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Which one of the following sentence is grammatically correct?

  • Can we at least make this predictable?
  • Can we make this at least predictable?

What is the grammar rule?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is not a matter of grammar, but of semantics; that is, meaning.

The two sentences have slightly different meanings. Consider:

Can we at least make this predictable?
Can we make this predictable, even if we cannot do anything more?
Alternatively: Can we make this predictable, even if no one else can?
Can we make this at least predictable?
Can we make this predictable, even if we cannot make it something more than predictable?
Can we make at least this predictable?
Can we make this thing predictable, even if we cannot make anything else predictable?
*Can at least we make this predictable?
(This option may not be very natural and might only be used with contrastive emphasis)

The above are not hard and fast, and also depend a lot on context and intonation. But the point is that shifting the 'at least' does change the meaning, however slightly.

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Your fourth example doesn't sound right at all (whatever the meaning is expected to be). But the other ones are right. –  Mitch Mar 21 '12 at 14:42
    
@Mitch, yes I noticed that after I read it aloud to myself. :) –  Mark Beadles Mar 21 '12 at 14:43
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It works if you mean: Can we, if no-one else, make this predictable? –  Shoe Mar 21 '12 at 15:01
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@TimLymington In this venue I mean semantics in the linguistic sense, not the sense used in formal logic. –  Mark Beadles Mar 21 '12 at 15:24
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At least is a quantifier and thus binds a focus, which is normally stressed. Quantifiers can generally occur either immediately before their bound focus phrase, or immediately before a constituent containing it. That's why the first example can have either this or predictable stressed and is therefore ambiguous, but not the second one. –  John Lawler Mar 21 '12 at 18:29
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They are both grammatical. They mean slightly different things.

Can we at least make the cat predictable?

This requests that if nothing else is achieved, the cat needs to be predictable.

Can we make the cat at least predictable?

This requests that if the cat can be nothing else, it should be predictable.

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These are trick questions, cats cannot be made predictable. –  Mark Beadles Mar 21 '12 at 14:34
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@MarkBeadles Me in particular. –  Schroedingers Cat Mar 21 '12 at 14:43
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They are both valid in different situations. It depends exactly what you are trying to say, and what "this" refers to.

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"Schroedingers Cat" commenting on a question about making cats predictable... ! –  Karl Knechtel Mar 21 '12 at 14:35
    
Then I would suspect "Can we make it at least predictable" seems like a better sentence to my mind. I wish I could explain why, but I think it is something about the scope of the task. –  Schroedingers Cat Mar 21 '12 at 14:43
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