Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Adverb Placement, Generally and Specifically

Recently, I came across a version of this sentence in a client document:

ABC Corp. hired XYZ Co. exclusively for testing multiple simulations in order to find the best solution.

Did ABC Corp. hire just XYZ Co. or did it hire XYZ Co. just for testing? Although the sentence is grammatical, the meaning is ambiguous absent further context.

The general rule is adverbs should be placed next to the thing they modify. Only gets a lot of attention on this front. Lots of usage writers, myself included, talk about how the position of only in a sentence is vital to clarity of meaning.

There's truth in that statement, a truth that is realized in my example sentence, even though we're dealing with exclusively instead of only. However, as I've learned since writing that article, there's more to the story.

Defining Terms

Only and exclusively are part of a category of adverbs called focusing modifiers. These modifiers focus the meaning of the word modified. Only and exclusively restrict meaning, making them restrictive adverbs. Terms like also and too add meaning to the modified term, making them additive modifiers. (There are other kinds of focusing modifiers, but I'll cover just additive and restrictive here.)

Some of the most common additive/restrictive adverbs include:

alone

else

just

purely

also

especially

merely

simply

as well

even

only

solely

at least

exactly

particularly

too

but

exclusively

precisely

wholly


Positioning Additive/Restrictive Adverbs

It's true that the general position for an additive/restrictive adverb is right next to the word it modifies, either before or after it, depending on the specific adverb. Doing so limits ambiguity, though not completely, as we've seen. The problem is that following this rule strictly can result in stiff, unnatural-sounding language, something few readers value.

Play me a song only.

In this example, only modifies song and sits next to it, where the general rule says it should. But who talks like that?

Fortunately, focus modifiers can occupy an idiomatic position as well, one that's not adjacent to the term it modifies. We can put additive/restrictive adverbs:

  1. Immediately following the subject of the sentence when the adverb modifies the whole sentence. The boys only hiked 3 of the 10 miles. If you put only in front of the subject, it will modify just the subject: Only the boys hiked 3 of the 10 miles they were supposed to.
  2. Between the auxiliary and main verb when modifying the whole verb phrase. The boys have only been hiking an hour, while the girls have been hiking for three hours.
  3. Between the auxiliary and main verb when modifying something later in the sentence. The boys will only receive credit for the miles they actually hiked. Here, only modifies for the miles they actually hiked.

Additive/restrictive adverbs most often modify a word or phrase rather than an entire clause. As a result, they appear more often in the middle of the sentence. The result is a more natural-sounding sentence, though again we have to be wary of ambiguity.

This rule is true even in formal writing, such as academics, and for all of the additive/restrictive adverbs to at least some degree. But only is the one that gets singled out. It's discussed most often and does have position restrictions, as we've seen. So too do alone, also, too, and others. For example, alone can be positioned far from the subject it modifies: Tom carried the boxes alone.

Watching Out for Ambiguity

Most usage writers who accepted nonadjacent positions for additive/restrictive adverbs make an important point: be alert for ambiguity. In fact, whether an adverb is adjacent to the thing it modifies or not, we should ensure there is no ambiguity in meaning. Balanced with that is writing a sentence that sounds natural.

When you come across an adverb that is ambiguous or awkward, try moving it around. In our first example sentence, we have several options:

  • ABC Corp. hired exclusively XYZ Co. for testing.
  • ABC Corp. exclusively hired XYZ Co. for testing.
  • ABC Corp. hired XYZ Co. for testing exclusively.

The first and second sentences tell us that ABC Corp. hired only XYZ Co., but both sound stilted. The third tells us that XYZ Co. was hired only to do the testing. It too sounds stilted. Fortunately for me, both facts were true: ABC Corp. hired only XYZ Co. and only to do testing. The original sentence gives an accurate meaning and sounds natural.

Pay attention to adverb placement, but remember that the right place need not be next to the term being modified.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 7th, 1:39 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
How about: "ABC Corp. hired XYZ Co., exclusively, for testing." Solves the open issues, yes?
Monday April 7th, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Rosina, thanks for your suggestion. Unfortunately it doesn't solve the problem because now "exclusively" is parenthetical; it doesn't restrict the meaning of either "hired" or "for testing," making it meaningless in the sentence.
Monday April 7th, 6:50 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
I think this is one of those situations where the sentence needs to be reworked completely. I agree that while the original may be grammatically correct, it fails to communicate unambiguously the writer's intention.
Monday April 7th, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Traci M.
I had no problem understanding the meaning.

I am exclusively hiring XYZ. for testing. is just as clear as saying

I am hiring XYZ. Corp exclusively for testing.

If you change exclusively for specifically it makes it easier to comprehend.

I (specifically hired XYZ) for testing multiple simulations in order to find the best solution.

vs.

I hired XYZ (specifically for testing) multiple simulations in order to find the best solution.

vs. your last option

I hired XYZ Corp for (testing specific multiple simulations) in order to find the best solution.

The third sentence changes the meaning from the original sentence and shifts the focus to "specific multiple simulations" which was not what the sentence originally said.
Monday April 7th, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Traci, it seems to me that your first illustration using 'specifically'
leaves open a multitude of interpretations.

If the last example given by the author changes the meaning, it is probably supposed to do that. The meaning you and others might see is not the only meaning the sentence might have. It needed changing to make which meaning was intended clear.

Furthermore, 'specifically' and 'exclusively' are not synonymous to me. They might be in a given context, but 'exclusively' seems much more limiting.
Monday April 7th, 3:03 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Traci, "I am exclusively hiring XYZ Corp. for testing" and "I am hiring XYZ Corp. exclusively for testing." MIGHT mean the same thing--XYZ Corp. was the only company hired--but the second sentence could ALSO mean that XYZ Corp. was hired only for testing, not for anything else, as Jane B. indicated.

The problem isn't with "exclusively" but with positioning. Having it follow "XYZ Corp." allows "exclusively" to modify what comes before it OR what comes after it. It was fortunate that in this case, both facts were true. Otherwise, as William H. suggested, a rewrite would have been in order.

Does that make sense?
Tuesday April 8th, 1:25 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Immediately following the subject of the sentence when the adverb modifies the whole sentence:

The boys _only_ hiked 3 of the 10 miles.

If you put _only_ in front of the subject, it will modify just the subject: Only the boys hiked 3 of the 10 miles they were supposed to."


I don't read _only_ here as modifying the whole sentence. As near as it can tell, it modifies "3":

The boys hiked _only_ 3 of the 10 miles

In front of "hiked," it lends itself to an alternative (albeit extremely unlikely) interpretation that they only hiked (but didn't run) those 3 of 10 miles.

A slightly clearer (?) example:

The cows only come home at night.
The cows come home only at night.

In the first example, and given sufficient (and sufficiently weird) context, it could mean that the only thing the cows do at night is come home, and they don't go roaming the countryside or go dancing or something.

Still, the general point is certainly correct, namely that adverb placement affects meaning.

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