Puneet Varma

V2 word order

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V2 word order

In syntax, verb-second (V2) word order is a specific restriction on the placement of the finite verb within a given clause or sentence. A V2 clause has the finite verb (the verb inflected for person) in second position with a single major constituent preceding it, which functions as the clause topic.


V2 word order is common across the Germanic languages and is also found in Indo-Aryan Kashmiri, Northeast Caucasian Ingush, Uto-Aztecan O'odham and fragmentarily in Rhaeto-Romansh Sursilvan. Among members of the Germanic family, English, which has predominantly SVO instead of V2 order, is an exception (although certain vestiges of the V2 phenomenon can also be found in English).

Most Germanic languages do not normally use the V2 principle in embedded clauses, except in a certain semantic type of clause with certain verbs. Thus, German, Dutch and Afrikaans revert to VF (verb final) word order after a complementizer. Two Germanic languages, Yiddish and Icelandic, allow V2 in all declarative clauses: main, embedded, and subordinate. Kashmiri has V2 in 'declarative content clauses' but VF order in relative clauses.


The following examples from German illustrate the V2 principle:

(The asterisk * is the standard means employed in linguistics to indicate that the example is grammatically unacceptable.) The sentences a–d, which are all perfectly acceptable, have the finite verb spielten in second position, whereby the major constituent which appears in the first position varies. The e and f sentences are bad because the finite verb no longer appears in second position there, but rather it has been pushed to the third position. The V2 principle allows any major constituent to occupy the first position as long as the second position is occupied by the finite verb.

The following examples from Dutch illustrate the V2 principle further:

We again see in sentence a–c that as long as the finite verb (here las) is in second position, the major constituent in first position is variable. When two (or more) major constituents appear before the finite verb as in sentences d and e, the V2 principle is violated and the sentence is bad. Data similar to these examples from German and Dutch could easily be produced for the other Germanic languages.

Non-finite verbs

The V2 principle regulates the position of finite verbs only; its influence on non-finite verbs (infinitives, participles, etc.) is thus indirect. Non-finite verbs in V2 languages appear in varying positions depending on the language at hand. In German and Dutch, for instance, non-finite verbs appear after the object (if one is present) in clause final position in main clauses, which means OV (object-verb) order is present in a sense. Swedish and Icelandic, in contrast, position non-finite verbs after the finite verb but before the object (if one is present), which means VO (verb-object) order is present. In this regard, it is important to understand that the V2 principle focuses on the finite verb only.

Embedded clauses

(In the following examples, finite verb forms are in bold, non-finite verb forms are in italics and subjects are underlined.)

The V2 principle may or may not be in force in embedded clauses depending on the (Germanic) language at hand. The languages fall into three groups.

Continental Scandinavian languages: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Faroese

In these languages, the word order of clauses is generally fixed in two patterns of conventionally numbered positions. Both end with positions for (5) non-finite verb forms, (6) objects (7), adverbials.
In main clauses, the V2 constraint holds. The finite verb must be in position (2) and sentence adverbs in position (4). The latter include words with meanings such as 'not' and 'always'. The subject may be position (1), but when a topical expression occupies the position, the subject is in position (3).
In embedded clauses, the V2 constraint is absent. After the conjunction, the subject must immediately follow; it cannot be replaced by a topical expression. Thus, the first four positions are in the fixed order (1) conjunction, (2) subject, (3) sentence adverb, (4) finite verb

The position of the sentence adverbs is important to those theorists who see them as marking the start of a large constituent within the clause. Thus the finite verb is seen as inside that constituent in embedded clauses, but outside that constituent in V2 main clauses.

Swedish Danish Norwegian
(with multiple adverbials and multiple non-finite forms, in two varieties of the language) Faroese
Unlike other continental Scandinavian languages, the sentence adverb may either precede or follow the finite verb in embedded clauses. A (3a) slot is inserted here for the following sentence adverb alternative.

German, Dutch, Afrikaans

In these languages there is a strong tendency to place some or all of the verb forms in final position.

In main clauses, the V2 constraint holds. As with other Germanic languages, the finite verb must be in the second position. However, any non-finite forms must be in final position. The subject may be in the first position, but when a topical expression occupies the position, the subject follows the finite verb.
In embedded clauses, the V2 constraint does not hold. The finite verb form must be adjacent to any non-finite at the end of the clause, with different word-order in different languages.

