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For instance:

"This morning I ate breakfast quickly because the train was late."

"I ate breakfast quickly this morning because the train was late."

"Because the train was late I ate breakfast quickly this morning."

"This morning, because the train was late, I was breakfast quickly."

I feel like the first two are pretty much the same. However, the third sentence emphasizes that the train was late, and the last sentence emphasizes that the event happened "this morning".

Is there a linguistic rule that explains why ordering a sentence in a particular way can change its emphasis or connotation?

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    No, there's no "rule" here. And any opinions regarding supposedly different "nuances" conveyed by your alternative sequences are just that - personal opinions. – FumbleFingers Jul 15 '15 at 15:22
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    Adverbs (including adverbial phrases and clauses) can nest at beginning and end of a sentence, as well as between most of its constituents. Different positions don't change meaning; they're either random or they express something like the speaker's idea of the order in which the addressee should access the information. There is no general rule, except that it's the speaker's choice. – John Lawler Jul 15 '15 at 15:25
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    Those sentences don't even make sense. Why did you eat breakfast quickly? What did the train being late have to do with having to eat breakfast quickly? Wouldn't you have more time for breakfast if the train was late? How you would know the train was going to be late? This could just be me but I think you might need a better example. – Kristina Lopez Jul 15 '15 at 15:45
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    That last one leaves me wondering who dined on you (and why they were in such a hurry). – Hot Licks Jul 15 '15 at 17:24
  • "A sentence" or only those sentences? For the former, the answer is no, unless you want to include all possible sentences as a lookup-table "rule". – Drew Jul 16 '15 at 2:34
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The part of a sentence that an adverbial or modifier of some sort goes with is called the adverbial's scope. When a smaller part of an expression is in the scope of an adverbial, we say the scope is narrow, and when a larger part is in the scope, we say the scope is wide. The general rule is that when there is a potential difference in interpretation depending on scope, the adverbial furthest to the left has the widest scope.

Picking out some parts from your examples, compare the interpretations of "quickly" in a., b., and c. where I have enclosed the scope of "quickly" in brackets:

a. Quickly [I ate breakfast].
b. [I] quickly [ate breakfast].
c. I [ate breakfast] quickly.

The meaning of a. and b. differs markedly from that of c.. The former mean that only a short time elapsed between some reference event (e.g., me getting out of bed) and me eating breakfast. But c. means that the action of eating breakfast occupied a short period of time. Here, "quickly" takes the widest scope when it is further to the left and the narrowest scope when it is furthest to the right. In a./b., "quickly" is probably a sentence adverb, but in the last example, it is a manner adverb.

  • Interesting formula, where's it from? – user98990 Jul 15 '15 at 17:17
  • @LittleEva, it's from me. (Others have surely said similar things, but I don't feel like trying to track down antecedents.) – Greg Lee Jul 15 '15 at 17:22
  • Well, I hadn't encountered the formulation previously and I like it as a general 'rule' to bear in mind. Thanks. – user98990 Jul 15 '15 at 17:26
  • There is a detailed examination of the distribution of adverbs, and the possible influence on their scope, in 'The distributional freedom and restriction of adverbs_Rhanghyeyun Kim' [a PDF under 'Syntax and Semantics of Adverbs']. This would seem to support your rule. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 16 '15 at 23:01
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In general, placing a sentence element at or near the end of a sentence emphasizes the information that it contains.

"Readers naturally emphasize the ideas at the end of a sentence."

--https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=lesson2

Addendum: I see that your question asks why this is so. This raises issues in psycholinguistics and sentence processing theory. Simplified, one theory relates to the "recency effect": Information received at the end of a series remains in working memory while earlier-encountered information decays.

Another theory relates to a cognitive processing observation: In communication at the sentence level, we tend to begin by introducing familiar or more simple ideas, and end with new or more important information. This orients speaker and listener to a topic, and facilitates understanding and retention of new and more complex information.

  • A linguistic formulation would be that in a head-first language like English, comments tend to come after the earlier topics that they comment on. – Greg Lee Jul 15 '15 at 17:26
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The answer to this question points to the understanding of both active voice and passive voice. One sentence can be rewritten to redirect the emphasis.

Ex. Jack loves Jill. In this example Jack is the subject and is doing the action (loves). Jill is simply the direct object.

Ex. Jill is loved by Jack. In this example Jill is the subject but she isn't doing anything.

I guess you have to ask yourself is the reason for your sentence to emphasize that you ate breakfast quickly or that the train came late. Once you decide which is most important, you can construct a sentence that's more clear to the point.

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