Structure and word order of a Hungarian sentence

The word order in a Hungarian sentence continues to be one of the major headaches for learners of Hungarian. It is not a surprise. Hungarian word order is quite different from the English one and, what's even "worse", it is variable. There is no single good word order. Yet there are rules. We can't just throw words around and expect to have a valid sentence.
Further complicating the situation is the different grammar terminology. English talks about parts of a sentence as Subject-Verb-Object, Object being Direct or Indirect, and... and adverb and adjective, and I don't know what else. At least this is what I see here in the comments as the common parts. I understand it may not be the most scientific categorization, but that is what I see most here.

Hungarian, well, Hungarian looks at things somewhat differently. It may help a bit if we overview the parts of a Hungarian sentence, according to Hungarian grammar, and see how these relate to the English terms.

These are the major parts of a Hungarian sentence:

Alany - Állítmány - Tárgy - Határozó - Jelző

Not necessarily in this order though! But we have to define what these parts are:

"Alany" - Subject - this one is clear

"Állítmány" - Predicate - the trouble starts already. This is the statement in the sentence, this is what we are stating about the subject. It can be a verb but it is not necessarily a verb. Think of how there is no "van" in the third person when "the adjective is after the noun". That is code for a "névszói állítmány", that is, when the predicate is not a verb. Look at these two sentences. The predicate is capitalized:
"Kati JÁTSZIK." - Kati is playing. - the predicate is a verb
"Kati OKOS." - Kati is smart. - the predicate is an adjective
I guess English would call "smart" an object (not sure - update: no, apparently not. Let's just simply call it a predicative adjective for now). In Hungarian, both "játszik" and "okos" are "Állítmány", predicate. So, the "Állítmány" describes the action or, if there is no verb, it still tells us something about the "Alany" (Subject).
Update: here is a link explaining the difference between verb and predicate in the English language (thanks ID-07). Of course, the English predicate will always contain (or be) a verb. But the Hungarian predicate may stand without a verb - due to the no "van" in the third person present statement phenomenon.

"Tárgy" - Direct Object - yes, this is the direct object only. Hungarian calls nothing else but the direct object (the one in accusative case) the "Tárgy".
"Könyvet olvasok" - I am reading a book. "Könyvet" is the "Tárgy", the Direct Object.

"Határozó" - this is something vague. It is something like the role of an Adverb. It describes the circumstances of the activity: where, when, how, with what/whom, to whom, etc. Many times it will be a real adverb, for example: "gyorsan" - quickly. Other times it will be a noun in one of those infamous 18 or so cases: "a házban" - in the house, "Katival" - with Kati, "nyáron" - in the Summer, "nagymamának" - to grandma, etc.
This category overlaps various English terms. Most importantly, the English "Indirect Object" will mostly fall in this category ("to grandma"). Other words may be considered part of the predicate in English grammar.

"Jelző" - probably the Adjective (modifying a noun). Yes, so, this is only when the adjective is modifying the noun, that is, the adjective is in front of a noun. When the adjective is not in front of a noun, then it is probably (part of) the "Állítmány"! (Predicate). The "Jelző" will typically describe the quality, quantity of a noun, or indicate a possessive relationship.

Let's just look at one sentence and try to identify the parts of the sentence, according to the Hungarian categorization:

"Péter minden reggel visz egy piros almát az iskolába."
Péter takes a red apple to school every morning.

Alany/Subject: "Péter"

Állítmány/Predicate: "visz"/takes

Tárgy/DirectObject: "almát"/apple

Határozó/Adverb: we have several:
"reggel" - (in the) morning - Időhatározó - a "Határozó" indicating time
"iskolába" - to school - Helyhatározó - a "Határozó" indicating a location

Jelző/Adjective: we have several:
"minden" - every - Mennyiségjelző - a "Jelző" indicating quantity
"piros" - red - Minőségjelző - a "Jelző" indicating quality

These were the major parts.

Now, how do we put these parts in order? That is the tough question. We can't think linearly. We need to look at the relationships between these parts.

It is easy to define the role of the "Jelző" or Adjective. As it is closest to "an adjective modifying a noun", it will invariably stand in front of something. It can modify the "Alany" (Subject), the "Tárgy" (Definite Object), the "Határozó" ("Adverb"), even the "Állítmány" (Predicate) when it is not a verb.
So, the location of the "Jelző" is not a problem. It stands in front of whatever it modifies.

The "Határozó" ("Adverb") enjoys much freedom. It can be moved around as necessary, to give it special emphasis if needed, or just mention it somewhere towards the end of the sentence if it is not that important.

The "Tárgy" (Direct Object) is more closely related to the verb. I say "verb" here because a direct object naturally needs a verb it can relate to. So, when there is a "Tárgy", the "Állítmány" will probably be a verb ("Ige" in Hungarian).
The "Tárgy" will probably be close to the "Állítmány", but there is no fixed place for it. It can be before, after, even before the Subject. More on this later.

