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The Position of Adverbs and Adverbial Clauses





Amorey Gethin



A reader asked about the basic rules of word order for adverbs and adverbial clauses in written English. In fact, one cannot really speak of rules in this connection. There are only certain conventions of common usage.


There is little, if any, difference between the conventions of adverb word order for spoken English and those for written English. It is probably true to say, however, that there is greater variety and flexibility in the position of adverbs in written English.


1 Adverbs most commonly come at the end of a sentence or clause:








two books

last year.


A very common mistake is to put adverbs between the verb and its object.*He drives too fast his car.You will occasionally find an adverb inserted between verb and object, but you should not try this until your command of English is more or less perfect, and you can judge for yourself whether you are writing or speaking idiomatically.


2 Several adverbs together usually go in the order
manner, place, time






She finished the

last chapter

very quickly

at home

last week.



3 But there is another sort of adverb which does not usually come at the end of the sentence. Compare the following two sentences:


She began looking at the man stupidly.


She stupidly began looking at the man.


In the first sentence we are saying how she looked at the man: she looked at him in a stupid way. In the second sentence we are saying that it was stupid of her to look at him; we are making a COMMENT, but we are NOT saying how she looked at him.


So if the adverb says how (or to what degree), where, when or how long, it usually goes at the end of the sentence, but if it does NOT say any of these things, it is a 'COMMENT' adverb and goes after the subject.


Anne clearly wanted to leave.


Jean quite definitely has a temperature.


Notice that

(a) 'comment' adverbs normally go BEFORE the verb, but

(b) AFTER the verb be if this is one word:


FranÁois is usually cheerful.


(c) if the verb is more than one word, the adverb goes AFTER the FIRST auxiliary:


She has (1st aux.) hardly ever written a bad book.


Her new book will (1st aux.) probably be (2nd aux.) published next month.


Remember that modal verbs are a kind of auxiliary, so 'comment' adverbs go after them:


You must always try to speak clearly.


Notice how many 'comment' adverbs are what are called ADVERBS OF FREQUENCY, such as always, never, often, seldom, sometimes, usually etc. They are adverbs of time, but do NOT answer the question when?


I have seldom heard her laugh so much over a book.


NB What I have here called COMMENT adverbs are often called SENTENCE ADVERBS.


4 But in many contexts, adverbs of practically any sort can be put at the beginning of the sentence, for emphasis:


Way back in the thirties the summers always seemed sunny and hot.


Sometimes we played cards.


At the end of the road there is an old pub.


Calmly, tenderly, and with great patience, she tried to restore his confidence.


5 ADVERBIAL CLAUSES can be placed both before and after the main clause with virtually no difference in meaning except emphasis. Thus:


When you have done it a few times, you will find it is quite easy. or


You will find it is quite easy when you have done it a few times.


They can also be put between two other clauses:


You will find, when you have done it a few times, that it is quite easy.


6 Generally speaking, if you follow the principles explained above, you won't go far wrong. But there is one principle that is even more important than those. That is that the demands of MEANING come before anything else. Look at the next two sentences.


In the evenings I dream about all the wonderful meals we are going to have together.


I dream about all the wonderful meals we are going to have together in the evenings.


The difference in meaning between the two sentences is, I think, clear. (In the first one we are told that it is in the evenings that I dream; in the second, we are going to eat the meals in the evenings). So what this shows is that adverbs should be attached as closely as possible to the words they refer to.


7 There are a few words that need special comment.


You should not normally put always or also at the beginning of a sentence, except with an imperative in the case of always:


Always tell the truth.


Another word that sometimes causes trouble is still. As an adverb of time it should not be used at the beginning of a sentence (unless you particularly want to use a dramatic literary style). Normally at the beginning of a sentence it has the sense of nevertheless, all the same. And notice that in this sense still is always followed by a COMMA.


They lead pretty dull lives. Still, they have their grandchildren, and the garden.


It really was a dreadful film. Still, I suppose I have seen worse.


8 Finally, remember that if you put a NEGATIVE adverb, or such or so, or certain other words, at the beginning of a sentence, you have to use INVERSION. (See Inversion)


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