Here's my problem:

I've been confused about the placement of adverbs in present/past perfect phrases. For example, which sentence would sound better:

"We had been slowly drifting down the river when a bear attacked."


"We had slowly been drifting down the river when a bear attacked."

Personally, I'd go with the former, and this led me to believe that if the sentence contains both "had been" and a verb, the adverb should be placed after "had been"--if the adverb is indeed modifying the verb.

This, however, led to me to think of other uses of the present/past perfect, where another verb isn't present. The is the best example I could formulate:

"He has always been an academic and a charitable person."

See, right there, always--an adverb of frequency--was placed in between has and been.

Does this mean only adverbs of frequency (e.g., always, usually, etc.) should be placed in between such constructs?

A final example to put this topic over the edge is "He had been either sick or exhausted." Now, if you were to move "either" in between "had been," would the sentence be grammatically incorrect? I've noticed that the former is used more frequently, but the sandwiched version doesn't sound wrong either.


6 Answers 6


Adverb placement is not fixed, and as with other elements, I think most of it depends on what you want to express.

"He has always been an academic and a charitable person". This is a kind assessment of a man, and also the simplest and most common construction.

"He always has been an academic and a charitable person.* This is more emphatic, as if in defense of some alternate version of his history.

"He has been a wise and, always, a charitable person." This emphasizes the constancy of the latter attribute. All are "correct".

"We had been slowly drifting down the river when a bear attacked." is no different really than "We had been drifting slowly down the river when a bear attacked." To my ear (AmE), the latter sounds a bit more common. I agree it would be unusual to break up had been in this case, but "he had often been seen..." is not an unusual construction.

"He had been either sick or exhausted." is much the same as "He had either been sick or exhausted." Here, either is emphasized because of it's less common placement. Both are grammatically correct.


I'd probably prefer

'We had been drifting slowly down the river ...' .

Adverb placement is flexible but sometimes quirky.


An emphasiser (adverb of degree - or arguably pragmatic marker) would sometimes be placed after the (first) auxiliary:

"I have really been trying so hard." (same usage as 'I've really tried this term.')

Notice that the modal pragmatic marker usage of really would be placed differently:

"I really have been trying so hard." (here, really = honestly / believe me) OR "I have been trying so hard. Really / Honestly!"


'Either __ or __' is a correlative conjunction. Strictly, it should join grammatical equivalents:

"Either he had been sick or he had been exhausted."

"He had either been sick or been exhausted."

"He had been either sick or exhausted."

However, ellipses can lead to other variants, and if they sound reasonable they often catch on. Hopefully, the ellipsis will not generate an ambiguity.


There may be some difference in placement of adverbs according to type of adverb. One type of adverb is the "adverb of frequency": "always" in your second example above is one. Also, "sometimes", "never", etc. The "slowly" of your first example above is a different type of adverb - more descriptive of quality rather than frequency. With your first example above, I would prefer, "We had been drifting slowly down the river when a bear attacked," rather than splitting "had been drifting" in any way. With your second example above, it seems you have a bit more flexibility in the placement of adverbs of frequency. Cheers.


First: Placement of Adverbs of Frequency

The position of the adverb of frequency, vis-a-vis an auxillary verb or a negative, can alter the meaning:

I do not often eat lunch downtown.

I often don't eat lunch downtown. (emphasis on something not being done)

Second: Adverbs of frequency usually go between the auxillary and the main verb (The simple present perfect supplies one example)

Mrs. Li has often spoken with our school about her naughty child.

Mrs. Li often has spoken with our school about her naughty child.


The child has not cried today.

The child often has not cried today.

The child has not often cried today.

Third: Placement of Adverbs of Manner

We can often place adverbs and adverbials in different spots within a sentence. Adverbs of manner are especially mobile.

He carefully answers every question.            Before the verb
He answers every question carefully.            After the object
She answers carefully.                          After the verb
Carefully, he answers every question.           At the beginning (emphasis; narrating current action)
He answers carefully every time.                After the verb


He answers carefully every question.

Additionally: About Adverb Placement

I especially like music—jazz, rock, blues.

I like especially music—jazz, rock, blues.

I also like jazz.

I like also jazz.

She is also my friend.

She is my also friend.


I'd argue for

We had been drifting slowly down the river

Not to be confused with to slow down, which might inhibit slowly down for some speakers. This has the advantage of leaving the verbal head intact.

I agree that had been should be left standing together as a fixdd collocation, because it would otherwise clash with had slowly come to, had slowly achieved understanding, which does not have

Options that in-fix the adverb bracketed by the past progressive may have arguments going for them, but all hinges on the dilemma whether drifting down [the river] is deemed a fixed compound or a transparent composition, and whether down is progressive, "along the course of" or directional "to our destination" (cp come down, come down here vs get off vs get off of). Indeed I find that were slowly drifting down expresses the idea of an incomplete motion much better, whereas had been going down implies completion just like had been to, had gone down. That again depends on whether you suppose the movement's finalization by bear-attack, or whether you want to leave the movements destiny open until mentioning bear, in favour of suspense. Likewise, the position of slowly depends on the subliminal implication of being to slow. Since the speed of drifting depends mostly on the speed of the river, the adverb should bind closest to the transitive object:

We were drifting down the river, slowly, when suddenly ...


Imo, this adverb placement problem could be eliminated without changing the information the sentence conveys simply by replacing "had been" with "were: " We were drifting down the river slowly when a bear attacked"

  • Hello, Skater. OP does not ask for workarounds (and notice that your suggestion still does not mandate that 'slowly' be placed where suggest). Sep 4, 2021 at 11:33

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