To what extent can someone interrupt a transitive verb and its object, and what is possible to use to make sure it has no mistakes either in grammar or meaning?

For instance, look at this sentence:

  • My friend is trying to illustrate in sequence all the scenes of the movie.

I usually would write the sentence above in the following form:

  • My friend is trying to illustrate all the scenes of the movie in sequence.

I know that an object typically follows a transitive verb with no interruption.

What are the rules to follow when we want to interrupt the combination of a transitive verb with an object?


3 Answers 3


The rule is that that you can interpose adverbs, indirect objects, and prepositional phrases between a verb and its direct object. Anyone who tells you there must be no interruption is simply citing a false rule.

What is true is that an interruption by a long, complex prepositional phrase may interfere with comprehension. That is a question of style rather than strict grammar.

With reference to your specific example, I would put "in sequence" at the end of the sentence unless I wanted to emphasize that the illustrations were in sequence. Alterations of word order are a common way to indicate emphasis.

A native speaker would likely pause briefly between "illustrate" and "in sequence," and that pause would indicate a more complex word order than usual. In writing, I personally would mimic that pause by placing commas before and after "in sequence."

EDIT: After some back and forth with FumbleFingers, I shall qualify my first sentence.

In American English, it is rare to insert an adverb between a verb and its direct object. The most common case (indeed the only case that I can think of right now) where such an insertion is idiomatic is when emphasizing the adverb. As I previously said, in American speech, such an insertion is marked by pauses framing the adverb, and, when writing, I myself would mimic speech by framing that insertion with commas.

Prepositional phrases when used adverbially can also be inserted between a verb and its direct object to give emphasis. That is what is being done in your example. Such cases seem to me to be more common than the insertion of bare adverbs. As with adverbs, however, I would mark off such an insertion in speech with framing pauses and in writing with framing commas.

There is absolutely no universal bar to insertions between a verb and its direct object. It happens routinely with indirect objects.

Because meaning in English is primarily determined by the order of words, it is tempting to specify simple rules for that order. A few such rules are indeed inviolable. Most, however, have exceptions that convey a slightly different meaning than that conveyed by the order prescribed by the so-called rule.

  • Actually, on reflection I'm cancelling my upvote. It's quite true that there's no "rule" saying you can't interpose an adverb between verb and object (well, Cambridge Dictionary appear to claim there's such a rule, but they're simply being sloppy / misleading). But it's not really just a matter of style. Their example She plays really well the piano really is "unacceptable". This isn't a matter of "style" OR "grammar". It's a matter of "idiomacy" (in this case, a principle that native speakers don't break, and they don't really have any choice about it). Jun 23, 2019 at 17:51
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    But I have given a counter-example that is idiomatic. What the Cambridge Dictionary is saying is an absolute rule is not an absolute rule. I agree with the dictionary's specific example, but that merely shows that any rule about idiomatic placement of adverbs is more complex than the dictionary says. Jun 23, 2019 at 18:46
  • Sorry about the repeated "non-edits". I meant to just cancel my original upvote, not reverse it. I still don't like your first sentence in particular (the rule is you can do this), but I can't really say that's "wrong". I don't want to get bogged down in exactly what words like rule, style, grammatical and idiomatic mean, but in this particular situation I'm not sure they're very helpful anyway, as explained previously. Jun 24, 2019 at 12:10
  • @FF Learners are not helped when English speakers who obviously know the language well disagree about what is acceptable. Consequently, I have made a major edit to address any ambiguity in my initial "can." I hope it addresses your concerns. Jun 24, 2019 at 13:41
  • Fair enough. I really have deliberately upvoted this time! I'm still not keen on that first sentence (I'd be happier with there's no rule saying you can't, rather than the rule is you can), but you've covered things so extensively now that any learner who works through this answer carefully should end up with a pretty good idea of how things stand. And so far as I can tell, you and I have no significant difference of opinion as regards what people do and don't actually say (in practice, forgetting about "rules"). Jun 24, 2019 at 13:59

It's not about rules, but more about style and readability. One problem with inserting adverbs between the verb and the object is that it may not be clear what they modify. One silly example of this:

Adam: He rode quickly his horse into town.
Byron: You mean he rode into town quickly?
Adam: No, "Quickly" is the name of his horse.

In your example, there is no chance "in sequence" modifies "all scenes", so it doesn't much matter if you put it in the middle or at the end of the sentence. If you are concerned about readability, add commas

My friend is trying to illustrate, in sequence, all the scenes of the movie.

Note: It's even possible to add it at the start of the sentence; however, because we don't know what it modifies, it adds some measure of "emphasis" and/or "dramatic tension".

In sequence, my friend is trying to illustrate all the scenes of the movie.

This may be appropriate if you want to contrast this method with illustrating some other way (non-sequentially?) or if you want to draw special notice to the fact that the illustrations are sequential. This is probably not something you want to do in your example, but it might work in a different context:

One by one, the chess prodigy soundly defeated all the masters who came to challenge him.


Cambridge Dictionary says We don’t put adverbs between the verb and the object, citing as an example

She plays the piano really well
Not: She plays really well the piano.

But so far as I can see, in OP's example, in sequence is an adverbial element modifying the verb illustrate in exactly the same way really well adverbially modifies plays in the Cambridge example.

It's irrelevant that the specific verb in OP's example is an infinitive form governed by is trying, because it's also "okay" to say He is illustrating in sequence all scenes of the movie.

Note that I put okay in "scare quotes" above. Some people might not like it at all, and some might think it's just slightly "off". But I really can't imagine anyone complaining about a teacher saying to a pupil...

I've circled in red all the words you misspelled in your homework

I think what this nets down to is we usually avoid putting an adverbial element between verb and object. But not always - particularly if the object is a longer text string than the adverbial element (in which case we might want to get the adverb in early, so the reader doesn't have to remember too far back to identify the relevant verb being modified).

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    You can of course place an adverb between verb and direct object. "She sang, badly, the national anthem" is a grammatical sentence. It is not standard word order, but that does not mean that is ungrammatical, whether you are descriptive or prescriptive in your grammatical leanings. Jun 23, 2019 at 17:35
  • @JeffMorrow: I wouldn't dream of suggesting "ungrammatical" is a relevant concept here. But idiomatic is certainly relevant, and surely nobody would deny that the "strike through" example above (Cambridge Dictionary's orthography, I just reproduced it faithfully) isn't something native speakers actually say. If you want to really learn a language, you need to know what the natives do and don't say, regardless of what the rules say they should / shouldn't say. Jun 23, 2019 at 17:45
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    My example is quite idiomatic, at least in the U.S. Perhaps it is completely unacceptable in British English. Perhaps that explains why a British dictionary makes their "rule" (or "assertion" or whatever you want to call it) absolute. Jun 23, 2019 at 18:52

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