I'm just curious. I like to think that I am decent with grammar, but this has me puzzled.

Which is the correct way to arrange my sentence?

"I can sometimes..."


"I sometimes can..."

Thank you

  • 2
    There is no "correct" way. Both are acceptable, both mean the same thing, and both are equally colloquial and normal. Which one gets used depends -- in my experience, anyway; YMMV -- on whether the speaker wants a d'DA-duh phrase or a DA-d'duh phrase. In other words, not difference. Your mistake is in believing that there has to be a correct way to arrange your sentences. I agree it'd be convenient if there were such a thing, but no such luck. Most of the time it's speaker's choice, and it's an esthetic choice, not a grammatical one. – John Lawler May 22 '15 at 4:32
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    I was thinking that both were interchangeable, but I kept second guessing myself. I usually use the first; the second seems more formal...to me anyway. I just wanted to be certain that I wasn't making any mistakes. Thanks @JohnLawler – Manly May 22 '15 at 4:37
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    @JohnLawler, this comment (and the one below) has influenced readers, and OP to accept an incorrect answer, the 3 options are not on the same footing and, since there are dots here (which imply a 'main verb' is following), it is not a mere esthetic choice. There are rules to arrange sentences, with some exceptions, of course – surf May 23 '15 at 4:13
  • I already voted your answer up. I can't do it again. What do you mean by "incorrect", and why do you think that answer is "incorrect"? It is certainly right that neither of the two combinations is ungrammatical, and either may be used in any sentence where one of them would be grammatical. By the way, I am aware of at least some of the rules used to arrange sentences. – John Lawler May 23 '15 at 15:32
  • @JohnLawler, votes are for students. I asked you to correct your proposition suggesting that in this case "it's an esthetic choice". There is a rule, and: "I can s.. go" is the canonical form (as in N.Coward's quote), "s.. I can go" is also correct, but "I s.. can go"/ "I s.. have gone" / "I s.. do not" are not on the same footing. That's why the accepted answer is misleading for future readers (and OP). As you also agree in your latest comment, ngrams and google searches* do not make grammar: ["I ain't"] gives some 30,000,000 hits – surf May 25 '15 at 13:14

As far as I'm concerned, there's no "correct" way here...

Both of those, plus - what I would argue as the most popular option - "Sometimes I can" are all OK in my book.

  • I can sometimes see the future but it's not working today.
  • I sometimes can eat an entire pizza alone.
  • Sometimes I can spell complicated words without needing the spellchecker!

A lot of the time, I'd say that the version you choose will depend on the word you want to emphasize.

Of the three, I'd say that the first and third are the more common constructions... which this Ngram seems to agree with.

NGram of three options

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  • Thanks! Apparently, I need to wait another 3 minutes before I can accept this answer? haha – Manly May 22 '15 at 4:38
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    @JohnManly You should always wait a few hours or even a day before accepting answers. Fast answers aren't always good answers! Let people vote and see if anyone else has an opinion. – Catija May 22 '15 at 4:39
  • Just afraid I might forget to accept, if no one else does anything with this question. I'll be sure to check back tomorrow. – Manly May 22 '15 at 4:43

The answer is rather complex.

There are some rules that regulate the position of an adverb of frequency, such as: sometimes, often, occasionally, always etc.

 subject aux/be  adverb   main verb  object/place/time

  I             *often*     go swimming        in the evenings.
  He    doesn't *always*    play      tennis.
  We    are     *usually*   here               in summer.
   I    have    *never*     been           abroad.

but real usage is different for each one of them. One first distinction must be made between adverbs of frequency that can be used at the beginning (less frequently at the end) of the sentence, an adverbs that cannot.

In the example in question there is a modal verb can which functions as an auxiliary verb and therefore the correct position of the adverb should be between the aux and the main verb, as in this quote from Noel Coward:

"I'm not a heavy drinker, I can sometimes go for hours without touching a drop."

