how to rewrite sentences word orderWhen you have a good understanding of the fundamentals of English word order, English sentences can become very flexible. Longer sentences may be arranged in a large number of ways, and many of the rules can be bent. This is useful if you want to add variety or emphasis to your writing (and it can also be useful if you simply want to restate something in a different way – which is always important to students writing essays!). In this article, I will use an example to break down some of the ways in which you can rearrange a sentence in English.

Standard Word Order

Here’s our example sentence with many components, using standard word order:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

We have Subject (The men) Verb (delivered) Direct Object (the sandwiches) Prepositional Phrases (to everyone at the shop) Time (before lunchtime). To rewrite the sentence, we now have a number of options.


Playing with Tenses

As a relatively simple starting point, there are a number of ways we can manipulate a tense to change a sentence. For example we could replace the verb with a different form, with the same meaning (in this case changing the Verb and Object):

The men made a delivery of sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The opportunities to do this will depend on the sentence. In some cases it will not be possible, in others (such as when writing a future simple sentence) there may be many options.

If the subject is not important, or we want to make text seem more neutral or less direct, we can use the passive tense. This reverses the position of the Object and adds a to be + past participle structure:

The sandwiches were delivered to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

In this case we are more interested in the result than who did the action.

When we have had the opportunity to introduce a different verb structure, we could also combine this with a passive tense:

A delivery of sandwiches was made to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.


Moving the Time

Time phrases, and clauses, can come at the beginning or the end of the sentence. Times at the start add emphasis, framing the sentence rather than providing a time as additional information.

Before lunchtime, the men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop.

Slightly less natural, we can also insert the time after the Subject or Object, between commas. This should be done rarely, as it really adds emphasis to the time in a particular place, where it might be surprising:

The men delivered the sandwiches, before lunchtime, to everyone at the shop.

In this case you would place the time there to draw especial attention to when the delivery was made, as opposed to who it was for. Placing the time after the Subject (The men, before lunchtime, delivered…) would add even more emphasis, and sound quite unnatural – but that’s precisely the point, if you ever needed to use such a structure.

Moving the time, though I’ve separated it here, is actually a case of moving prepositional phrase. I’ve dealt with it separately to provide a clear example of switching a phrase’s location. Getting into prepositional phrases in general, though, rewriting sentences can become more complicated.


Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases add additional information that can relate to the sentence in a variety of ways, allowing for lots of different rewrites. In the example sentence we have two prepositional phrases that add additional information other than time: to everyone and at the shop.

The preposition to, in this case, serves as a direction (where the delivery was directed) and a purpose (who were the sandwiches for). The prepositional phrase at the shop gives us a location which can either define the place that the sandwiches were delivered to or define the preceding object – everyone (the people at the shop).

When you break down the reasons for the prepositional phrases in this way, you can start to create opportunities to change the sentence. Firstly, you might use different phrases with similar meanings.

The men delivered the sandwiches for everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone in the shop before lunchtime.

These are very basic changes that create slight differences, in this case differences that should not change the understanding of the sentence. But this could change the meaning. In the first example, for instance, it could be understood that the delivery was made on everyone’s behalf (they requested it), not necessarily for them to receive (though without further information we may assume that on their behalf means for them to receive). More alterations could make this different meaning more distinct:

The men delivered the sandwiches for the people of the shop before lunchtime.

In this example, the people are not given a location, just a defining characteristic (that they belong to the shop), giving the delivery a purpose without a specific destination.

Knowing that the sandwiches were for someone, though, we have other options than simply swapping prepositions. For in particular usually gives us a chance to use possessives, or possessive pronouns, instead of prepositional phrases:

The men delivered everyone’s sandwiches to the shop before lunchtime.

The men delivered everyone their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

However, this is a technique that’s effectiveness will vary a lot depending on the verb you are using, and the relationship between the Object and Indirect Object. In this example, using an Indirect Object sounds a little strange after deliver. With a different verb it could sound more natural.

The men gave everyone their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

It is more flexible, though, if the Indirect Object is a pronoun (when the object it refers to is already understood):

The men delivered them their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

You may have noticed that the second prepositional phrase may be affected when we start making these changes. In the original sentence, it is quite clear that everyone is at the shop. We assume this is their location, and where they belong. When we move for everyone away from at the shop, though, the link between them blurs. The men delivered everyone their sandwiches at the shop could be taken to mean the shop was the location of the delivery, but not where everyone is based/belongs.

Sometimes, dividing phrases like this will not really cause problems (unless you are very picky). In other cases, it can cause confusion and actually change the meaning, so it is important to be aware of when you need to combine related information. Consider what happens when we use a more specific preposition:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone outside the shop.

The men delivered everyone their sandwiches outside the shop.

In the first example, the group everyone is defined by all the people in that location. In the second example, the group (everyone) is not specifically defined, but outside the shop is simply where they received the sandwiches.

Understanding these relationships between different sentence components is crucial to rewriting sentences. Moving the location requires the same considerations. It can be moved more freely if it is not defining another object:

At the shop, the men delivered the sandwiches to everyone before lunchtime.

Like when we move the time, this now frames the sentence. But if we want that information to define the group of people (Who is everyone? All the people at the shop), separating the phrases like this breaks that meaning – everyone is no longer defined by the location. But if we must keep that information together, it would frame the sentence in a different way:

For everyone at the shop, the men delivered the sandwiches before lunchtime.

This gives the action a grand sense of purpose. By removing all the additional information from later in the sentence, we have put more emphasis on the time – in this case it sounds like the men made the delivery at that time as a special consideration for these people.

These are just some of the ways we can start switching prepositional phrases around, in some cases adjusting meaning and in others simply adding variety. With different prepositional phrases, there will be more options to consider.


Other Ways to Rewrite Sentences

It is also necessary to also consider how using alternative words can also help rewrite sentences, using synonyms or similar words with slightly different meaning. While this is mostly a case of vocabulary, replacing words can also lead to different grammatical constructions, and in some case provide other opportunities to change word order. This was the case in replacing to everyone with everyone’s, in a simple form, but it could be more elaborate, such as when we replace verbs with more complicated ideas:

The men made a delivery of sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

As we added another prepositional phrase here, it opens the door to more changes:

Consisting of sandwiches, a delivery came the shop for everyone before lunchtime.

If that sounds like a stretch, it is. It might not be as clear, or comfortable to say, but if the exercise is simply rewriting, this is still acceptable English.

There are countless considerations that can be made as you look at different sentences, and these points I have given come from just one example. Thinking in these terms is merely a starting point in rewriting English sentences. These ideas can be built upon with more complex sentences, and later applied in moving whole clauses (in complex sentences, after all, a clause may represent a basic sentence component). And, naturally, all these different techniques can be combined to form something quite different with entirely the same meaning:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

Before lunchtime, everyone at the shop’s sandwiches were delivered by the men.

Now, in the interests of driving these points home, and because these are lessons that can be applied in all areas of English writing, I’ve happily reproduced this whole article on another website here. The other version may also clear up any points that are unclear!

And for anyone itching for more, I will produce more examples and exercises to go with this.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: