A Word, Please: Adverb placement can dictate meaning of sentence

One of the most common questions I get is: Which is correct: X or Y?

The X and Y don’t matter much. They change from email to email. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a Z or even an A, B and C. But the heart of the question — and the assumption it contains — remains the same: In language, the questions suggest, only one form must be correct. All others must be wrong.

Sometimes that’s true. For example, if you want to compare one person’s musical abilities to another person’s, you wouldn’t say, “Joe is musicaler than Jane.” You would say, “Joe is more musical than Jane.”

But more often than not, English offers multiple correct ways to say the same thing. That’s why you could say, “Cake is sweeter than bread,” but there’s nothing grammatically wrong with phrasing it, “Cake is more sweet than bread.”

People don’t seem to have much trouble identifying truly incorrect forms. They know “musicaler” sounds wrong. It’s when two or more things sound right that they become concerned. Surely, they figure, only one can be correct.

Not so. Consider this conundrum that landed in my email in-box recently.

Soon I will go to the office.

I will soon go to the office.

I will go soon to the office.

I will go to the office soon.

“Soon” is an adverb. Sometimes the placement of an adverb is really important.

Compare “He watched Steve run quickly out the door” with “Quickly he watched Steve run out the door.” Here, we can assume, “quickly” is meant to modify the verb “run.” So it makes the most sense right next to that verb.

When you move “quickly” to another position in the sentence, it can seem to suggest the watching was quick, not the running. That’s nonsense.

But adverbs don’t always modify verbs. Sometimes they modify whole sentences. And those adverbs give you a lot more choice about where to put them.

“Soon” is one such adverb. It’s not describing the manner in which an action takes place. It’s answering the question “When?” Because it’s not modifying the verb, it’s not tethered to any particular word in the sentence.

So where do you put an adverb that’s modifying a whole sentence? Wherever it sounds best. In “Soon I will go to the office,” the adverb “soon” packs a punch that you don’t get in “I will go to the office soon.” Whichever form comes out naturally is probably the one that best captures your desired emphasis.

The word “only” has some similar properties, but it’s trickier. Some people think that “only” always belongs next to a verb. But this misperception can lead to some bad choices.

For example, if you believe that “only” should stay cozy with the verb, you might write a sentence like “Volunteers only wash cars.” If you meant that the volunteers wash the cars but they don’t wax them, you’d be fine. But if your point was that they wash cars but not trucks or campers, you’ve failed to make your point.

That’s because “only” isn’t just an adverb. It’s also an adjective. As an adverb, it can modify a verb like “wash.” But as an adjective, it can modify a noun like “cars.”

The real trick to using “only” well — in fact, the secret to using any modifier well — is to pay attention to your whole sentence. When you consider each word carefully, you’ll often find that the sentence came out good the first time.

But sometimes you’ll see that your point isn’t as clear as it could be and you’ll be able to move an adverb, or any word, to the spot where it works best.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at