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I'm dubious about word order in a situation of adverb plus phrasal verb. My specific question is the following. I want to refer to an article that deals with a certain topic. That topic is not the only one covered in the article but it is the most important one.

Which of these sentences is correct?

Your article deals mainly with [TOPIC].

Your article mainly deals with [TOPIC].

Your article deals with, mainly, [TOPIC].

Your article deals with [TOPIC], mainly.

Mainly, your article deals with [TOPIC].

As a non-native speaker, all this sentences (except the second) sound more or less fine to me. Nevertheless, I'm not completely sure about their correctness. Feel free to add some more options. And please, comment about the placing of commas as I may be fooled by my mother tongue intuition(Spanish).

Thanks!

  • I'd say there's only one possible problem: with (3). Even this is probably not ungrammatical (parentheticals being able to get away with murder), but it sounds clumsy. Multi-word verbs are not all so flexible. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 21 '15 at 21:52
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I (as a native speaker) agree with all your judgements, including your placement of commas. I suspect that "mainly" works like "only", which McCawley discusses in his textbook The Syntactic Phenomena of English. "Only" has a scope and a focus, the latter being compared or contrasted with something else (usually given special stress in the pronunciation) in that same scope. "Only" often does not occur next to its focus, but does occur within its scope, and is subject to the constraint that it immediately precede a constituent that contains the focus.

For instance, in "I only like beer that has been chilled," the scope is the entire sentence, and "only" prefixes the verb phrase "like beer that has been chilled" which contains the focus "chilled". Since the focus is also within the constituent "beer that has been chilled", "only" could have alternatively been placed before "beer".

Replace "only" in the above example with "mainly" to see the parallel.

There are complexities here which I don't understand, and I remember McCawley's description only foggily.

  • The only case (which I agree works with mainly as well) is dealt with in this answer. – John Lawler Jan 21 '15 at 23:47
  • Repositioning only can change its focus ([topic] / your article), whereas repositioning mainly (here at least) doesn't. Also, comma usage varies (eg none in (3) with only). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 22 '15 at 0:21
  • I don't understand how repositioning only can change its focus. The focus of only is part of the construction. If you consider another example with a different focus, that's simply a different construction. I'm not exactly disagreeing, I'm just not able to figure out what you're saying. Perhaps you could give some examples. – Greg Lee Jan 22 '15 at 2:35

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