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The rule: "We don’t put adverbs between the verb and the object" (Cambridge Dictionary)

But some sentences confuse me :

1-He drew only a rabbit. (All he drew was a rabbit but he might have done other things while drawing like listening to music)

2-He read only the end of the book. (All he read was the end of the book)

1'-He only drew a rabbit. (All he did was drawing a rabbit)

2'-He only read the end of the book. (All he did was reading the end of the book)

I think (1 and 1') + (2 and 2') are not the same. So are (1 and 2) grammatically correct ? That means rule is not always true ?

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    In 1' and 2', you've written "only" twice. I think you forgot to delete the second instance in each case.
    – hguler
    Mar 1, 2019 at 21:31
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    Related on our sister site: Correct position of "only".
    – Robusto
    Mar 1, 2019 at 21:35
  • Those are not adverbs modifying the nouns rabbit or end: those are adjectives.
    – tchrist
    Mar 2, 2019 at 2:32
  • @tchrist I dont think so, those must be adverbs according to dictionary(Cambridge) : We use only as an "adjective" to mean that there is just one or very few of something, or that there are no others: He was "the only person" in the room. We use only as an "adverb" to mean that something is limited to some people, things, an amount or an activity: "Only a few hundred houses survived the hurricane without any damage." Mar 2, 2019 at 7:52

4 Answers 4

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To paraphrase "Pirates of the Caribbean", think of this more as a guideline than an actual rule. With creative writing, it is often possible to place the adverb anywhere it sounds good.

Because this is an uncommon placement, when done properly, it can sound dramatic.

They flung wide the doors of the hall, letting sunlight stream into every dark corner.

Done poorly, or in an odd context, it just sounds awkward, e.g. "She ate greedily the cake."

In the future, if you see this kind of sentence structure (and you trust the writer is doing it on purpose) take note of the context, and recognize that the sentence might feel different from the usual phrasing.

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    "wide" is not an adverb. It's an adjective. It describes the state of the object after the verb was performed, much like "The drill instructor ran the recruits ragged" or "They arrived late". Mar 1, 2019 at 23:56
  • @Acccumulation You may be right, but my example sentence seems much in line with Oxford adverb definition 1, "To the fullest extent" which would seem to modify "flung" not "doors". But I could always use a different example of the same thing, e.g. "She opened wide her eyes and gazed at the radiant vista before her."
    – Andrew
    Mar 2, 2019 at 0:29
  • You wouldn't say "They wide flung the doors". "wide" doesn't seem to be an adverb here. You could say "They flung the doors wide". In each example sentence "wide" has the sense of "open", and Oxford doesn't say "open" can be an adverb. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/open
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 2, 2019 at 2:24
  • @CJDennis I disagree. "They flung wide the doors", means "to the fullest extent" not merely "open". Contrast it with "They flung open the doors" which has the same sense of force but not magnitude. But it's kind of a pointless quibble, as there are many other sentences that can be written with the adverb between the verb and the object. If you have a better suggestion, I'm all ears.
    – Andrew
    Mar 2, 2019 at 21:59
  • @Andrew Can you find a sentence that definitely uses an adverb, where that adverb can only go after the verb?
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 2, 2019 at 22:01
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[I had already written most of this before @Andrew posted his answer. It says pretty much the same thing, but I thought I might as well post it, having written it.]

"Don’t put adverbs between the verb and the object" is more general advice, probably particularly useful for English language learners, rather than a hard and fast rule.

It definitely is possible to put an adverb between the verb and the object, and often it will sound just fine to an English-speaking ear.

I sang loudly to the audience.

She ran quickly to the bus stop.

The two examples you cite sound fine to me, even if placing the adverb before the verb would sound more 'normal'.

However, it depends on the words being used. As @Andrew says in his answer, it can even be a deliberate choice for literary effect.

As to why some phrases sound complete bizarre, and others sound perfectly ok, I am really not sure.

Eg:

He played brilliantly the piano

sounds completely wrong and would never be said by a native speaker.

Somebody else might be able to explain why.

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    Could it be because your first two examples have an indirect object, whereas the last one has a direct object? Perhaps the preposition "to" makes the object "long and complicated," so that putting the adverb before the object becomes acceptable. Note that "I sang loudly the song" and "She ran slowly the marathon" are no better than "He played brilliantly the piano."
    – hguler
    Mar 1, 2019 at 22:03
  • You're right. That seems to be correct.
    – fred2
    Mar 1, 2019 at 22:15
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    'to the audience' and 'to the bus stop' are not objects at all, but prepositional phrases acting as an adjunct, so adverbs can be used before them relatively freely. Adverbs of manner (which usually end -ly) can rarely be used before a direct object (He played brilliantly the piano). 'They flung wide/open the doors' sounds acceptable partly because we would never say 'They flung the doors' (I'm not sure why),
    – Sydney
    Mar 1, 2019 at 22:17
  • It's still an object, isn't it? It just so happens that the object is a prepositional phrase? You are quite right that that's why it sounds ok, but it only goes to show that, as 'rules' go, this one is pretty useless. "Don’t put adverbs between the verb and the object, unless the object is a prepositional phrase, or one of a number of other exceptions, or it's a long and complicated sentence".
    – fred2
    Mar 1, 2019 at 22:24
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    @fred2 Prepositional phrases are not core arguments to the verb as direct and indirect objects are. They are usually only adjuncts but sometimes are oblique arguments. Core and oblique arguments are subject to different syntactic rules. There are rules about what can fall between the verb and its arguments, and these work differently than with adjuncts. Nothing can ever fall between V and IO, and between IO and DO only at peril of throwing the baby out the window a new toy.
    – tchrist
    Mar 2, 2019 at 2:41
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The rule you've quoted is not always followed. See this discussion, in which it is pointed out that the adverb can go between the verb and the object when the object is long or complicated.

Note, however, that there isn't necessarily a difference in meaning between 1 and 1' and between 2 and 2'. Drawing a rabbit is a little unusual, so let's take the example of eating an apple. "I only ate an apple" means "I ate an apple and nothing else." In contrast, "I ate only an apple" is correct but slightly awkward. In spoken English, you could put an emphasis on the word "ate" to indicate that "only" is modifying "apple" and not "ate", as in:

I only ate an apple.

but in written English (and in spoken English when the word "ate" is not emphasized),

I only ate an apple.

means you ate an apple and nothing else.

If you want to say that you did nothing more than eat an apple, "I merely ate an apple", or "I did nothing more than eat an apple," or, as you suggested, "All I did was eat an apple," would be better ways to indicate that. (The last way is the most natural.)

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    Note that in “I ate only an apple”, the word only is an adjective, not an adverb. Nonetheless there are analyses under which only is classed as a focuser in both cases.
    – tchrist
    Mar 2, 2019 at 2:43
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[1a] He drew [only a rabbit].

[2a] He read [only the end of the book].

With a few minor exceptions the rule you cite holds true.

But the rule is irrelevant in this pair since "only" is not being placed 'between' the verb and its object; rather, it's actually part of the object itself, where it modifies the noun phrases "a rabbit" and "the end of the book", called the 'focus'.

[1b] He [only drew a rabbit].

[2b] He [only read the end of the book].

"Only" usually immediately precedes its focus, as seen in [1a] and [2a]. But it can also be non-adjacent as in [1b] and [2b], where the focus is contained within the VP, meaning that "only" functions syntactically as modifier to the whole bracketed VP.

There is no difference in meaning between [1a] and [1b], nor between [2a] and [2b].

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