     You    can    *never*    leave
     I      can    *usually*  drink
     I      can    *sometimes* go


  • sometimes is one of the frequency adverbs that can be placed at the beginning of the sentence, and this is felt more natural by many native speakers, and, in addition,
  • it is an exception to the rule, since it has a peculiarity of its own: it must be placed at the beginning in a negative sentence, you say:

    1. I do not [always / usually / often / frequently / regularly / generally] go to church.
    2. I have not [always / usually / often / frequently / regularly / generally] gone to bed after midnight.
    3. I can't [always / usually / often / frequently / regularly / generally] go for hours...

but, if you want to use sometimes in all these examples, you have to place it right at the beginning. You don't say:

"I don't sometimes go to church", "I have not sometimes gone..", "I can't sometimes go for hours", but you say: "*sometimes I don't/have not/can't..."

Any other position, including the one suggested by the general rule, is felt as wrong.

The non-negligible presence of the incorrect I sometimes can...." in the ngram quoted in another answer is due to the fact that it is quite correct in an answer: "Can you go for..." - "Sure, I sometimes can!" If you consider it a modal verb followed by another verb, the result of the * ngram is different and gives "Not found" for the wrong form, and the other two are on the same level.

Ngram screenshot

The representation of the three variants in the other ngram is misleading, since it suggests all of them are correct.

Lastly if you search for another adverb occasionally in the truncated, ambiguous form : "I occasionally can..." you get "Not found", which confirms, in a way, the peculiarity of sometimes

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  • That rule you propose for negative sentences only works if you want to keep the quantifier inside the scope of the negative; and you often will. But if you want the quantifier outside, you can say I always / usually / often / frequently / regularly / generally don't go to church. Of course that means something different. But "a negative sentence" is insufficiently specific, when dealing with quantifier placement. Negation and quantification interact in very odd ways, being logical operators. – John Lawler May 22 '15 at 14:55
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    @JohnLawler, The subject of 'must' is sometimes, the sentence is saying that you don't say:"I have not sometimes...gone", "I don't sometimes go..." , "I sometimes don't go to church" , while you can say: "I don't usually go...",. If it is not clear I'll edit. Let me know if you agree. – surf May 22 '15 at 15:02
  • Ah, my mistake. I was looking for an ungrammatical example and didn't count the variables in the grammatical one. This is why linguists use ungrammatical examples and mark them with asterisks. You're correct, *I don't sometimes go to church and *She can't sometimes force herself to eat it are ungrammatical. Sorry about that. – John Lawler May 22 '15 at 15:08
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    I never downvote anything; I'm not here to judge students but to answer questions. I'm done judging my students, and none of them are here anyway. But +1 for sure. – John Lawler May 22 '15 at 15:12
  • All ngrams are misleading. They're not evidence for anything but arbitrary fashions in writing, especially if one searches for particular words instead of variables. All language is spoken, not written; this point gets lost frequently on a site like this one. Consequently, data about written language does not normally touch on grammar. – John Lawler May 23 '15 at 15:29

"Sometimes" is bad toward the middle:

sometimes the fish must have been being eaten for hours
the fish sometimes must have been being eaten for hours
the fish must sometimes have been being eaten for hours
the fish must have sometimes been being eaten for hours
*the fish must have been sometimes being eaten for hours
*the fish must have been being sometimes eaten for hours
the fish must have been being eaten sometimes for hours
the fish must have been being eaten for hours sometimes

McCawley in The Syntactic Phenomena of English gives a theory of adverbs that makes "sometimes" (and all time adverbs) modifiers of V-bar which can optionally be raised to be sentence modifiers. That predicts that all the patterns I've just listed should be acceptable. IMO, here, and overall, McCawley's theory doesn't work very well. I have my own theory of adverbs which, unfortunately, doesn't work very well to predict facts of adverb placement, either. It's a difficult problem.

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  • 3
    It's worse if the fish is bad in the middle. – Edwin Ashworth May 22 '15 at 10:18

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