German grammarians traditionally divide sentences into fields. Subordinate clauses preceding the main clause are said to be in the first field (Vorfeld), clauses following the main clause in the final field (Nachfeld).
The central field (Mittelfeld ) contains most or all of a clause, and is bounded by left bracket (Linke Satzklammer) and right bracket (Rechte Satzklammer) positions.

In main clauses, the initial element (subject or topical expression) is said to be located in the first field, the V2 finite verb form in the left bracket, and any non-finite verb forms in the right bracket.
In embedded clauses, the conjunction is said to be located in the left bracket, and the verb forms in the right bracket. In German embedded clauses, a finite verb form follows any non-finite forms.

German Dutch

This analysis suggests a close parallel between the V2 finite form in main clauses and the conjunctions in embedded clauses. Each is seen as an introduction to its clause-type, a function which some modern scholars have equated with the notion of specifier. The analysis is supported in spoken Dutch by the placement of clitic pronoun subjects. Forms such as ie cannot stand alone, unlike the full-form equivalent hij. The words to which they may be attached are those same introduction words: the V2 form in a main clause, or the conjunction in an embedded clause.

Dutch differs from German in its word order in subordinate clause. In Dutch subordinate clauses two word orders are possible for the verb clusters and are referred to as the "red": omdat ik heb gewerkt, "because I have worked": like in English, where the auxiliary verb precedes the past particle, and the "green": omdat ik gewerkt heb, where the past particle precedes the auxiliary verb, "because I worked have": like in German. In Dutch, the green word order is the most used in speech, and the red is the most used in writing, particularly in journalistic texts, but the green is also used in writing as is the red in speech. Unlike in English however adjectives and adverbs must precede the verb: ''dat het boek groen is'', "that the book green is".

Icelandic and Yiddish

These languages freely allow V2 order in embedded clauses.

Two word-order patterns are largely similar to continental Scandinavian. However, in main clauses an extra slot is needed for when the front position is occupied by Það. In these clauses the subject follows any sentence adverbs. In embedded clauses, sentence adverbs follow the finite verb (an optional order in Faroese).

In more radical contrast with other Germanic languages, a third pattern exists for embedded clauses with the conjunction followed by the V2 order: front-finite verb-subject.

Unlike Standard German, Yiddish normally has verb forms before Objects (SVO order), and in embedded clauses has conjunction followed by V2 order.

Root clauses

One type of embedded clause with V2 following the conjunction is found throughout the Germanic languages, although it is more common in some than it is others. These are termed root clauses. They are declarative content clauses, the direct objects of so-called bridge verbs, which are understood to quote a statement. For that reason, they exhibit the V2 word order of the equivalent direct quotation.

Items other than the subject are allowed to appear in front position. Swedish
Items other than the subject are occasionally allowed to appear in front position. Generally, the statement must be one with which the speaker agrees.

This order is not possible with a statement with which the speaker does not agree.

Root clause V2 order is possible only when the conjunction dass is omitted.

Compare the normal embed-clause order after dass

V2 in English

Modern English differs greatly in word order from other modern Germanic languages, but earlier English shared many similarities. Some scholars therefore propose a description of Old English with V2 constraint as the norm. The history of English syntax is thus seen as a process of losing the constraint.

Old English

In these examples, finite verb forms are in bold, non-finite verb forms are in italics and subjects are underlined.

Main clauses

Subject first Question word first Topic phrase first þa first Negative word first Object first

Position of object

In examples b,c and d, the object of the clause precedes a non-finite verb form. Superficially, the structure is verb-subject-object- verb. To capture generalities, scholars of syntax and linguistic typology treat them as basically subject-object-verb (SOV) structure, modified by the V2 constraint. Thus Old English is classified, to some extent, as an SOV language. However, example a represents a number of Old English clauses with object following a non-finite verb form, with the superficial structure verb-subject-verb object. A more substantial number of clauses contain a single finite verb form followed by an object, superficially verb-subject-object. Again, a generalisation is captured by describing these as subject–verb–object (SVO) modified by V2. Thus Old English can be described as intermediate between SOV languages (like German and Dutch) and SVO languages (like Swedish and Icelandic).

Effect of subject pronouns

When the subject of a clause was a personal pronoun, V2 did not always operate.

However, V2 verb-subject inversion occurred without exception after a question word or the negative ne, and with few exceptions after þa even with pronominal subjects.

Inversion of a subject pronoun also occurred regularly after a direct quotation.

Embedded clauses

Embedded clauses with pronoun subjects were not subject to V2. Even with noun subjects, V2 inversion did not occur.

