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Is there a subtle difference between the following two sentences?

  1. It can be safely deleted.
  2. It can safely be deleted.

If they mean the same thing, is one preferred for other reasons?

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3  
Well, I hesitate to give my opinion as an answer, but the first sounds like it's describing the process of deletion as safe (for instance, you won't die if you try to delete it), whereas the second sounds like it's describing the results of deleting it as safe (for instance, you won't compromise other data). Then again, I could be overanalyzing it, and there may not be any difference. –  Kaiser Octavius Jun 18 '13 at 2:50
    
I'd agree with Kaiser Octavius at least in as much that reading the phrase on its own gives that impression. But the difference is a subtle one so if you put them into the opposite context I don't think they would seem odd. –  user46250 Jun 18 '13 at 3:49
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I see no difference; I've used both on different occasions. So, the answer to the subtle difference is: Any one you want to claim is there. That's what everybody else does if they presuppose that one is different from the other; you make up your own usage pattern. Of course they're all different. And the answer to the preference is: Sometimes one, sometimes the other. It depends. –  John Lawler Jun 18 '13 at 4:00
    
Is there anything before or after that statement? –  Alex Jun 18 '13 at 6:52
    
There isn't much difference between those two and "It can be deleted safely" they all mean the same thing –  Alex Jun 18 '13 at 7:01
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's a subtle difference. If you claimed "Fugu can safely be eaten" in Japan (highly poisonous pufferfish) you'd probably be arrested. On the other hand "Fugu can be safely eaten" or "Fugu can be eaten safely" are accurate statements. It can be, provided it's prepared by an expert chef.

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Adverbs are probably the most fluid part of speech as regards the position they may take in sentences.

With some adverbs [and adverb look-alikes, according to some modern analyses], care has to be taken with what would normally be an allowable location within the sentence, as ambiguities or differences in meaning may be possible:

1a Frankly, I'd speak with him as soon as possible. (pragmatic marker - conveys writer's attitude)

1b I'd speak with him frankly, as soon as possible. (modifying speak)

1c I'd speak with him (,) frankly. (care!)

2a They were happily married. Contrast:

2b They were, happily, married.

(Arguably, neither occurrence of 'happily' is a true adverbial usage here, but the difference in meaning is apparent - but could be lost when spoken.)

However, there is little scope for ambiguity in the OP's sentences.

3a It should clearly be marked with the owner's name. and

3b It should be clearly marked with the owner's name.

are a pair of sentences involving a modal, where positioning of the -ly word ((a)evaluative pragmatic marker, and (b) adverb of manner or secondary (adjective) modifier here) gives different meanings.

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To me, the asker's sentences are completely analogous to your 3a and 3b—they mean entirely different things, not just subtly different things. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 22 '13 at 23:00
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The two sentences could be interpreted in subtly different ways but many readers would not do that. You could emphasise the difference by extending each sentence.

It can be safely deleted by {...} although other methods may damage linked files.

It can safely be deleted after you have ensured that {...}

If you fear that some users may misinterpret whichever option you choose, then I suggest that you use a longer form of the sentence to avoid that possibility.

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I dont see that difference. I can switch the two in you examples with no difference in meaning. –  Noah Jun 18 '13 at 9:17
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The second version is incorrect english structure: DO NOT split infinitives. A more attractive version would be:

It can be deleted safely.

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3  
Utter nonsense. There is nothing wrong with split infinitives, as many other answers on this very site show. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 22 '13 at 22:58
    
Please justify your statement - and use correct English your self. –  TrevorD Aug 23 '13 at 0:06
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