There are a number of ways in which we can arrange subjects, verbs, objects, complements and adjuncts within a clause. Depending on how we arrange them, we can focus on certain elements over others, especially if we arrange them in an unusual way.
Typical word order
Typical word order is what we normally expect. The active voice is generally the typical word order, where we put the subject (the topic or the theme) first. The subject is the ‘doer’ or agent of the verb and this is usually what is already known (underlined). This is followed by new information (in bold):
The boxwas wrapped in gold paper.
The rainlasted all day.
Her mothercomes to visit about three times a year.
Most houseshave at least one television nowadays.
Untypical word order
In a declarative clause, we expect the order to be subject – verb – object (SVO):
Sometimes, in order to emphasise a particular part of the clause, we can change the typical order. An untypical word order in a declarative clause, for example, is object – subject – verb (OSV).
For example, speaker B puts the object (the kitchen) first, to link with A’s question:
Have you decided what colour to paint the kitchen yet?
[O]The kitchen[S]we’[V]ve already painted. We decided on white for now. We still can’t decide on the colour for the living room.
Especially in speaking, we sometimes change the typical order and use untypical word order as a way of focusing on or emphasising something.
Word order: simple choices
A simple way in which we can change the focus of a clause is to rearrange the elements (subjects, verbs, objects, complements and adjuncts) without making any other grammatical changes. Fronting is one example of this kind of change; headers and tails is another.
We can create a focus on objects, complements and adjuncts by moving them to front position in the clause, where the subject normally is. This is then an untypical order and we call it fronting.
That car we bought at least five years ago. The other one we only bought last year. (By fronting the objects (that car and the other one) we focus on them and the contrast between them.)
Last thing at night, I’ll go around the house and check that all the doors and windows are locked. (By fronting the adjunct (last thing at night), we emphasise that it is done last thing every night.)
In speaking, we can create focus and emphasis by using headers and tails. This means that we move elements of the clause to positions outside the clause, either by putting them immediately before the clause (header) or immediately after it (tail). We usually use a pronoun (underlined) in the main clause to refer to the element which has moved to the header or tail:
[header]That light in the porch, we still haven’t fixed it. (The header brings extra focus to the light that is broken. Compare: We still haven’t fixed the light in the porch.)
He’s so boring, [tail]my accountancy lecturer. (The tail brings extra focus to the lecturer. Compare: My accountancy lecturer is so boring.)