Yes-No questions

In a similar clause pattern, the finite verb form of a yes-no question occupied the first position


Early Middle English generally preserved V2 structure in clauses with nominal subjects.

Topic phrase first Nu first

As in Old English, V2 inversion did not apply to clauses with pronoun subjects.

Topic phrase first Object first


Late Middle English texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries show increasing incidence of clauses without the inversion associated with V2.

Topic adverb first Topic phrase first

Negative clauses were no longer formed with ne (or na) as the first element. Inversion in negative clauses was attributable to other causes.

Wh- question word first There first Object first

Vestiges of V2 in Modern English

As in earlier periods, Modern English normally has subject-verb order in declarative clauses and inverted verb-subject order in interrogative clauses. However these norms are observed irrespective of the number of clause elements preceding the verb. Moreover, it is not useful to characterize the verb form which undergoes inversion as 'the finite verb'.

Classes of verbs in Modern English: auxiliary and lexical

Inversion in Old English sentences with a combination of two verbs could be described in terms of their finite and non-finite forms. The word which participated in inversion was the finite verb; the verb which retained its position relative to the Object was the non-finite verb. In most types of Modern English clause, there are two verb forms, but the verbs are considered to belong to different syntactic classes. The verbs which participated in inversion have evolved to form a class of auxiliary verbs which may mark tense, aspect and mood; the remaining majority of verbs with full semantic value are said to constitute the class of lexical verbs. The exceptional type of clause is that of declarative clause with a lexical verb in a Present simple or Past simple form.


Interrogative Wh- questions (like Yes/No questions) are regularly formed with inversion of subject and auxiliary. Present Simple and Present Past questions are formed with the auxiliary do, a process known as do-support.

With topic adverbs and adverbial phrases

In certain patterns similar to Old and Middle English, inversion is possible. However, this is a matter of stylistic choice, unlike the constraint on interrogative clauses.

negative or restrictive adverbial first comparative adverb or adjective first

After the preceding classes of adverbial, only auxiliary verbs, not lexical verbs, participate in inversion

locative or temporal adverb first prepositional phrase first

After the two latter types of adverbial, only one-word lexical verb forms (Present Simple or Past Simple), not auxiliary verbs, participate in inversion, and only with noun-phrase subjects, not pronominal subjects.

Direct quotations

When the object of a verb is a verbatim quotation, it may precede the verb, with a result similar to Old English V2. Such clauses are found in storytelling and in news reports.

Declarative clauses without inversion

Corresponding to the above examples, the following clauses show the normal Modern English subject-verb order.

Declarative equivalents Equivalents without topic fronting

V2 in Old French

Modern French is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language which is derived, like other Romance languages, from Latin, which is a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language. However, there are more instances of V2 constructions in Old French than in other early Romance language texts. It has been suggested that this may be due to influence from the Germanic Frankish language. The following sentences have been identified as possible examples of V2 syntax:


As was first noted in 1914 by Jules Bloch, V2 word order occurs outside of Germanic, in the Indo-Aryan language Kashmiri. Declarative main clauses as well as embedded object clauses in Kashmiri have V2 word order, but relative clauses have SOV order, e.g.

  • Basic sentence
  • With fronted adverb
  • Subordinate clause
  • Subordinate clause with fronted adverb
  • Relative clause
  • Relative clause with embedded subordinate clause
  • Kashmiri differs from the V2 languages of Europe in that in all clause types Kashmiri exhibits the characteristics of SOV languages. It has postpositions (not prepositions), objects before the main verb (not after - unless the main verb itself is in position 2), and auxiliaries after main verbs (unless the auxiliary itself is in position 2) [example from 'saaykal' by Ratan Lal Shant]:

    khaar oos rinyoomut Tyuub lemy-lemy Tayr-i manz-i nyebar keD-yith tshun-aan. mechanic was worn.out tube pulling-pulling tire-Abl inside-Abl out take.out-Ger THROW-ing 'The mechanic was pulling the worn-out tube out of the tire.'

    The postposition manzi 'from inside' follows its object Tayri. The direct object Tyuub precedes its verb keD- 'take out'. The compound verb auxiliary tshun- THROW follows the main verb keD-.

    Kotgarhi and Kochi

    In his 1976 three-volume study of two Indo-Aryan languages of Himachal Pradesh, Hendriksen reports on two intermediate cases: Kotgarhi and Kochi. Although neither language shows a regular V-2 pattern, they have evolved to the point that main and subordinate clauses differ in word order and auxiliaries may separate from other parts of the verb:

    Hendriksen reports that relative clauses in Kochi show a greater tendency to have the finite verbal element in clause-final position than matrix clauses do (III:188).


