I was marking some exams for my Japanese high school students, and one of the test problems is:

Arrange the following words into a sentence:

walk / started / they / soon / to

Without fail, all ~300 students wrote:

They started to walk soon

...which definitely sounds wrong to me. I believe the correct response is:

They soon started to walk

However, for the life of me, I can't figure out why the position of soon makes such a big difference in this example. Does anyone have any ideas?

  • I am not a Native Japanese speaker, but I can speak Japanese fluently. Japanese think English's word order (generally) is different from that of Japanese. For example, "I you love" is the Japanese order. Therefore, they think "soon" should be placed differently even though it is just an adverb. For this kind of adverb, the order should be same for both English and Japaness right after the subject and before the verb. I think it is somethig you need to emphasize to your students. – user140086 Sep 30 '15 at 6:48
  • Could you add the tags adverb-position, and adverbs, please? I think the past-tense tag isn't really pertinent. – Mari-Lou A Sep 30 '15 at 10:14

The problem is that walk may take an adverb:

They started to walk quickly.

So it attracts the modifier soon, which properly goes with started. As you figured out, the way to get soon to modify the start and not the walk is to move the adverb closer to the verb it should modify and away from the verb it shouldn't.

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  • 1
    So why are either okay in the future tense then? They will soon start to walk. or: They will start to walk soon. – Thomas Threlfo Sep 30 '15 at 9:27
  • At that point, I would read 'start to walk' as in a child learning to do it. "His child was crawling enthusiastically at that age, and would soon start to walk." – Sobrique Sep 30 '15 at 11:27
  • @ThomasThrelfo An excellent question. I do not know the answer. Why does the future tense free the adverb to wander? Perhaps the auxiliary will attracts the soon by making it slightly redundant. You might ask the question on linguistics.stackexchange.com. – deadrat Sep 30 '15 at 17:39

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