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We are taught that an adverb should be placed behind the verb it modifies or at the end of the sentence. For example: 1: I run quickly; 2: I love her deeply.

However, I see sentences in which the adverb has been placed in front of the verb it modifies. For example: They constantly are talking and listening to themselves.

My question is "Can an adverb be put either in front of or behind the verb it modifies, and is there any difference between them if I put the adverb in front instead of behind the verb?" The answer should be "Yes" to the first question, I reckon.

Therefore, the sentences below should both be correct:

1: I can run quickly and I can quickly run
2: I love her deeply and I deeply love her

but what about the answer to the second question?

  • This depends on the type of adverb. The rules are quite complicated. I would not say *"I can quickly run." I would say "I can quickly run to the store." (But note that I can run quickly to the store also works.) I suspect that you are being taught to put the adverb after the verb because it's harder to make mistakes that way. In situations where an adverb can go in more than one place, nearly all the time the meaning does not change. – Peter Shor Mar 23 '13 at 15:27
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To some extent, this is a general reference question because there are numerous pages on the Internet that discuss adverb place, e.g., this one and this one. However, the question is still an interesting one because there are frequent disputes about specific placements of specific adverbs and whether different placements change the meaning of specific sentences.

The first problem with what you're taught about where adverbs should be placed is that it depends upon the type of adverb and, sometimes, on the specific sentence and specific context of the sentence. For example, most native speakers of English would argue that the following two sentences mean exactly the same thing:

I only eat ducks.
I eat only ducks.

In these two sentences, where the adverb is placed is more or less a matter of style (personal preference). But if the sentences were modified to read, for example:

I only eat ducks, not shoot them.
I eat only ducks, not shoot them.

the syntax of first one makes more sense to me. I think the style is better. But that may be idiosyncratic.

However, assuming two witches chatting online in a contemporary remake of the Hansel and Gretel:

{1} I only eat children, because adults taste bitter. [NB: comma is optional]
{2} I eat only children, because adults taste bitter. [NB: comma is optional]
{3} I eat children only, because adults taste bitter. [NB: comma is not optional]

Only the third one makes instant sense to me. Most native speakers would probably say that the first and third are semantically equal and that the second is ambiguous because it isn't clear whether only is being used as an adverb or an adjective here.

The third sentence could also be:

{4} I eat children, only because adults taste bitter. [NB: comma is not optional]
{5} I eat children only because adults taste bitter.

in which case the meaning of {4} and {5} are different from {1}-{3} and different from each other. Sentence {4} emphasizes why the witch eats children, and sentence {5} is ambiguous: Does only function as an adverb or and adjective here?

The second problem is that when an adverb is placed at the end of the sentence, it usually modifies the entire sentence, just as when it is placed at the beginning of the sentence. In such cases, however, it's usually set off by a comma. But this is far too extensive a topic to discuss in a single answer here.

Of the example sentences you list, I think I can quickly run isn't really acceptable even though it's grammatical and meaningful. It just doesn't sound natural to me, except, perhaps, for a song.

The third problem is that your example contains only adverbs of manner (-ly adverbs). Other adverbs have different rules. It would be better to provide specific sentences, especially longer and more complex sentences. Then the question will become more meaningful for more users.

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(1) I can run quickly to the store, and
(2) I can quickly run to the store!

Contrary to the opinion above, to me, these statements with the adverbs in different places could actually have two different meanings.

(1) has two meanings - it could mean more or less the same as (2) - but to me that would be a less common meaning. Instead, I would use (1) to indicate that I am a fast runner and it will not take me long to run to the store (it does not convey information on when I will start such a run).

(2) for me this has only one meaning - it means I am not busy at the moment so I can run to the store now (it does not convey information on how long it will take me to get to the store once I set off).

  • Just for future reference - the order of answers and comments is not fixed, so if you want to refer to another answer it might be better to use the poster's screen name. I typically sort answers by activity, so your answer is at the top of the list right now :) – ColleenV Sep 11 '15 at 12:33

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