Where in sentences do adverbs appear?

Where in a sentence can adverbs appear?

As a rule of thumb, we tend to put adverbs close to the main verb they are describing or modifying.

But really they can turn up almost anywhere.

Often you'll find you can change their position in a sentence with almost no impact on the meaning. That said, moving adverbs past certain points in a sentence will change the meaning completely, or break the sentence altogether.

Try this

Let's have a play around with one of the first snippets we looked at.

Read each of the snippets below, slowly, and think carefully about what each sentence really means.

Mrs Fox knew that he was trying desperately to think of a way out.

Right now the adverb is in the middle of a verb group.

What happens if we move the adverb one step to the left, in front of the secondary verb 'trying'?

Mrs Fox knew that he was desperately trying to think of a way out.

It doesn't change much at all because in both cases, we've kept the word 'desperately' close to the verb 'trying'. What if we move it one step again, in front of the tense helper, 'was'?

Mrs Fox knew that he desperately was trying to think of a way out.

Again, there's not much change because the adverb is still attached to the same verb group. You can see that as long as the adverb is connected to the same verb group, then shifting the adverb doesn't change the meaning, although it does change some of the rhythm, emphasis and flavour of the phrase.

What if we move it even further?

Desperately Mrs Fox knew that he was trying to think of a way out.

Notice how the meaning changes? With this move, the snippet is describing the quality of Mrs Fox knowing instead of the quality of Mr Fox trying to think.

Why has that change happened? Well, there is more than one verb group in this sentence, and now our adverb is closer to the verb group 'knew' than it is to the verb group 'was trying to think'.

We said that the sentence will change its meaning based on which verb group the adverb is closest to.

That's an okay-ish way to describe what's going on in this example, but actually there is a deeper and maybe even simpler rule if you understand the concept of connectors and clauses.

This is a topic for a whole other lesson, but basically the humble, almost invisible word 'that' marks the boundary between two distinct clauses, or parts of the sentence:

  • The part about Mrs Fox knowing, and
  • The part about Mr Fox trying to think of a way out

If you look at the snippet from this point of view, you'll notice that you can move the adverb around within a clause and the meaning doesn't change (though some positions are clearer or sound better than others).

But the minute you move the adverb to another clause—which in this snippet means jumping over the connector 'that'—then the meaning of each clause changes, as one clause loses the adverb and the other clause gains it.

Let's move it one more time. What does the adverb describe in this version?

Mrs Fox knew that he was trying to think of a way out desperately.

The adverb is back to describing the quality of Mr Fox's thinking. (Which makes sense; it's closer to the verb group 'was trying to think'.)

So the sentence means the same as the original.

But does it sound the same? Not exactly.

Try reading all the snippets above again. You'll notice that even though the meaning is often unaffected, the emphasis changes based on which words the adverb is next to, or whether it is the first or last word in the sentence (since first and last words naturally get more emphasis).

Rewrite the Mrs and Mr Fox snippet, but move the adverb 'desperately' to another position in the sentence. Type a note to answer these questions: Does the sentence still make sense? What happens to the meaning?
Write your own sentence in which one person is thinking about another person doing something. Choose an adverb, and choose where to put it.