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As Russian has flexible word order, the following sentences should mean the same.

А) иностранец мне показывал свой паспорт

Б) иностранец показывал мне свой паспорт

But, as per DuoLingo, First sentence is wrong.

I can see both sentences are leading to the same meaning in google translator too. But when I reverse translate, translators are showing only second sentence.

Is second sentence more correct than the first or is only second sentence correct?

2 Answers 2

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Both versions are correct, but the second is more natural. While Russian indeed has a flexible word order, some word orders are more natural than others.

As a native Russian speaker (but not a professional copy editor), I would not even note the first sentence as wrong if it was presented separately, and I can easily imagine myself saying or writing something like this. However, when these two sentences are presented side-by-side, I clearly see that the second is better.

However, compare with

Иностранец только мне показывал свой паспорт.

This is better than

Иностранец показывал только мне свой паспорт.

The first is better (or "Иностранец показывал свой паспорт только мне." is also good).

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As Russian has flexible word order, the following sentences should mean the same.

"Flexible word order" doesn't mean that the order of words conveys no meaning whatsoever. It means that the order of words doesn't affect the denonation (face, or literal meaning) of the expression, but it may (and does) affect its connotation.

In the case of the Russian language, the order of words affects the information structure of the sentence. By rearranging words in a Russian sentence (and, in speech, by pronouncing them with different intonation), you specify what's the topic and what's the comment in the sentence.

I can hardly imagine a situation in which you would use this sentence in isolation, because you would most probably need to build some context prior to uttering this particular sentence (who's the foreigner? how come he's a part of the picture? what else was he doing to justify the imperfective in показывал?). But in the context of the discourse that would most likely have happened prior to this sentence, the foreigner would be the topic of the sentence, and the rest would be the comment.

For some reason, I'm thinking of a police statement to approximately this effect: Я гулял по улице и встретил чету иностранцев. Они стали просить у меня денег на обратный билет. Иностранец показывал мне свой паспорт. Его жена со слезами рассказывала, как они потеряли всё деньги.

In this most common case, when it's hard to define what's the most important "news" part of the sentence, the order of words is the typical SVO.

If the information structure were different, so would be the word order. Like this: Мы с моей девушкой встретили чету иностранцев. Они стали просить у нас денег на обратный билет. Мне иностранец показывал свой паспорт. Девушке же он показывал фото своих детей. In this case, мне is a very prominent topic, so it goes first.

Truth be told, I can't imagine a situation which would clearly justify the word order of иностранец мне показывал свой паспорт, except a piece of poetry where it would be used solely for its rhythm.

All above is not unique to Russian, and, to a certain extent, works in English as well. You can say "Mary I love", if it's implied that it's as opposed to someone else, like maybe her sister, whom you don't love. But phrases like this don't make a lot of sense in isolation.


But when I reverse translate, translators are showing only second sentence.

Most of translation software these days uses the technology known as "large language models", or LLM. This technology is eerily good at deducing what's the most likely next word missing from a phrase in a certain context, the context being your English phrase and the implicit prompt of "translate it to Russian". Since your isolated phrase is not giving the model a lot of context to behave otherwise, the model is picking the most likely order of words, which is SVO.

For instance, if I paste this into Yandex Translate:

I was walking with my girl and we met a couple of foreigners. They started begging for money for return tickets. To me, the foreigner was showing his passport; as for her, he was showing pictures of his kids.

, it gives me back this:

Я гулял со своей девушкой, и мы встретили пару иностранцев. Они начали выпрашивать деньги на обратные билеты. Мне иностранец показывал свой паспорт, а ей - фотографии своих детей.

If you delete the part after the semicolon, it yields the default SVO:

Я гулял со своей девушкой, и мы встретили пару иностранцев. Они начали выпрашивать деньги на обратные билеты. Иностранец показал мне свой паспорт.

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