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All of the SVO example sentences I see are very basic, such as this from Mini:

[subject] i [verb] a [object]
Tu i manja.              You eat.
Man i bibe a vasa.       Someone drinks water.
Bobi i vasa a veji.      Bob waters the plants.

However, in English at least, you can have very complicated sentences and I'm not sure how to start going about mapping the number of edge cases, and how the patterns can boil down to this SVO system?

Just off the top of my head:

I keep wanting to start reading that big book after I sit down for lunch in the middle of the park late some days, just before my usual walk where I causally make my way across the forest.

Where is the SVO here? What is the acronym for this sentence? Or sentences that are just as complex or even more complex, or even simpler yet with many verbs and nouns and adjectives scattered about?

This is a sentence that is just as complex or even more complex, and others are even simpler yet with many verbs and nouns and adjectives scattered about if you know what I mean.

The first sentence is like:

I [S] keep [V] wanting [V] to start [V] reading [V] that big book [O] after [...?] I sit down for lunch in the middle of the park late some days, just before my usual walk where I causally make my way across the forest.

I don't see how you say a language is SVO and have complex constructions like this? Are they nested somehow? Are they chained instead? Or some combination? I don't get it.

If my examples break the SVO mold, what is an example of a strict SVO sentence in some language, which involves much more than just "I love apples" type sentences (obviously-SVO)?

To take it slightly more generally, how can I go about deciphering an arbitrary sentence into something like these acronyms? If I say "my language is strictly SVO", what does that mean about all the possible sentences I can construct, how do I figure out all the possible patterns that exist?

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  • How familiar are you with theories of syntax?
    – Draconis
    Sep 21, 2022 at 16:11
  • Not familiar really.
    – Lance
    Sep 21, 2022 at 19:04
  • 1
    The short answer is that SVO is shorthand for "the subject comes before the verb, and the object comes after". It doesn't mean that every sentence is specifically only three elements. But a full answer will involve covering basic syntax.
    – Draconis
    Sep 21, 2022 at 20:10
  • Do you have any works I could check out which describe what I need to know in a concise way?
    – Lance
    Sep 21, 2022 at 20:37
  • 1
    Stack Exchange sites are more for problems and solutions than giving book recommendations. But you may want to read about subordinate clauses which are what allows English sentences to run on for so long.
    – Domino
    Sep 21, 2022 at 21:47

1 Answer 1

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The short answer is that "SVO" is shorthand for "the subject comes before the verb and the object comes after". It doesn't mean that every sentence consists of exactly three components.

But for the long answer…

To understand this, you'll need to know the basics of theoretical syntax. The gist of it is that words in spoken language always come in a linear sequence (that's just a universal constant of how spoken language works), but mentally, these word-sequences seem to be processed recursively—more like a tree than a list. Sometimes words that are next to each other can be manipulated as a whole unit, and sometimes they can't:

This box of chocolates may have been opened.
See [this box of chocolates]? It may have been opened.
*See [of chocolates may]? This box it have been opened.

The standard explanation is that "this box of chocolates" is a single unit in the tree (a single node and all its children) and "of chocolates may" is not.

Phrase-based syntax (as opposed to dependency-based syntax) tends to model this behavior with a context-free grammar, which you're probably familiar with from CS. (If not, you'll want to read up on this.) You can imagine "SVO" being an example of a context-free grammar rule:

S → N i V a N

And then the nonterminals N and V handle all the details of noun phrases and verb phrases, with their appropriate modifiers. For example:

[This] i [is] a [a sentence that is just as complex or even more complex]

All the complexity would be handled by the N (noun) nonterminal, which would have a recursive rule that lets you stick a whole clause into a noun phrase, and so on. How do you stick sentences together? Well, there's another recursive rule for that:

S → S Conj S
Conj → and | or

And it turns out this works fairly well. The actual rules used to describe English (or any other natural language) are incredibly complicated compared to this toy example, but quite a lot of English syntax can be modelled this way, with CFG rules.

A slightly more sophisticated version doesn't stick the subject and verb and object all on the same level, because syntactically, verbs and objects seem to be stuck together more tightly than verbs and subjects (read up on "constituency tests" to learn more about this). So you could instead say:

S → N VP
VP → V N

Or if you wanted your language to be SOV:

S → N VP
VP → N V

And now suddenly the grammar produces "this a sentence is" instead.

The full details of phrase structure syntax take at least a semester to properly explain. But if you want to explore this theory further, I recommend Adger's "Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach", which walks the reader through building a model of English and does a good job of justifying a lot of the theoretical assumptions behind that model.

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