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The warden told the boys to (quickly?) clean their rooms (quickly?).

Which is the correct position to place adverb quickly? This is a sentence improvement question asked in my test, the actual sentence given was The warden told the boys to quickly clean their rooms. The solution has its answer as The warden told the boys to clean their rooms quickly. Isn't it wrong? The adverb is placed close to the verb it modifies e.g. if I want to say that I will just dance do nothing else in a party then I will say I will only dance in the party but if I want to say that I will dance just in this party, not in any other party then I will say I will dance only in this party.

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  • I wouldn't say either answer is "wrong," but I do think it sounds better with quickly moved to the end.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 17:37
  • choster is probably right about the test logic, but I agree with you about a change in meaning, or at least nuance. To me, "to quickly clean" uses "quickly" to describe a style of cleaning. If it was modified to "to quick-clean", it wouldn't even be a split infinitive. In "to clean their rooms quickly", "quickly" more implies a sense of urgency. So grammar rules aside, I see the word position affecting the meaning.
    – fixer1234
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 6:33

1 Answer 1

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What you have likely encountered is an exam-maker's intolerance for the split infinitive, i.e. the insertion of any word in a to-infinitive between to and the verb. To quickly clean is a split infinitive; a more famous example is the old Star Trek intonation to boldly go.

The original objection to the split infinitive came from early grammarians who wanted English to be more like Latin. There is no grammatical basis for calling it incorrect, however. Stylistically, too many intervening words can make the phrasing awkward, and since many people for many generations were taught that splitting an infinitive was always incorrect or a sign of poor writing, it can be a distraction regardless of its grammatical validity. Like starting a sentence with and or hopefully, or ending it with a preposition, splitting an infinitive is something a confident writer should feel free to do, but only if prepared to receive disparagement from more prescriptivist people.

The Chicago Manual of Style FAQ on split infinitives notes

CMOS has not, since the thirteenth edition (1983), frowned on the split infinitive. The sixteenth edition suggests, to take one example, allowing split infinitives when an intervening adverb is used for emphasis (see paragraphs 5.106 and 5.168). … [E]uphony or emphasis or clarity or all three can be improved by splitting the infinitive in certain situations.

The New York Times FAQ on Style, quoting their stylebook, notes

split infinitives are accepted by grammarians but irritate many readers. When a graceful alternative exists, avoid the construction… When the split is unavoidable, accept it: He was obliged to more than double the price.

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    This is a good answer, but don't you think many beginning students will be flummoxed by animadversion, disparagement, prescriptivist, and even by quarters in this context? Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 19:30
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    @P.E.Dant I've amended slightly; generally, I try not to answer in a way that seems like I am "dumbing down" for anyone, but whether or not a sense is covered by, e.g. OALD, seems like a good standard. Adult learners always want to learn the "rules" of language, even where there are none, and so much frustration seems to come from trying to use those rules as if they were mathematical equations. Thus, while I believe prescriptivism and descriptivism constitute a false dichotomy, I do think even a learner should understand the basic concepts of them, and be a little skeptical.
    – choster
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 20:04
  • Agree heartily ref. OALD and when it comes to the whole "rules" mishegas, I am right there with you, storming the ramparts. And I suppose there is a bit of surreptitious pedagogy in tossing the occasional animadversion in there; the reader may say "Now wtf??" and nip off to the dictionary. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 20:31

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