The Grammarphobia Blog

Especially on Christmas Day

Q: I teach English at a high school in Germany. My class is studying this sentence: “Especially girls are interested in games that require social skills.” For a German, this use of “especially” sounds perfect, but I have read that it is incorrect to begin an English sentence with the adverb “especially.” Can you help my students and me?

A: In English, we would not normally write a sentence like “Especially girls are interested in games that require social skills.”

It’s not that there’s any rule involved here, and it’s not that “especially” is always ungrammatical at the beginning of a sentence (though it’s generally awkward).

The problem is that the sentence is ambiguous. Does “especially” refer to the subject—girls, in particular (as opposed to others)? Or does it refer to the adjective, meaning girls are “especially interested”?

“Especially,” as you know, is an adverb. And as an ordinary adverb it’s used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.

But it has another function too. When it’s used to call attention to a particular part of a sentence (the subject, for instance), it’s what grammarians sometimes call a “distinguishing adverb.”

We’ll use a simpler set of examples to explain what we mean. First, here’s “especially” used as an ordinary adverb.

Modifying a verb: “Julia especially likes dressing up.”

Modifying an adjective: “Julia looks especially nice.”

Modifying another adverb: “Julia dressed especially carefully.”

Now, here’s “especially” used as a distinguishing adverb referring to the subject: “Julia, especially [or “in particular”], likes dressing up.” The implication is that many people like dressing up, but Julia likes it more than most.

Getting back to your original sentence, if you intend “especially” as a distinguishing adverb to refer to the subject, you might write it this way:

(1) “Girls, especially, are interested….”

(2) “Girls, in particular, are interested….”

But if you mean that girls are interested to a special degree, then write: “Girls are especially interested…. ”

It’s true that “especially” is rarely used at the beginning of an English sentence. It’s awkward at best, ambiguous at worst.

For example, a sentence like this is not ungrammatical: “Especially during the Christmas season, traffic on Main Street is horrendous.”

But the adverbial phrase at the beginning (“Especially during the Christmas season”) is more effective and less awkward when it’s closer to what it modifies (the adjective “horrendous”).

So either move the entire adverbial phrase to the end of the sentence or, better yet, write, “Traffic on Main Street is especially horrendous during the Christmas season.”

Of course, we often use incomplete sentences that start with “especially,” as in this exchange:

“Boy, the traffic on Main Street is horrendous!”

“Especially during the Christmas season.”

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