adverb placement

American-translator-in-Holland David wrote some time ago to say:
I've noticed that Americans often place adverbial phrases that set the scene at the start of the sentence:

At the time, I was not very interested in his work.

British writers, in contrast, are more likely to put the adverbial element in the middle of the sentence, or at the end.

I was not, at the time, very interested in his work.
I was not very interested in his work at the time.

I believe all these word orders are available in both dialects; it's a question of preference, at least in formal writing.

Indeed, all of these are available in either dialect, and Algeo's British or American English reports that some temporal adverbials occur in medial position more often in BrE than in AmE--though they most often occur in initial or final position in main clauses. He lists during the week, earlier in the week, last night/year, now, this afternoon, today and yesterday as more often occuring medially in journalistic BrE than AmE. Now, I haven't the wherewithal to do a big search, but I searched for at the time in the Guardian on-line and the Chicago Tribune on-line, and counted the first 30 main-clause-modifying at the times in each paper according to whether they occurred at the beginning, middle or end of a past-tense clause. I didn't count at the time when it was part of a longer phrase like at the time of his confinement (because the length of a clause might make it more likely to hang out at the end of the clause), and I limited myself to past tense clauses. My results:

newspaper beginningmiddle end
Guardian (UK)10614
Tribune (US)13413
The moral of the story is: if there is a difference, we're going to have to look at a lot more sentences to build up enough steam to see a significant pattern.

But I do want to note that when these adverbials occur sentence-initially, they are much more likely to be followed by a comma in AmE than in BrE. Searching the Guardian and Tribune sites again and just looking at sentence-initial At the time, 27 out of 30 Tribune instances are followed by a comma, while only 13 of 30 Guardian ones are. (You might protest that this depends on the style sheet of the newspaper and the vigilance of its [AmE] copy editors/[BrE] sub-editors, but note that each of these searches included blogs and readers' comments as well as newspaper text.) In general, British readers find AmE writing too littered with commas, while overly-literate punctuation-dependent AmE readers like me (I presume there are less punctuation-dependent readers who aren't terribly bothered) find themselves having to start sentences over again because we assume that the adverbial phrase hasn't ended yet, but then it doesn't develop into anything bigger. So I read:
At the time he...
And because there isn't a comma to stop the adverbial, I wait for the he to develop into a relative clause that modifies time (e.g. At the time he ascended to the throne, he was only 17). It doesn't matter to my reading mind that a that-less relative clause is not a likely thing to happen after a pronoun after at the time, I HAVEN'T HAD A COMMA YET! THERE ARE NO BRAKES ON THIS THING! I DON'T KNOW HOW TO STOP!!!

But back to word order.

Adverbials like at the time or last night tell you when something happened, and contrast with adverbs of frequency (always, often, never, etc.), which usually occur in a medial position in either dialect. However, the dialects differ in the placement of these with respect to auxiliary verbs. To quote Algeo "American has a higher tolerance for placement before the first auxiliary". So, either of the following is grammatical in BrE or AmE, but the second is more likely to occur in AmE:

She is usually at work before 9. (BrE or AmE)
She usually is at work before 9. (more likely in AmE)
Now, it's more likely in AmE than BrE, but usually is not more likely in AmE than is usually. As Algeo says, AmE just has a 'higher tolerance' for it. I've just searched for always, usually, and never in my blog posts and found that I've never put them before the auxiliary--except when I used examples because I already wrote about this phenomenon a bit with never. (I thought I was sounding familiar to myself...)

Another adverbial order difference that Algeo notes concerns adverbs of possibility, like certainly or probably. Searching in the Cambridge International Corpus, he found the following, expressed in 'instances per ten million words':

has certainly22.7
certainly has11.7
has probably21.2
probably has8.8
So, again, one can say either in either dialect, but He has certainly left his mark is more likely in BrE and He certainly has left his mark is more likely in AmE. Of course, this works with auxiliary verbs other than has as well.

In other business:
The folks at myGengo, a translation company, have put a mini-review of SbaCL on their 'translation resources' pages, so here is some free publicity for them in return. (I've not used them, so can't vouch for anything, but it looks like an interesting concept.)


  1. Haha, the part in ALL CAPS about the comma after the phrase is true. Well, it's true for me, an American, at least. At the end of the post, you showed the statistics for placement of the adverb. I think in more informal settings, both Brits and Americans will most likely use the first choice in the form of a contraction with the subject and the word "has", i.e. "he's certainly" or "he's probably". I bet if that study had included the " 's", it would skew the data considerably. What do you think?

