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(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)?

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

Suddenly spaghetti can talk.

and

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.

  • 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
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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.

  • 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
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    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
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    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
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Suddenly spaghetti can talk, is only incorrect if you are using prescriptive grammar. Colloquially, in English, this can be said and sound correct to the native speakers ear. As far as the person asking the question is concerned, from a second language acquisition stand point, yes, you can speak that statement in all of those ways, and it be understandable.

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