A Word, Please: 'Soon' is only an adverb

Dan in Burbank wrote to ask which of the following sentences is best:

“The information soon will be available online.”

“The information will soon be available online.”

“The information will be available soon online.”

“The information will be available online soon.”

I would add another option: “Soon the information will be available online.”

“I'm not sure how to look up something like this,” Dan wrote. “I found information on the placement of ‘only’ and how the placement changes the meaning of the sentence. But the placement of ‘soon’ doesn't change the meaning.”

For a guy who was unsure where to turn for answers, Dan must have been doing something right if he ended up reading about “only.” It’s basically the same issue — that is, where to place an adverb. Yet there’s much more discussion about “only” than “soon.”

A lot of people will tell you that “only” must be placed nearest the word it modifies. These people argue that “I only have eyes for you” doesn’t mean what most people intend by it and that the speaker really meant “I have eyes for only you.”

They say that, in the first example, “only” applies to the verb “have,” where as in the latter example “only” is pointing squarely at “you,” emphasizing the idea that there’s no other.

When you think about this, it makes sense. But just because it seems logical doesn’t mean it’s a rule. In fact, it’s a myth — one I myself once fell victim to. “The position of ‘only’ in standard spoken English is not fixed,” “Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” says. “Fowler’s Modern English Usage” agrees.

“Only” can be an adjective or an adverb. In “Jason is an only child,” it’s modifying the noun “child,” so it’s an adjective. In “We can only guess whether he’ll get a baby brother,” it’s modifying the verb “guess,” so it’s an adverb.

But adverbs don’t just modify single words. They can also modify whole sentences. Compare “Frankly, Lisa never had a chance” to “Lisa, frankly, never had a chance.” In either case, it’s clear that “frankly” is modifying a whole thought. “Only” has a similar effect.

In some sentences, its intent is just as clear in any of several different spots. But watch out: a carelessly placed “only” can create confusion. Compare “We can only guess,” in which “only” is an adverb modifying the verb “guess,” to “Only we can guess,” where it’s an adjective modifying the pronoun “we.” Very different indeed.

“Soon” is simpler. It’s an adverb, never an adjective. So there’s less opportunity for confusion. We already know that an adverb can cozy up next to a verb it modifies, like “be” in “It will soon be available.” And we know an adverb can offer commentary on a whole sentence from any number of different vantage points: “Soon it will be online,” “It will be online soon.”

Plus, contrary to another myth, there’s nothing wrong with sticking an adverb in the middle of a verb phrase: “You have really grown.” “I was totally kidding.”

So put your “soon” wherever it seems most natural. And do the same with your “only,” too. Just be a little more careful with that one.

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

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