Word Order Rules: Adverbials

The examples in the article Word Order Rules in English outline all of the sentence positions in their most common ordering, except for one final kind of sentence position: the adverbial.

Adverbials are words or phrases that provide the information typically provided by adverbs:

When (e.g. yesterday, in the middle of the night, at 5 p.m., during the production, when they left the house)

Where (e.g. there, beside the door, in the shed, following the closure)

How (e.g. quickly, with haste, in confidence, as a beggar)

Why (e.g. because, to apply for the job, for her country’s citizens)

Adverbials are difficult because they can be placed in so many different positions in a sentence. What’s more, changing the placement of an adverbial can change the emphasis or meaning of a sentence.

Basic principles for adverb placement

Generally, place your one-word adverbials (i.e. adverbs) as close as possible to the things that they modify. It’s generally best to place them before verbs.

Example

“He took the instrument to the music room to play immediately” should be rephrased if we mean to describe when “he took” the instrument: “He immediately took the instrument to the music room.”

As an exception to the tip above, most adverbs should follow transitive verbs.

Example

He sat uncomfortably in the waiting room.

Adverbial phrases, which often begin with prepositions (e.g. “in the pantry beside the door”), are trickier. Generally, adverbial phrases should be placed either at the beginning or end of sentences, before the subject or after whatever falls in the final sentence position, as given above.

Be aware, however, that not every sentence follows these rules. The focus of a sentence tends to fall on its end, and to a lesser degree its beginning, so you can generally sneak short adverbials that give useful but unimportant information into the middle of a clause.

Example

In the waiting room, he sat uncomfortably.

He sat in the waiting room uncomfortably. (Notice how “in the waiting room” receives less emphasis here).

He sat uncomfortably in the waiting room.

Continue reading: Word order rules for adjectives

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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