  2. I am another who needs to join Comma-Dependents Anonymous. It would not be unusual for me to write a sentence like "I wanted to go, but, in light of my precarious health, I decided to stay home."

    I guess I could have left the first comma out, but the other two are necessary, right?

    In your last example, I would genenrally use "has certainly" but, as a response to a comment such as I think he might have left his mark... I would tend to use "certainly has" with emphasis on the has. Does that make any sense?

  3. When I read things in British English, I certainly have to back-up and re-read if a comma is missing. :)

  4. My initial reaction regarding the difference in word order in these phrases (has certainly, certainly has, has probably, probably has) is that it's a question of emphasis.

    "He has probably done it" implies I'm not sure if he's done it or not.

    "He probably has done it" also carries doubt, but also the implication that I am taking to someone who thinks that he has probably NOT done it.

  5. "But I do want to note that when these adverbials occur sentence-initially, they are much more likely to be followed by a comma in AmE than in BrE."

    For what it's worth, our style guide, which mainly follows British usage, but is somewhat comma-heavy, insists on a comma in these instances.

  6. Lindenwood I find the sentence you've written extremely hard to read with all the commas (I'm Australian). I had to read it 3 or 4 times before I understood what it was saying.

    If I was to write it I would only include the first comma like this;
    I wanted to go, but in light of my precarious health I decided to stay at home

    I have a feeling those who speak predominantly British English and those that speak American English pause at different times in the sentences which changes the placement of commas and the grammar.

  7. I've just come across the following in Khaled Hosseini's The kite runner, (written in AmE) - "Do you have to always be the hero?". To me, it would be natural to say "Do you always have to...?"

    Kate (UK)

  8. Hey Lynneguist, I like your blog, which I find funny and really interesting.
    Now, about your myGengo comment "it looks like an interesting concept", I'll try not to shout.
    Have you seen the rates they offer? $0.05 per word, it means that a translator who went to university (probably has got a master's degree) and worked full time for them could hope to earn an average of 1100 $ a month, without holidays or sick pay, of course.
    An interesting concept, indeed!
    Anyway, I will continue to read your posts and enjoy them, I'm sure.
    A slightly pissed off translator

  9. Thanks for the info, Sandra.

  10. Whoa! (as we say)

    Zach is suggesting the comma business is a speech difference as well as a written difference.

    Can that be true?

  11. @Zach: In BrE I would write it exactly the same way you have and I am quite fond of my sub-subordinate clauses.

    I'd have to concur with what Anonymous is saying there too. It's kind of like that famous phrase "All that glitters is not gold" which always used to [used to always?] confuse me as a child until I worked out that what it actually means is 'Not all that glitters is gold.'

    Because obviously gold is renowned for its sparkliness, so sometimes what glitters is gold.

    I may have tangentified somewhat there...

  12. The trouble with the rather commatose sentence I wanted to go, but, in light of my precarious health, I decided to stay home is that it's a hybrid of two different punctuation strategies, rhetorical and structural.

    In the older rhetorical style, we'd have I wanted to go, but in light of my precarious health[,] I decided to stay home. Here the commas represent breath-pauses, and whether you insert the second one depends on whether you (as author) would naturally take a breath there. Some would, some would not.

    In the more modern structural style, commas are used to indicate the structure of the sentence. On this viewpoint, the phrase in light of my precarious health is parenthetical in nature, and so is set off from the rest of the sentence, I wanted to go but I decided to stay home, using paired commas. The result is I wanted to go but, in light of my precarious health, I decided to stay home, with commas that have nothing to do with breath pauses at all.

    The difference between the modern American and modern British styles is primarily that the latter use as little structural punctuation as is compatible with intelligibility, whereas Americans methodically insert structural commas whether they are needed for disambiguation or not. And of course there is always some leakage from the older style, including some whole works (the Aubrey-Maturin novels) written in exclusively rhetorical style.

  13. John, thank you for this excellent and informative analysis of the place of the comma – and I love your word, commatose! (Spellchecker is not so keen…) The parenthetical use of commas implies that the sentence could stand alone without the insert, as indeed it can here: I wanted to go, but I decided to stay at home.