The "Alany" (Subject) and "Állítmány" (Predicate) are normally in this order. But this is not fixed at all, either.

And now we have come to word order. The single most important part of the sentence is the "Állítmány", the predicate (verb). It is the central organizing element of the structure. The sentence is built around the predicate (verb). Let's just call it the "verb" from now on, to make it easier.
So, the verb is the centre of attention in a sentence. The sentence is built around the verb. All other parts of the sentence are organized according to their relation to the verb.
The other very important position is immediately in front of the verb. That is the most emphasized position. What we want to emphasize we put in front of the verb. If the verb itself gets the main emphasis, then the emphasized position in front of it does not get utilized. Of course it does not mean that there is a blank in front of the verb, there is just no emphasized word in front of it. That is the case, for example, when the verb has its preverb attached, intact. That is a clear indication of the verb having the emphasis. Or the verb may be the first word in the sentence. Or there may be a word in front of the verb, it is just not emphasized.

So, what happens when we want to emphasize the "Tárgy" (Direct Object)? Answer: place it in front of the verb: " ... almát visz ..."
What happens when we want to emphasize the "Alany" (Subject)? Answer: place it in front of the verb: " ... Péter visz ..."
What happens when we want to emphasize a "Határozó" ("Adverb")? Answer: place it in front of the verb: " ... iskolába visz ..."
Get the pattern? Whatever we emphasize, we place it in front of the verb. The other words are neatly placed around them. The "Alany" (Subject) tends to be close to the front, the "Határozó" ("Adverb") tends to come later (but it depends, there are so many subtypes of "Határozó").

Anyway, the basic structure of a simple sentence usually has "Alany" - "Állítmány", in that order, then the "Tárgy" nearby, with various "Határozó" words thrown around as needed, finally the "Jelző" words immediately in front of the words they refer to.

So, there is some basic guideline for the general order of the parts of a sentence but it is mostly driven by the verb and the emphasis on the various parts.

Bottom line: the verb is the centre of attention. Ask not where to put the verb. Ask where to put everything else relative to the verb!

More on word order and emphasis here:
On Emphasis and Word Order in Hungarian
and here:
Once more on Hungarian Word Order?

I'm sure I made some mistakes here, let me know if something needs to be corrected. Also, this is just a summary in a nutshell. The full theory is more complex. This is just intended as a simple guideline.

I found a great link on word order and parts of a sentence, in Hungarian. Still, many of you might find it useful:

A little update: I have learned a lot myself since I wrote this article. One additional, very important, thing about word order is that Hungarian is a "topic first" language. That is, very frequently, a sentence will start with a topic, then the rest of the sentence will give us new information about the topic. That is why we will find various words in the front of the sentences seemingly out of the blue. This is a wide-spread phenomenon in Hungarian. But we can also find it in English, to some degree. Let's see a common example:

"I went to school yesterday." - very typical, very normal word order.

But how about:
"Yesterday I went to school." - what did I do here? I picked "yesterday" and placed it in front. Why? Because I wanted to say something about yesterday. I made it the topic of my sentence.

Now, multiply this by about a thousand, then there you have Hungarian. :)

January 9, 2017


Ask not where to put the verb. Ask where to put everything else relative to the verb!

This is the answer to probably 60% of forum questions.

January 9, 2017

15% - "It's fine, they just didn't think of that answer, report it."
15% - "Nobody understands this sentence in either Hungarian or English, don't worry."
10% - everything else

January 9, 2017

I'd raise the nobody understand to at least 25% XD

May 4, 2017

This is a very nice and detailed explanation. I think people greatly overstate the flexibility of Hungarian sentence structure. It really isn't very flexible at all, and that leads to frustration for learners when they've heard nothing but that.

January 9, 2017

Thank you so much, vvsey, for taking the time to write this article. The word order is a major frustration in my attempts of learning this language and the probabilistic feedback of DuoLingo doesn't help either...

One addition: in the English sentence "Kati is smart" 'smart' is not the direct object. 'is smart' would be the predicate and 'smart' the predicate adjective, which is connected to the subject by a copula. In most Indo-European languages this copula is the verb 'to be'.

The consequence of the difference between a predicate adjective and a direct object is that the first takes nominative and the latter accusative. A comparison between two German sentences can illustrate:

"Er ist ein Bauer" - he is a farmer ('Bauer' is predicate - nom.) "Er sieht einEN Bauer" - he sees a farmer ('Bauer' is direct object - acc.)

April 26, 2017

You are welcome, Mark841597, and thanks for your addition!

As a bottom line to the above, English can easily talk about Subject-Verb-Object because a complete English sentence will always have a verb. But a Hungarian sentence will frequently be without a verb. Hence the general usage of Predicate ("Állítmány") when talking about the structure of a Hungarian sentence.

