Have you ever wondered how to start or finish a sentence to make it sound right? Have you ever asked yourself “Should I start with a subject, an object, or a verb? What if I mess up your word order? Would that make me sound silly? Would it turn my hard-thought sentence into something with a «диаметрально противоположный» [totally opposite] meaning?”
I asked myself these questions countless times when I was learning English. Word order in English sentences is still a bane of my linguistic existence even though spoken American English tends to be fairly forgiving.
The great news for the learners of Russian is that «порядок слов в русском языке» [word order in Russian language] is generally very flexible. «Подлежащее» [subject] can be placed either before or after «сказуемое» [predicate].
Let’s see how this works in real-life sentences:
Whether you say «дети играют в парке» or «играют дети в парке», the meaning is the same – “children are playing at a park”.
Here’s another example. A classic Russian tongue-twister goes like this «шла Саша по шоссе…» [Sasha walked down the road]. You could easily change it to «Саша шла по шоссе», placing the predicate «шла» [walked] after the subject «Саша» [Sasha]. You will lose the rhythm, but not the meaning.
But what if you need to ask a question? Should you arrange a subject and a predicate in any special way then? Nope! Just add a question mark at the end and you’re almost good to go.
I say “almost” because you also need to place a proper «интонационное ударение» [intonational accent]. How do you know which word «акцентировать» [to emphasize] or lay stress on? It will depend on what it is you are trying to find out. Let’s look at a simple example:
«Мама пошла в магазин» [Mom went to a store] – this is an affirmative statement
«Мама пошла в магазин?» [Did Mom go to a store?] is a general form of a question.
In the examples that follow, I’m going to underline the entire word to show that it is emphasized:
Now, if you would like to know who went to the store, you’ll ask
«Мама пошла в магазин?» [Was it Mom who went to the store?]
The answer in this case would be «Да, мама» [Yes, it was Mom] or maybe «Нет, отец пошёл» [No, it was Dad].
If, instead, you want to know where Mom went, it’d go like this
«Мама пошла в магазин?» [Was it the store Mom went to?]
And the answer you might expect is «Да, она пошла в магазин» [Yes, she went to a store] or «Нет, она пошла к соседке» [No, she went to a neighbor].
Finally, if you want to make sure that Mom left on her shopping trip and is indeed out of the house, you will ask
«Мама пошла в магазин?» [Has Mom gone to the store?]
Possible answers include «Да, уже пошла» [Yes, she’s already left] or «Нет ещё, она допивает чай» [No yet, she’s just finishing her tea].
Do you see the pattern here? You emphasize the part of the sentence for which you want clarification or additional information.
Of course, very few real-life sentences are so simple. Most are at least a few words longer. They include all sorts of «второстепенные члены предложения» [subordinate parts of sentence], such as adverbial modifiers, objective complements, attributive adjectives and scores of prepositions and conjunctions, to name a few.
There’s some flexibility here as well. For example:
«Мама решила, что после работы пойдёт в магазин» [Mom decided that after work she’d go to a store] can be re-shuffled into
«Мама решила, что пойдёт в магазин после работы» without the loss of meaning.
However, changing it to
«После работы мама решила, что пойдёт в магазин» changes the meaning to “After work Mom decided to go to a store”.
Here’s another one:
«Дети играли в футбол пока не пошёл дождь» [Children played soccer until it started raining]
would retain its meaning when changed to
«Пока не пошёл дождь дети играли в футбол» as well as «дети, пока не пошёл дождь, играли в футбол» or even «дети играли, пока не пошёл дождь, в футбол» (although this last one is decidedly less common way of saying it).
However, the flexibility of the word order in Russian language has its limits. Go too far and you start sounding funny or confusing, such as in this ad (courtesy of Tveedo.ru)
«999 – оздоровительная микстура для детей из натуральных компонентов» [999 - a health-improving formula for children made with natural ingredients]
Unless you’ve seen children made of artificial ingredients this ad makes very little sense. It would’ve benefited from some changes, such as
«… оздоровительная микстура из натуральных компонентов для детей» [health-improving formula made with natural ingredients for children]
Or you might end up speaking like «Йода» [Yoda] – the meaning is there, but it sounds strange:
«Говорить как Йода сможешь ты даже» [Speak like Yoda can you even].
If you are not sure of the word order, you have two options:
- Use short simple sentences. The fewer words you use, the lesser your chance at getting it wrong.
- Play it safe by placing subordinate parts of the sentence next to the words they depend on.
If you need practice, try to figure out which word should be emphasized in the following sentences to fit the suggested answers (first, you need to change them from statements into questions):
Basic sentence: «Кот всё съел» [Cat ate all the food]
Answer 1: «Конечно кот, не хомяк же» [Of course it was the cat and not the hamster]
Answer 2: «Да, даже миску вылизал» [Yes, he even licked the bowl clean]
Basic sentence: «Тебе нужен молоток» [You need a hammer]
Answer 1: «А кому ещё, Пушкину что-ли?» [Yes, or do you think Pushkin needs it?]
Answer 2: «Нет, уже не нужен. Тараканов вообще удобнее давить обувью» [No, I don’t need it. And anyway, it’s better to use a shoe to squish a roach]
Answer 3: «Да, но потом ещё будет нужна дрель» [Yes, but then I will also need a drill]
And if this is too easy, then try to speak like Yoda, but in Russian.
Ever been stumped by how to say something in Russian? Leave your question in the comments and we’ll help you out.