Here are some examples of sentences where a better placed prepositional phrase would lead to clarity, but a misplaced one leads to humor. They come from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, by Steven Pinker.
“I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know,” Groucho Marx.
Two cars were reported stolen by the Groveton police yesterday,
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We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.
For sale: Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.
Exercise: Rewrite these sentences to make them clear.
Here is a sampler of sentences in different syntactical configurations, using English as the neutral language to follow the patterns. English is an S(ubject)-V(erb)-O(bject) language. I am striving to get at the general principle here. A true linguistic analysis would be more detailed.
1. English (SVO): I saw Megan.
Welsh (VSO): Mi welais i Megan (Saw I Megan)
Irish (VSO) D’imigh na fir (Left the men)
In Welsh and Irish, the verb and its participles/morphemes, etc. come first.
2. English (SVO): The boy hit the dog with a stick.
Hindi (SOV): Larke-ne cari-se kutte-ko mara. (Boy stick-with dog hit)
Japanese: (SOV): Taroo-ga ringo-o tabeta. (Taroo apple ate.)
In Hindi and Japanese, the subject comes first, followed by the object, and then the verb.
These are oversimplifications, but serve to humble us all in realizing that the way we do it is not necessarily superior. What is “right” to us is downright baffling to others. And speaking of being humbled, if I have messed up somebody’s language, please let me know. These examples come from academic texts, not peoples’ mouths.
NOTE: The examples are taken from Comparative Syntax, by Ian Roberts, and from the 7th Edition of Language Files, written and edited collectively by the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State University.
Exercise: Survey the class to see if any of the students speak languages which have a format other than SVO, and have them write them on the board, or otherwise share them with the class.