頭を悩ます英文法?それでも挑み続けるべき理由! (Part 4)




Ever felt befuddled by English grammar? Here’s a good reason to keep on trying!

(Part 4)


In this final part of our series on grammar and its many implications on the way we think, let’s talk a bit about word order in English! Why is it so important? What does it mean for communication between native speakers?


Example 3: What happens in the brain of a native speaker when you mess up word order in an English sentence—& the responsibility of the speaker in English

I remember going to school as a kid in France, and the teacher saying, “So, this is the grammar rule, but we have some exceptions: this, this, this, [15 instances of exceptions] and this. And the explanation for these exceptions is that it’s so much prettier to say it this way!”

Now, I’ve been reading English grammar blogs for five years and never, and I mean not once, have I read an English grammarian justify a grammar rule because of aesthetics. Rather, the argument is always the same: clarity. “We do it this way because meaning is clearer.” To me, English, and in particular American English is the language of clarity, and it is probably not a coincidence that it has become the international language!


One way to ensure clarity is word order. In an English sentence, you will always need a subject, followed by a verb, followed by a direct object. Word order is decided. Hence, for each new stage in your sentence, your listener forms expectations.

For example, you start by saying: “Lady Gaga’s concert…”

At this point, a native listener has identified “Lady Gaga’s concert” as the probable subject of your sentence and is expecting a verb to follow (or an adverb). Her brain is already finding potential verbs “… was great,” “…was a waste of time.,” etc.

If you betray these expectations, your listener will be quite confused. This happens all the time in my classes. My student says a sentence that doesn’t make sense to me, so I take note of it. Then I write it down on the whiteboard, and we try to fix it together. More often than not, it is just a matter of moving around two parts of the sentence or finding a better-suited word.


So in a way, we can say that English listeners are lazy! They expect you to state all the information, in the right order. If you don’t, then they might not necessarily put in the effort to think about your sentence more deeply to try and understand what you meant. In English, the responsibility of good communication falls on the speaker.

I would argue that it is the opposite in Japanese. Subjects are not necessary. Word order is flexible. So the listener must be more active, trying to fit all the pieces together. I would hence argue that in Japanese, responsibility for good communication falls on the listener.


What’s your opinion on these observations? Do you find them useful? Share your comments below!



(Part 4)