How to Position Adverbs

Adverbs can be placed in a variety of places in an English sentence.  English is actually fairly lenient about this; many adjectives can be placed either before or after a verb without too much hassle.

That being said, a lot of freedom doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules of thumb to follow.  If you’re finding the sentences in your essay are sounding a little odd, but can’t quite put your finger on why, here are some reminders of where adverbs should go.

Adverb Placement

Generally speaking, you want to keep the adverb close to the original verb or adjective it’s modifying.  While some languages let you slide your modifiers all over the place, it’s best to keep them as consecutive words in English.  There are exceptions, however, especially for emphasis.  For example, all three of the following sentences are grammatically correct:

  • Suddenly, he entered the room.
  • He suddenly entered the room.
  • He entered the room suddenly.

This conveniently allows us to talk about the three different positions.

Adverbs at the Beginning

Generally speaking, the most common situation in which you want to put an adverb in the front of a sentence is when you’re linking to a previous sentence.  If you put a time adverb (like suddenly in our example) here, you’re contrasting it with something that came before.  Maybe you want to emphasize that no one was in the room, and then, all of a sudden, here’s this new guy.

The beginning of the sentence is also a good place to put a viewpoint word.  For example, putting officially at the beginning of a sentence emphasizes that everything that comes afterwards is backed by some authority, while putting luckily at the beginning emphasizes that everything else in that sentence is particularly fortunate.

Adverbs at the End

If you want to draw attention to an adverb, but don’t want to stick it at the beginning, the end of the sentence is another solid place–it’s natural for English readers to put the most weight on the beginning and ends of sentences.  The end of a sentence is a great place for an adverb that clarifies time, like saying that you do something every week or only occasionally.  It’s also a good spot to place adverbs that indicate where something happens–these are sometimes considered prepositional phrases like over the hill or around the corner, but they serve as adverbs because they modify your verb by telling the reader where something takes place.

This is also the place to put an adverb that describes the manner in which something was done–suddenly in our example, or slowly or carefully or recklessly.  You want to be a little careful if you use manner adverbs like this; they can often be overused, and that’s what most writers are talking about when they say adverbs are bad.  You don’t want to end every sentence with an adverb, as it will begin to sound cheesy.  However, if you want to emphasize how something is done, the end of the sentence is a good place to do so, as long as you do so sparingly.

Adverbs in the Middle

The remaining position, obviously, would be placing adverbs in the middle of your sentence.  When you put an adverb in the middle, you’re not drawing as much attention to it–it’s not the most important part of the sentence, and is just doing a small overall job.  Words like just or even, which just slightly focus a verb, or if you want to mention that something never or always happens, but don’t want it to be the main focus of a sentence, should go in the middle of a sentence.

One thing to watch out for, especially if English is not your first language, is that you don’t break up natural-sounding sentences with your adverbs.  You wouldn’t put an adverb between the verb and the object, like “He entered suddenly the room.”  If it’s a direct object like this–that is, the word that describes WHERE he entered–then you do not want to separate that from the verb.  You can put the adverb at the beginning or the end of the sentence, or before the verb, but not between the verb and object.  Some languages let you do that, but not English.

Adverb Positioning and Meaning

Because you do have a lot of freedom in placing your adverbs, you can use it to emphasize various parts of the sentence.  The word only is a good example for this.  Each of the following sentences uses the same words, with only being the sole word that has moved.  Yet, each sentence has a very different meaning:

  • Only she said she loved him.   (No one else said it)
  • She only said she loved him.  (But she didn’t mean it.)
  • She said only she loved him.  (All those other girls don’t really love him)
  • She said she only loved him.  (She didn’t like him or respect him, just love.)
  • She said she loved only him.  (That other guy means nothing!)
  • She said she loved him only.  (The same as the previous sentence, but with more of an emphasis on the fact that she only loved one person, not that she only loved one person.

As you can see, adverb positioning is a powerful tool that can alter the meaning of a sentence.  Try it out in your own writing!

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