What a Beautiful Language #4: The Importance of Word Placement


Another interesting element of the English language just struck me – albeit a strange thought for a Wednesday morning.

In English, perhaps more than in any other language (although I’d be interested to hear examples from other languages of this), the placement of certain words can make a huge difference to the way that the sentence, as a whole, is interpreted.

Take for instance, the following sentence:

He told her that he loved her.

Nice and simple, right? Now, try inserting the word “only” into that sentence. You’ll find that, depending on where you choose to place the additional word, the meaning of the sentence changes. That’s the magic of English. Although all versions of the sentence make sense in terms of English grammar and sentence construction, some of the differences between the statements created are actually quite pronounced:

Only he told her that he loved her.

He only told her that he loved her.

He told only her that he loved her.

He told her only that he loved her.

He told her that only he loved her.

He told her that he only loved her.

He told her that he loved only her.

He told her that he loved her only.

Statement 1 implies that the male expressor is the only source of love for the female recipient.

Statement 2, in contrast, sounds like the commentary of a third party, and has quite an informal and colloquial tone (I can’t help but imagine some spectator exclaiming “‘Ere! ‘E’s only gone an’ told er’ he loves ‘er!”).

In Statement 3, the meaning shifts, so that the male subject is exclusive in his love for the unnamed woman of this sentence.

Statement 4 is similar, in that the woman is the only person to be told that she is loved by this man, but this sentence has connotations of infidelity (i.e. that perhaps he has many sexual partners, but only one ‘lover’).

Again, in Statement 5, the meaning shifts – this time, there is an implication of an abusive relationship taking place, as the statement this time is basically a warning that this man is the only person who will ever love her.

Statement 6 is interesting, in that it takes the importance and value of love the topic of the sentence – it’s only love, after all, what does it really mean?

Statements 7 and 8 are perhaps the most similar, as they express largely similar sentiments, but even here, the implication of the latter is of an earlier time; a different manner of speaking.

This is an oddity which rarely occurs in language – take the same phrase in German (“Er sagte ihr dass er sie liebte”) and mix up the word order, and nothing happens. Germanic language structure allows for variations in word sequencing without changing the meaning. Whilst this is perhaps a more efficient language solution, it eliminates a whole world of possibilities that can be created through the subtle combination of words.

This, for me, is where English comes alive – it is not only the words chosen, but the order in which they are presented, that dictates the meaning of any given sentence. As a creative writer, this allows me to experiment and create in a way that I would be unable to in another dialect.

Although colonialism inevitably is the primary reason why English is so widespread, I like to think that one of the reasons why English authors, poets and playwrights are so heartily celebrated is that they were enabled to create vivid, multi-layered meanings in their work by the language that they speak. Though the greats – Shakespeare, Blake, Joyce, Wilde, and so on, ad infinitum –  undoubtedly had beautiful minds, they also had an incredibly beautiful language with which they could work. Hurrah for English!



29 thoughts on “What a Beautiful Language #4: The Importance of Word Placement

  1. Jon

    I like the theory that English dropped case endings and other complicated grammar (and so opening the way for variable word order) so that thicko Norman barons could understand it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is definitely a stage when we outgrew our Germanic routes, and things started to get complicated… perhaps some of the words we have inherited are a consequence of an inability or unwillingness to translate! we’ve certainly taken on a fair number of French words!!


      • I get what you’re saying, but it makes me laugh. I read Edgar Huntly and was amazed at how dense it was because it’s so Germanic. Long, drawn-out sentences with endless clauses…drove me crazy haha. But this post is really interesting. Quick, random question to assuage my curiosity: did you have to search for a sentence that could accept an additional word in any place?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I had thought of one that had 3 meanings, but the word didn’t work in every position… this was a much better example. It was phrased a little differently when I found it, but it gave me the idea to use this particular sentence.


  2. Hi Joanne: Thank you for visiting Bookshelf: for the intellectually curious, posting a like, and the follow. Like you, I am fascinated by the English language with all its patterns, rules, and oddities — always fodder for interesting posts. There is a section in my library with close to 1,000 dictionaries and books on words. Each one is a window into an always evolving language. My only lament is that OED3 will not be a print edition. I really enjoyed reading some of your posts (great style and voice) and look forward to reading your future musings. Cheers, Alex.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Benjamin 🙂 Yes, there’s always a lot of pressure in Creative Writing to get every sentence just right… with some many variations, this can be as much a curse as a blessing!


  3. This is definitely something I would say natural-born English speakers take for granted. As a poet who writes in the English language, I’m always interested to see how delicately I need to write to fully capture the essence of my thoughts. Thanks for the enlightening read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post is great and before I scrolled down I was trying to think of how many I could come up with before I saw your list – it really does make a difference and the placement of such a simple word can change such a simple sentence. Amazing. Like you said the English language can be vivid and multi-layered which I think just extends its beauty. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic how one word change can alter the meaning and delivery of an entire sentence, and can change the tone of a story. We are lucky to be fluent in an outstanding language. It is versatile, creative and unique. Joanne, thank you for bringing this writing tip to our attention.


    Liked by 1 person

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