English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

(I'm not really sure if the title is a correct definition of my problem at all)

I'm not a native English speaker, and I'm used to say:

Spaghetti suddenly can talk

But I've seen a phrase from a native speaker

Spaghetti can suddenly talk

I don't want to rush to conclusions based on one example, so please tell me what's the correct way to say such sentences and how incorrect is the other way (informal or maybe rough error)?

share|improve this question
Thank you for the links! But I'd like to look at the correct explanation of my very example. Why? Because there are different semantics in Russian for these two ways of saying this sentence – valya Mar 6 '11 at 9:33
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Ignoring the fact that nobody would suggest that spaghetti can talk, suddenly or not, the phrases

Suddenly spaghetti can talk.


Spaghetti suddenly can talk.

mean that there is a sudden change after which spaghetti are able to talk. By contrast the natural meaning of

Spaghetti can talk suddenly.

should mean that spaghetti are able to talk in a sudden manner.

The most common form

Spaghetti can suddenly talk.

is slightly ambiguous between the two, but probably is usually intended to take the former meaning.

The four phrases are correct, though the most common is also most ambiguous.

share|improve this answer
I didn't even think that you have such freedom with word order in English. Thank you very much! – valya Mar 6 '11 at 10:45

The formal rule is that adverbs follow verbs, so that traditionally, "__ suddenly can _" would be considered a fault. There was quite a lengthy discussion following the popularity of the TV series Star Trek because of the opening monologue's wording:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

This outraged many language purists who insisted that "to go boldly" is the only permissible form. Even today, many still adhere to the rule. Some editors maintain that there is a matter of logic at work; namely, that a subject can "do" a verb in some way, but that a subject cannot "perform" an adverb. [Edit: To clarify per a comment below, the subject of adverb ordering and logic often arises in discussions of splitting infinitives, which are usually split with adverbs.]

One of the examples given by Henry above is incorrect:

Suddenly Spaghetti can talk.

This is possible only if "suddenly" is set off with a comma, as it is phrasal. Finally, "can suddenly" is idiomatic, i.e., what sounds natural to the native ear because the alveolar 'n' glides smoothly to the sibilant 's.' The reverse is awkward to the palate.

share|improve this answer
your answer seems very different from Henry's, I don't know which one should I choose. I unchecked Henry's answer for a moment, maybe you'll have a consensus or something else – valya Mar 6 '11 at 14:56
The objection to "to boldly go" was not about the relative position of the verb and the adverb, it was that the adverb came between the two parts of the infinitive verb "to" and "go", breaking the grammatical rule about not splitting an infinitive (a debated rule which has been regularly broken since well before it was originally formulated). I would agree with Henry's answer. – Peter Shor Mar 6 '11 at 15:22
Clarified the original per Peter's remark. – The Raven Mar 6 '11 at 21:10
I disagree that "Suddenly Spaghetti can talk" is incorrect. It's common (and correct) to omit the comma if the adverbial phrase is short enough to avoid confusion. – psmears Mar 6 '11 at 21:35
Fair enough. Your link makes a distinction between formal and informal usage, nota bene. – The Raven Mar 7 '11 at 1:19

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.