV in subordinates, but V2 word order in main clauses, SVO word order being the most common. Using the guidelines above, the unmarked word order is then SVO.
Many synthetic languages such as Latin, Greek, Persian, Romanian, Assyrian, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Finnish, and Basque have no strict word order; rather, the sentence structure is highly flexible and reflects the pragmatics of the utterance.
Topic-prominent languages organize sentences to emphasize their structure. Nonetheless, there is often a preferred order; in Latin and Turkish, SOV is the most frequent outside of poetry, and in Finnish SVO is both the most frequent and obligatory when case marking fails to disambiguate argument roles. Just as languages may have different word orders in different contexts, so may they have both fixed and free word orders. For example, Russian has a relatively fixed SVO word order in transitive clauses, but a much freer SV / VS order in intransitive clauses. Cases like this can be addressed by encoding transitive and intransitive clauses separately, with the symbol 'S' being restricted to the argument of an intransitive clause, and 'A' for the actor/agent of a transitive clause. ('O' for object may be replaced with 'P' for 'patient' as well.) Thus, Russian is fixed AVO but flexible SV/VS. In such an approach, the description of word order extends more easily to languages that do not meet the criteria in the preceding section. For example, Mayan languages have been described with the rather uncommon VOS word order. However, they are ergative–absolutive languages, and the more specific word order is intransitive VS, transitive VOA, where S and O arguments both trigger the same type of agreement on the verb. Indeed, many languages that some thought had a VOS word order turn out to be ergative like Mayan.