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[livejournal.com profile] gerald_duck's bit of linguistic peeving reminds me that I meant to post about something very odd that I came across recently.

In the course of writing a big proposal last week I got a comment back from one of my colleagues that the phrase

where the jet first brightens appreciably

was wrong because "the adverb shouldn't be at the end of the sentence". When I called him on this, it turns out that this was advice from his girlfriend, with a Harvard PhD in "English" (not specified what variety!).

Now it seems to me that this is obviously loopy. Obviously we could have rewritten the offending sentence

where the jet first appreciably brightens

but that looks less natural to me. And clearly the 'rule' can't possibly be a rule, in the sense that some adverbs have to go at the end of the sentence:

He's coming soon.
*Soon he's coming.
*He's soon coming.

I tried to argue this point with my colleague but clearly he didn't want to fight his girlfriend on my behalf. The sentence stayed how it was. But I'm puzzled: usually with something like this you can find a trace of it on the internet; for example, if you Google for 'less vs fewer' you can find both sides of the argument on the first page, and the same goes for split infinitives, prepositions at end, that vs which and the rest of the prescriptivist bugbears. Here, though, I can't find any evidence that even the most prescriptive of style guides has ever claimed anything about not putting adverbs at the end of sentences.

So my questions for y'all are: has anyone else come across this ever? Can it be traced back to a particular style guide? Is the US/UK difference at all significant here?

Date: 2008-08-31 02:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] writinghawk.livejournal.com
Hmm yes. "The trains to London fast go."

A great deal can be said about adverb placement, and often is, some of it expressed more prescriptively and some less. They tend to be divided in to adverbs of time, of manner, etc. A web search turns up this, for example, which looks pretty thorough. But even this (which is perhaps pardonably prescriptive, being for foreigners) says of "manner" adverbs, which your example would be, that they go after the verb.

I think colleague's girlfriend has vaguely remembered that there are some rules about adverbs, and also that someone once said some part of speech shouldn't go at the end of a sentence, and has taken it all to heart and muddled it up. Her PhD is probably on textuality and intertextuality in the early works of J K Rowling, or something.

Date: 2008-08-31 04:52 pm (UTC)
gerald_duck: (Oh really?)
From: [personal profile] gerald_duck
The only problem I can see is that "first" is also (in that context) an adverb. Placing some adverbs before the verb and some after potentially creates an ambiguity between "when the jet first appreciably brightens" and "when the jet appreciably first brightens", which do have very subtly different meanings.

In your case, the ambiguity isn't enough to matter. As a different example, compare "he almost unfortunately failed" with "he unfortunately almost failed". I think the former can be expressed by "he almost failed unfortunately" and the latter by "he almost failed, unfortunately", but I can see the point of view that placing both adverbs before the verb might be clearer. Especially if the text is going to be read aloud.

None of that seems to have much to do with the adverb's position at the end of the sentence, only its position relative to the verb, though. Nobody's every told me not to end sentences with adverbs. Prepositions, maybe.

Date: 2008-08-31 06:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gareth-rees.livejournal.com
This is clearly a misremembered "rule".

Alleged rules like this can be easily checked by picking some great English prose stylists and seeing whether they obey or flout the rule.

For example, open Austen's Pride and Prejudice and you soon find:
  • "Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.
  • "I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully.
  • He did look at it, and into it for half-an-hour—was pleased with the situation and the principal rooms, satisfied with what the owner said in its praise, and took it immediately.
  • The advice was followed readily, for the feverish symptoms increased, and her head ached acutely.
Quick conclusion: there is no such rule.

Date: 2008-08-31 08:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vyvyan.livejournal.com
My Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, a thorough, corpus-based dsecriptive grammar covering modern British and American English in various registers, mentions no such prescription, or even a tendency to avoid sentence-final adverbs in academic or literary prose. (Although a descriptive work, it generally mentions prescriptive rules for their inherent sociolinguistic interest.) It seems a very strange prescription, and if your colleague wants to argue from second-hand authority, you can tell him I said so :-)


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