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Which word order is most correct for the following question?

  1. Who will I talk to on Saturday?
  2. Who will I talk on Saturday to?

Also what is the grammatical/semantic reason why?

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2 Answers 2

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  1. Who will I talk to on Saturday?
  2. Who will I talk on Saturday to? (awkward if not ungrammatical)

The short and boring answer to this question in that sentence (1) is much better than sentence (2), which some speakers may actually find ungrammatical.

The more interesting and helpful question is Why?.

To understand the answer to this question, we need to understand the difference between a Complement an an Adjunct.

Complements

Different verbs set up different types of slots for other phrases in the sentence. So for example, the verb PUT sets up a slot for a person doing the moving, a second for the thing that is being moved and a third for the destination of that thing, usually realised by a preposition phrase. All English verbs set up a slot for a Subject. Here we are interested in the slots that follow the verb. The phrases that fill these slots are called Cᴏᴍᴘʟᴇᴍᴇɴᴛs. Using the verb PUT, we can see that if one of these slots isn't filled, the sentence will often be ungrammatical:

  • *We put the elephant. (no thing being moved - ungrammatical)
  • *We put in the zoo. (no destination - ungrammatical)
  • We put the elephant in the zoo.

Adjuncts

Aᴅᴊᴜɴᴄᴛs are extra bits of information that we tag on to a sentence. You can think of them as embellishments. They are completely optional and don't fill any special slot set up by the verb. In the following sentence, the preposition phrase with my friends is an Adjunct—because it doesn't fill any special slot set up by the verb VISIT:

  • I visited Bertha with my friends.
  • I visited Bertha.

We can see from the sentence above that the phrase with my friends is an extra, grammatically optional phrase. The sentence I visited Bertha is a well-formed and fully complete sentence without it.


The Original Poster's example

Consider the following two sentences:

  • *I visited with my friends Mary. (ungrammatical/awkward)
  • I visited Mary with my friends.

We can see from the example above that, in general (and if not set off by special intonation), the Complements of the verb need to come before any Adjuncts. If we put the Adjunct, with my friends, before the Complement, Mary, the sentence will be very clunky and may even be considered ungrammatical. The longer the Complement is, the more acceptable it is to have it after the Adjunct:

  • I visited with my friends all the different people who had contacted us over the last few weeks.

The Original Poster's example uses the verb TALK. The verb TALK sets up a space for a Subject - usually a noun phrase - and, optionally, also a space for a person being talked with, usually described in a preposition phrase.

  1. I will talk to Bob on Saturday.
  2. I will talk on Saturday to Bob. (awkward)

In the examples above we can see that when the Complement to Bob occurs before the Adjunct on Saturday, the sentence sounds very natural. When this order is reversed the sentence is very awkward.

The Original Poster's example has a gap after the preposition to which we understand represent who:

  • Who will I talk to [him] on Saturday.

This preposition phrase to ___ needs to come before the Adjunct on Saturday or the sentence will sound a bit awkward. This is especially the case because the audible part of the preposition phrase, to, is very short:

  • Who will I talk on Saturday to? (awkward)
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  • Remember that the on is optional: I’ll see you next week, next year, next Saturday, Saturday.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 22:25
  • @tchrist Quite right. I should make that clearer. Can't do right now. Will endeavour to tomorrow. If I forget, and you notice (or anyone else does), please kick my arse! Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 22:45
  • I think you overstate the case by suggesting Who will I talk on Saturday to? might be considered "ungrammatical", given the basic construction is no different to, say, (subject) speak now to (audience). Granted, on Saturday includes a preposition, whereas now doesn't, but native speakers don't usually mind piling up prepositions (that's something nns worry about more, probably because English uses more prepositions than most other languages). Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 14:54
  • ...re your comment on the original ELU version of this question, one context where a careful speaker might prefer to put a time-based adverbial element including a preposition before the preposition identifying the "object" is if that object happens to be a very long compound element. So someone might reasonably prefer I'll speak on Friday to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker. In which context I think it wouldn't be ridiculous for someone else to reflect that sequence with That's all very well, but who will you speak on Saturday to? Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 15:01
  • @FumbleFingers Hmmm. "I'm going to speak now to Bob" sounds very awkward to me. I'm not sure what's going on with the grammar there, but now works in a different way from on Saturday. Consider I'm going to now speak to Bob and I'm going to on Saturday speak to Bob, where the latter is definitely wonky but the former is fine. Re your other examples in your second comment, the first works because the object is very long (as described above), the response works because it is echoing the original. And that kind of possibility is why there's a may in there! However, I'm surprised ... Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 16:22
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The first has a much less clunky construction, go with that one.

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    That is not necessarily the case; context is important. For example, if you want to emphasize to then the end of the sentence would be the strongest placement: Yes, I understand we will talk on Saturday— but who will I talk on Saturday to?
    – choster
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 21:00
  • @choster Exactly so. The end of the sentence is where we place the most important/focussed information, when we can. Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 21:03
  • @Araucaria . . . and for this reason it is a shame that in English we cannot (usually) place the focus of the sentence - the verb - at the end, where some other languages do (usually).
    – user63615
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 21:09
  • @NigelJ I agree! But there, is one construction we can use to do that. That's when we have an intransitive verb with a preposition phrase complement and we then prepose the PP. So for example instead of "And she strode onto the stage" we can have "And onto the stage she strode." :) Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 21:17
  • @Araucaria It's difficult for us in English. In other languages they can bundle up so much meaning (genitive, dative and ablative meanings plus gender pronouns) and just push the lot at the end of the sentence into one inflected verbal form.
    – user63615
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 21:27

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