    In our more hurried age, even – or perhaps especially – when reading, it seems a good strategy to front-load the sentence so that the ‘meat’ is delivered first and the reader/listener can decide whether to pay attention to the remainder. Thus, we have two other options depending on whether the health or the desire to attend is the more important message:

    I wanted to go – decided to stay home – because of precarious health

    Precarious health – stayed home – although I wanted to go

    And I think we would only need a comma after the second part in each case.

    I haven’t read the Aubrey-Maturin novels (Paul O’Brian), but have you noticed that Alan Bennett never seems to use anything stronger than a comma?

  14. On the BBC radio news this morning:'The International Olympic Comittee will today announce which new sports will enter the Games in 2012'. Somehow that sounds more formal and official than the other possibilities
    - The IOC will announce today
    - Today, the IOC will announce

    I am assuming that 'today' here is an adverbial, analogous to 'at the time'.

  15. In all my five teaching English as a foreign language, I've always taught my students that adverbs of frequency (always, sometimes, never, etc.) must go after the verb 'be' and before all other verbs. So if one of them said to me 'she usually is...', I would correct them. Is it really possible to say 'she usually is at the office before 9' in America? Of course, I can understand if you were putting the emphasis on the word 'is' to refute a statement to the contrary, but in most cases, I have to say this sounds very strange to me.

  16. Yes, one can absolutely say that in American.

  17. Iain

    Is it really possible to say 'she usually is at the office before 9' in America?

    It's really possible to say it in my version of British English. It really is possible. Really, it's possible. It's possible, really.

    I agree with you in finding it odd, but not so very odd. The real problem is that there are too many adverbials. This doesn't matter in sentences like

    That usually is the case
    He usually is late
    The yoghourt usually is in the fridge

    These, for me, are stylistic variants of

    That is usually the case
    He is usually late
    The yoghourt is usually in the fridge

    Either way, we're talking about

    usually the case
    usually late
    usually in the fridge

    But with you example, it's not sure whether we're talking about usually in her office or usually before nine.

    I'd be reasonable happy with:

    Before nine she usually is in her office.

    And I'd be entirely happy with:

    — I'd like to see Sandra early tomorrow morning. Where can I find her at, say, 8.45?
    — She usually is in her office before nine.

    This (for me) is OK, because before nine isn't NEW INFORMATION.

    Strictly, the two constructions don't have identical meaning. Theoretically, they mean either

    1. It is usually true that X
    2. X is usually true.

    In many cases this amounts to the same thing, but the big Quirk grammar makes this interesting distinction:

    She really delighted her audience.
    She completely delighted here audience

    She had really delighted her audience.
    She had completely delighted her audience.

    She really had delighted her audience.
    * She completely had delighted her audience. (*='not grammatically acceptable.')

    If you want BE in the pair

    She really is delighting her audience.
    *She completely is delighting her audience.

  18. Lynne

    Yes, one can absolutely say that in American.

    Hmm. Maybe there is really/really is a difference after all. I would prefer to say:

    Yes, one absolutely can say that in American.

  19. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a subsection headed Central position in auxiliary constructions. Pertinent to this thread is the table:

    ....i.a. It was certainly very good.......b. It certainly was very good.
    ...ii.a. They are always cheerful........b. They always are cheerful.
    iii a. He is already in hospital............b. He already is in hospital.

    They observe (presumably based on corpus analysis) that there is less disfavour for b-type combinations with 'modal' adverbs like certainly is and more disfavour for b-type combinations with frequency adverbs like always is. For b-type combinations with 'aspectual' adverbs such as already is there is less disfavour among AmE speakers than among BrE speakers.

    As Iain observes, the disfavour for b-type combinations is lessened when the auxiliary is stressed.

    It certainly WAS↘ very good.
    They always ARE↘ cheerful.
    He already IS↘ in hospital.

    And the pre-auxiliary position is particularly favoured when the rest of the clause is elided:

    It certainly WAS↘
    They always ARE↘
    He already IS↘

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Sorry the table looks so muddled in my last posting, and only a little better in my (deleted) correction.. This will, I hope, look a bit better

    .....................................(LESS FAVOURED)
    ....i.a. It was certainly very good
    ....................................b. It certainly was very good.
    ...ii.a. They are always cheerful
    ....................................b. They always are cheerful.
    iii a. He is already in hospital
    ....................................b. He already is in hospital.

    It's better still if you click as if you want to add a post.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)