Btw, as it is frequently mentioned, the "there is no van" phenomenon only happens in the present tense. Once we switch to the past tense, for example, this issue will be no more: every person will have its verb:
Present - Past:
Én piros vagyok - Én piros voltam
Te piros vagy - Te piros voltál
Ő piros - Ő piros volt
Mi pirosak vagyunk - Mi pirosak voltunk
Ti pirosak vagytok - Ti pirosak voltatok
Ők pirosak - Ők pirosak voltak

April 27, 2017

Hi! For better or worse I'm a native speaker, and I'd say that 'van' is not necessary on it's own anywhere in these sentences. It is only there to accomodate it's suffixes on the first place, that is why the "default" present form with the zero morpheme of third person singular is redundant and therefore left out.

August 9, 2017

Super!!! Danke vvsey :-)

January 20, 2017
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THANKS vvsey. A great reference article!

March 20, 2017

You are welcome, and thanks, ID-07, I have included your link on the difference between verb and predicate.

March 20, 2017

In case other Finns are wondering, here are the terms in Finnish: Alany - subjekti Állítmány" - predikaatti (käsitettynä laajemmin kuin vain verbinä) névszói állítmány - nominaalipredikaatti (edellisen alakategoria) Tárgy - objekti Határozó - adverbi Jelző - määre, attribuutti They correspond well with Finnish grammar, especially the two last ones are understood the same in Finnish grammar.

May 24, 2017

As an American, we are taught that adjectives and nouns that come after an intransitive verb (a verb that does not convey an action from the subject) are not objects. For example, "smart" is an adjective, which renames "Katie." Therefore, it is a Predicate Adjective. If we said "Katie is a girl," then "girl" would be a Predicate Nominative, a word that renames the subject as another noun. I think an object has to come after a transitive verb, like "hit" or "hug," not an intransitive verb like "was, is, are, were," or the like. A transitive verb indicates that the subject is doing something to/at/with/etc. something else. An intransitive verb indicates that the subject is being something else (like how Katie is being smart in the example in the original text). Thanks for the information on Hungarian word order. I fell in love with Budapest and Debrecen when I went there and hope to go back.

December 20, 2017

Thanks for the comment, it gives great insight!

OK, so, the "Predicate Adjective" and "Predicate Nominative" are mapped to the "Állítmány" in Hungarian. The keyword here is "Predicate". And the twist is that, in Hungarian, there is no verb ("van") in a third person present indicative predicate. So the adjective or noun itself becomes the whole predicate.
"Katie" - Subject / Alany
"is" - Verb / [omitted in Hungarian]
"a girl" - Predicate Nominative / Állítmány
In any other case (past or future, or a different person or mood), the verb comes back.

I would slightly disagree on the transitivity. Your definition of an intransitive verb would make "to be" the only intransitive verb in English.

The way I understand, a transitive verb is a verb that takes a direct object ("Tárgy" in Hungarian), not any other object (those become "Határozó"). So:

I eat an apple - direct object - transitive - "Tárgy"
I eat with a fork - not a direct object - intransitive - "Határozó"

There are some inherently transitive or intransitive verbs but I think most of them can be either, depending on how they are used in a sentence. So, the transitivity is just a role they take on in a sentence.

Good luck on your next trip to Hungary!

December 20, 2017

This is so helpful, thank you! I'm finally starting to understand :)

May 11, 2018

Good luck to you, I am happy if I was able to help.

May 11, 2018

This is a great "simple guideline" as you mentioned :)
I'm very glad to have found this, surely will help a lot!
Thank you

March 27, 2017

Best of luck to you!

March 27, 2017

Wow, thanks for pointing me in this direction vvsey :) It makes word order much clearer. I'm also very happy for having learned about the different elements. That somehow strengthens my understanding.

I still find the placement of the határozó confusing but maybe it's mostly due to the limited number of correct answers in the beta version.

April 3, 2017

You are welcome, I am glad if I was able to help.
Yes, the határozó is the most vaguely defined element, since it is the broadest, most versatile category. And it can move around with much freedom. It can be almost anywhere. So, naturally, it will move around with the emphasis. You wil lfrequently find it in front of the verb, getting the main emphasis. Or at the end of the sentence, having no emphasis at all. Or at the beginning of the sentence, setting the scene. And of course there can be a multitude of them in a single sentence. So.... it takes some getting used to the logic of Hungarian word order. Good luck!

April 3, 2017

Thank you, that was very useful. Just one comment about English Objects , they are always nouns or pronouns. In a sentence like Kathy is good, there is no object. Also there is no object after the verb to be, so Kathy is a cow has no object either.

Thanks for the entry

March 13, 2018

You are welcome, and thanks for the comment. Yes, I get confused sometimes about the concept of Object in English. It is a much broader term than in Hungarian. Yet it has its restrictions, apparently. :)

March 14, 2018
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