Grammar Wednesday

Adverb Placement Edition!

California Teacher Guy has another grammar question (thanks, CTG – I LOVE GW suggestions!!); though, because my computer has mysteriously eaten the email he sent containing the request – again – I can’t quote the query for you.   Grrr.  Paraphrasing, then, CTG wants to know whether it matters where one puts the adverb in a sentence like:

“We usually go to the movies on Sunday afternoons.”

My short answer is, “it depends on the adverb.”

Grammatically, we can say (or write) this particular sentence four different ways.  We can put the adverb usually where I put it above – that is, after the subject (we) and before the verb (go).  We can also set the adverb at either the beginning or end of the sentence, thus:

Usually, we go to the movies…

…to the movies on Sunday afternoons, usually. 

Further, we can put the adverb in the smack center of the sentence, like so:

We go to the movies, usually, on Sunday afternoons.

Grammatically, this last sentence is still correct, though I find it a bit awkward to actually speak.

Really, all we’re doing by moving the adverb in this sentence is changing the emphasis: the sentences all mean essentially the same thing – that it is a common occurrence for us to go to the movies on Sunday afternoons – but the flavor of the sentence is changed a bit when the adverb is moved (at least, to my understanding, anyway –  you may not perceive a difference at all).

Let’s look at a different adverb now.  Take this example from my Elements of Grammar:

He only nominated Jones for president.

andHe nominated only Jones for president.

In the first sentence, he nominated Jones, but he didn’t actually vote for him; the nominating was the only thing that happened.  In the second sentence, he didn’t nominate anyone else BUT Jones for president.  Get it?

Finally, I promised to go over then/than today. Here we go:

THEN is an adverb used to denote time or sequence:

First, I gave a lesson in adverb placement, then I cleared up two commonly confused words.

I bought gas there last week, but I paid 5 cents more for it then.

Look at the recipe first, then see if you have all the ingredients you need. 

THAN is a conjunction used to introduce a subordinate clause, usually expressing comparison, choice, or preference:

You will find no better town than this one.

I would rather die than marry that lout.

She is far taller than I. 

Happy Wednesday, everyone!  Keep those grammar questions coming!

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Great explanation of the proper use of “only.” Most people, however, use the two examples you cite interchangeably. Alas and alack!

  2. In speech we usually put “only” directly before the verb, and use intonation to make it clear which element “only” is modifying:

    He only NOMINATED Jones for president.
    He only nominated JONES for president.

    In prose we can’t use intonation, of course, so “only” is usually placed directly before the element it modifies.

  3. Yes, John, and I thought about putting some sort of emphasis on the verb or the object when I was writing, to show that intonation. Copying directly from the text as I was, though, precluded my doing that. The meanings are much clearer when the structures are actually spoken out loud.

  4. Leah

    Thanks for the then/than. That ranks up there in my biggest pet peeves with your/you’re and there/their/they’re. Sometimes it really does suck being a grammarian on the internet.

    There’s currently a woman on one of my forums who consistently uses his when she means he’s. Nails on a chalkboard while receiving Chinese water torture, I tell you.

  5. Leah, we all have our “things.” For me, it’s subject/verb agreement. “There’s a couple of towels on the floor” or “There’s a shitload of reasons why the president should be impeached.” GAH!

  6. Oh, Mrs. Chili, I completely agree with you: “There’s a couple of….”

    Shoot me now, and put me out of my misery! 😉

  7. It’s my thing, CTG – it makes me cringe. That and “neither of them know…” People actually look at me funny when I say things like “None of you KNOWS the answer?” or “Neither of us IS going.” I think it’s funny (in a not-so-funny way) that they all think that I’M wrong…

  8. OK, you have to get the TiVO to capture The Kill Point on Spike. Whether you like the show itself or not you’ll get a kick out of Donnie Wahlberg’s character, the Hostage Negotiator/Grammar Nazi. While getting his ass chewed he turned on his supervisor and dressed the man down for a misplaced modifier. Let’s see if I can get the quote for you:

    “When you said ‘people who wait often miss golden opportunities’ you used a misplaced modifier, confusing the message recipient, me, about whether I’ll miss a golden opportunity if I wait frequently or if I’ll miss a golden opportunity the very first time I wait.”

  9. The ‘usually’ examples depend a little more on adverb placement than you suggest here; I think it’s more than ‘flavo(u)r’.

    We usually go to the movies on Sunday afternoons.

    We go to the movies, usually on Sunday afternoons.

    We go to the movies on Sunday afternoons, usually.

    I’d contend that the first means that, for most Sunday afternoons, we are at the movies a film. The second though, suggests that if we are at a film, then chances are it is a Sunday afternoon. The third, and indeed the same with the adverb moved right to the front, can mean either and depend therefore on either context or intonation, as in John’s only example.

    Hmm, after thinking about this a bit more, I agree entirely with John. These examples mean what they mean to me because of the intonation they have when I sound them out. Indeed I can override any interpretation simply by altering the prosody:

    We usually go to the movies on Sunday afternoons.

    Intonation is a lot more important than we give it credit for, methinks.

  10. Kizz, it’s on TiVo already, I just haven’t gotten a chance to sit down and watch it. Now I’m even more eager to see it than I was before.

    Jangari, welcome back! I think you’re both right; intonation has a lot to do with how we interpret the meaning of the words in the sentence, which is why we struggle to be particularly clear when writing, methinks. : )

  11. And which is also why punctuation is ultimately important, as it is the only available (thus far) orthographic tool that represents intonation contours (though not very well). In that respect, I think punctuation should be exempt from categorical ‘rules’ (such as separating items in a list with commas except for the last two, which are separated by ‘and’). Rather, punctuation should be fluid and determined ultimately by how the sentence/passage should sound to the speaker.

  12. Ah, finally an answer. The then/than issue has been on my mind sporadically for years.

  13. Hi Mrs. Chili!

    So, so, so sorry to worry you. I’ve been up to my ears in CHILDREN (why did no one tell they’re, like, a full-time committment?!?!?!). I found a nanny gig for the summer and I have been living with a FANTASTIC family for the past 2 months. THEY are wonderful, however their internet connection is from the stoneage. (We’re talking DIAL-UP people!!!! I made two sandwiches and did three loads of laundry in the time it took for this comment to upload.)

    I’m glad to see that Grammar Wednesday is still going strong. In fact, I thought of a question! In the following sample conversation, did my reply use proper grammar?

    SMF: Are you going to call your mother tonight?

    Me: I’m going to after dinner.

    Is this another prime example of the love Chicagoans have for the improper use of prepositions?

    ANYWAY….I’ve updated (sort of…you’ll see) and things are going swimmingly here. Look forward to catching up on yer blogging.

    *Hugs*

  14. I’m going to after dinner.

    The to in that isn’t a preposition; it’s some sort of verb particle (there may well be a agreed-upon term for it, but I don’t know what it is). It denotes the infinitive, or uninflected form of the verb. English allows the dropping of the verb in such examples, some (most?) languages don’t. Italian, for instance (and likely other Latinate languages) require the verb to be explicit.

    Si. La chiamerá
    Yes. 3sg.Fem.Acc call.Fut.1sg
    “Yes, I will call her”

    Besides, I don’t think it’s Chicagoans, I think it’s probably about all speakers of English who drop the verb (most of the time) where it’s been given already in the preceding utterance.

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