    In Ingush, "for main clauses, other than episode-initial and other all-new ones, verb-second order is most common. The verb, or the finite part of a compound verb or analytic tense form (i.e. the light verb or the auxiliary), follows the first word or phrase in the clause."

    muusaa vy hwuona telefon jettazh Musa V.PROG 2sg.DAT telephone striking 'Musa is telephoning you.'


    O'odham has relatively free word order within clauses; for example, all of the following sentences mean "the boy brands the pig":

  • ceoj ʼo g ko:jĭ ceposid
  • ko:jĭ ʼo g ceoj ceposid
  • ceoj ʼo ceposid g ko:jĭ
  • ko:jĭ ʼo ceposid g ceoj
  • ceposid ʼo g ceoj g ko:jĭ
  • ceposid ʼo g ko:jĭ g ceoj
  • Despite the general freedom of sentence word order, O'odham is fairly strictly verb-second in its placement of the auxiliary verb (in the above sentences, it is ʼo; in the following it is ʼañ):

  • Affirmative: cipkan ʼañ = "I am working"
  • Negative: pi ʼañ cipkan = "I am not working" [not *pi cipkan ʼañ]
  • Sursilvan

    Among dialects of the Romansh, V2 word order is limited to Sursilvan, the insertion of entire phrases between auxiliary verbs and participles occurs, as in 'Cun Mariano Tschuor ha Augustin Beeli discurriu ' ('Mariano Tschuor has spoken with Augustin Beeli'), as compared to Engadinese 'Cun Rudolf Gasser ha discurrü Gion Peider Mischol' ('Rudolf Gasser has spoken with Gion Peider Mischol'.)

    The constituent that is bounded by the auxiliary, ha, and the participle, discurriu, is known as a Satzklammer or 'verbal bracket'.

    Structural analysis of V2 in Dependency Grammar

    Dependency grammar (DG) can accommodate the V2 phenomenon simply by stipulating that one and only one constituent can be a predependent of the finite verb (i.e. a dependent which precedes its head) in declarative (matrix) clauses (in this, Dependency Grammar assumes only one clausal level and one position of the verb, instead of a distinction between a VP-internal and a higher clausal position of the verb as in Generative Grammar, cf. the next section). On this account, the V2 principle is violated if the finite verb has more than one predependent or no predependent at all. The following DG structures of the first four German sentences above illustrate the analysis (the sentence means 'The kids play soccer in the park before school'):

    The finite verb spielen is the root of all clause structure. The V2 principle requires that this root have a single predependent, which it does in each of the four sentences.

    The four English sentences above involving the V2 phenomenon receive the following analyses:

    Structural analysis in Generative Grammar

    In the theory of Generative Grammar, the verb second phenomenon has been described as an application of X-bar theory. The combination of a first position for a phrase and a second position for a single verb has been identified as the combination of specifier and head of a phrase. The part after the finite verb is then the complement. While the sentence structure of English is usually analysed in terms of three levels, CP, IP, and VP, in German linguistics the consensus has emerged that there is no IP in German.

    The VP (verb phrase) structure assigns position and functions to the arguments of the verb. Hence, this structure is shaped by the grammatical properties of the V (verb) which heads the structure. The CP (complementizer phrase) structure incorporates the grammatical information which identifies the clause as declarative or interrogative, main or embedded. The structure is shaped by the abstract C (complementiser) which is considered the head of the structure. In embedded clauses the C position accommodates subordinating conjunctions. In German declarative main clauses, C hosts the finite verb. Thus the V2 structure is analysed as

    1 Topic element (specifier of CP) 2 Finite-verb form (C=head of CP) i.e. verb-second 3 Remainder of the clause

    In embedded clauses, the C position is occupied by a conjunction.In most Germanic languages (but not in Icelandic or Yiddish), this generally prevents the finite verb from moving to C.

    The structure is analysed as

    This analysis does not provide a structure for the instances in some language of root clauses after bridge verbs.

    Example: Danish Vi ved at denne bog har Bo ikke læst with the object of the embedded clause fronted. (Literally 'We know that this book has Bo not read')

    The solution is to allow verbs such as ved to accept a clause with a second (recursive) CP.

    The conjunction occupies C position in the upper CP. The finite verb moves to the C position in the lower CP.


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  • References

    V2 word order Wikipedia

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