Guess what it is.

Sometimes you don’t understand what a Russian speaker says. Even though you know all the words. Or you think you understand it but then you realize it was something totally different!

This is something you won’t learn from CDs or apps. And even textbooks don’t make an emphasis on it.

And it is… the Russian word order.

It’s more flexible than you think

Some beginner learners of Russian get confused when they hear familiar words in a very strange order.

For example, you know that “What is it?” is “Что это?”. But suddenly a native speaker asks you “Это что?” and you’re stuck. But actually, it’s the same thing. Just phrased differently.

You might feel surprised at first because it never happens in English. English sentences have a predictable, fixed structure.

In Russian, it happens very often: the word order in Russian sentences is not fixed. Even in the simplest of sentences.

(It’s because we usually tell the most important or new things at the end of the sentence – but you don’t need to focus on this idea too much at the beginning.)

More examples:

Что здесь? What is here?
Здесь магазин. A shop.
А метро где? And where’s the metro?
Метро там. The metro is there.

Видишь парк? Там играют дети. Can you see the park? Children are playing there.

Кто это? Who is it?
Это Лена. It’s Lena.
А Лена кто? And who is Lena?
Коллега. A colleague.

Здесь не работает кондиционер. The conditioner isn’t working here.

That’s one reason why learning phrases from a CD doesn’t help much – in a real conversation, you might hear the same sentence with a slightly different word order and get confused.

Action step

Once you discover the flexible Russian word order, your challenge is to get used to various ways of saying more or less the same thing.

To embrace this flexibility, you need lots of examples but also to practice saying different versions of the same sentence. This kind of practice is the quickest way to create new neural pathways in your brain and make the unusual Russian word order your own.


Don’t be deceived by the word order

They say “Тебя спрашивает девушка” and you think: “What?! Am I asking a girl? That’s nonsense! I’m not asking anybody anything!”

That’s because you’ve relied on the word order to tell who is doing what.

That’s right in English: first comes the subject (the doer, someone who does the action), then the verb (action) and then the object of the action (who the action is done to).

For example, I love you.
I = subject because I do the action, love = verb, you = the object of my love.

To express the same idea in Russian, we can say many sentences all of which are grammatically correct and mean in essence the same thing (sometimes emphasizing different nuances):

Я люблю тебя
Я тебя люблю
Люблю я тебя            I love you
Тебя я люблю
Тебя люблю я

So how do we know who loves who if the word order doesn’t help?

You need to rely on word forms and not the word order.

For example, “я” is always a subject (doer), doesn’t matter where it is in the sentence.

“Тебя” is always an object form. So no matter its position, it’s the person who is loved.

subject        object
я                   меня             I, me
ты                тебя               you
он                его                 he, him

…Let’s go back to the lady. As I’ve said, we tend to tell the most important or new things at the end. So in some contexts, it can be more logical to have a “reversed” word order compared to English. When we want to emphasize the subject (the doer), we put it to the end:

Тебя спрашивает девушка.
A young lady is asking for you.

You don’t need to dwell on the details about the new/important information at this stage.

But if you remember one thing from this post, let it be this: in Russian, the word order is not fixed. So in order to understand who does the action and who the action is done to, you need to look closely at the word forms.


Let’s wrap it up

Sometimes you risk not getting the meaning of a phrase just because the word order is not what you’re used to.

To get used to this flexibility, practice saying simple sentences with different word order.

When the word order changes, the main meaning of the sentence stays the same (even if sometimes certain things are emphasized – you’ll learn that later on).

But from the very beginning, you need to learn to pay attention to word forms – it is the forms, not the word order, that will tell you who did what to whom (and more!).

As your level grows and you learn new things, continue using authentic, natural examples. You need to expose yourself to different ways to phrase things and notice everything that looks “unusual”. This way you’ll train yourself to understand exactly what people say, no matter how they phrase it.


P.S. The photo was made in Moscow, Russia, by Mike Kononov

Anastasia Yildirim

Hi, my name is Anastasia. I’m a Russian teacher and speaking trainer. I love working with ambitious learners who feel stuck; I help them turn random grammar & vocabulary knowledge into speaking skills so that they break through the beginner level and can have deep conversations with natives.

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