English English language Grammar Usage

Putting an adverb in its place

Q: An über-editor at the New York Times recently criticized the placement of “also” in this sentence from the paper: “Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware.” He wrote on a Times blog that “it’s smoother to place the adverb between parts of the verb: ‘which have also redesigned.’ ” Always? Your thoughts?

A: Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, made his comment on the paper’s After Deadline blog, which is adapted from a weekly newsroom critique he oversees.

What do we think of the advice he offers in his Oct. 2, 2012, posting?

Well, it’s true that “also” often sounds better between the parts of a verb phrase (“have also redesigned”). But there’s no rule that says “also” can’t come first (“also have redesigned”).

In fact, many writers deliberately put “also” and other adverbs before both the auxiliary and main verb in a misguided effort to avoid splitting a verb phrase.

As we say on our Language Myths page, the belief that it’s wrong to split the parts of a verb phrase is a byproduct of the infamous myth against splitting an infinitive.

However, the question of where to place “also” in a sentence like the one cited on the Times blog can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

In an informal survey of Google Books, scholarly journals, and general writing on the Web, we found no single pattern for the placement of “also” in relation to verb phrases.

Educated writers use “also” before verb phrases, in the middle of them, and even at the beginning of sentences.

In our opinion, the best place to put “also” is where it seems most natural and makes the most sense.

The linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “only rather broad and approximate flexible generalisations” can be made about the placement and order of adverbs.

“There is a great deal of variation in use,” Huddleston and Pullum write in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “and features of context, style, prosody, and euphony play a role in some decisions.”

They say that adverbs like “always,” “usually,” “often,” “sometimes,” “never,” “possibly,” “probably,” and “certainly” tend to precede a single verb (as in “they probably go”) and to follow an auxiliary (“they have probably gone”).

But they note that these adverbs can sometimes precede the auxiliary in verb phrases (as in, “they probably have gone”).

The position of the adverb here affects its “emphatic polarity”—that is, the part of the sentence that the adverb influences.

As for “also,” Huddleston and Pullum describe it as a “focusing modifier” because it can focus on different parts of the sentence.

Sometimes, however, it’s not clear which part “also” is focusing on. The Cambridge Grammar illustrates this ambiguity with the example “Jill had also attended the history seminar.”

As the authors point out, that sentence can be interpreted in different ways. Does it mean Jill, as well as other people, attended? Or that she attended other seminars too? Or perhaps that she did other things besides attending a seminar?

In that example, “also” is unavoidably ambiguous. It wouldn’t have helped much to move it around. But sometimes the placement of “also” makes a difference.

Take, for instance, the phrases “also have worked” and “have also worked.” We can imagine sentences in which one might be preferred over the other:

(1) “I have traveled in Italy, and I also have worked there.” (Here, “also” focuses on the entire verb phrase “have worked” rather than on the main verb, “worked.” As a result, the two verb phrases, “have traveled” and “have worked” are parallel.)

 (2) “I have worked in Greece, and I have also worked in Italy.” (Here, “also” focuses on the main verb “worked,” emphasizing that the writer has worked in two different countries. So the two phrase “worked in Greece” and “worked in Italy” are parallel.)

We’re talking about subtle differences. And other writers might prefer “also” in different places in those sentences. The point is that moving “also” can change its focus, its orientation to one part of a sentence or another.

As we noted above, the use of “also” with a verb phrase is often ambiguous. And it’s ambiguous in that sentence from the Times: “Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware.”

Have companies OTHER than Facebook and Google redesigned their hardware? Or have Facebook and Google redesigned things OTHER than their hardware?

Here’s the entire paragraph, from a Sept. 22, 2012, article about how Internet data centers pollute the environment:

“A few companies say they are using extensively re-engineered software and cooling systems to decrease wasted power. Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware. Still, according to recent disclosures, Google’s data centers consume nearly 300 million watts and Facebook’s about 60 million watts.”

Sometimes context can help clear up an ambiguity. But in this case, the context doesn’t help. We still can’t tell where the emphasis of “also” belongs.

If the reporter means that Facebook and Google, like some other companies, have revamped their software and cooling systems, that sentence could simply read “Among them are Facebook and Google.” Period.

But you know what? At some point, questions like this make us cross-eyed. And that point has been reached!

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