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When stating the conditions in which an experiment was done (no particular emphasis needed)... What's the correct word order

Plants were exposed to freezing temperatures for 2 hours.

OR

Plants were exposed for 2 hours to freezing temperatures"?

Are both correct?

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    Scientific papers are not bound by "two" instead of "2" rules Aug 2, 2018 at 6:13
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    The default does not separate the colligation 'exposed to ...', but the variant, inserting the duration PP almost parenthetically, is not unacceptable (and as Greg says, emphasises the promoted phrase). May 9, 2023 at 13:52

4 Answers 4

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FreeDictionary explains about adverbs that

If we use more than one adverb to describe a verb, there is a general order in which the different categories of adverbs should appear—this is known as the order of adverbs (sometimes called the royal order of adverbs):

  1. Manner
  2. Place
  3. Frequency
  4. Time
  5. Purpose

But the post goes on to affirm that:

There is a great deal of flexibility regarding where in a sentence an adverb can appear, regardless of its content and the rules of order that we looked at above. While the order of adverbs is useful to keep in mind, it is a guide, rather than a law.

Looking at your sentences

Plants were exposed to freezing temperatures for 2 hours.

follows the guide rule of standard word order, and is therefore the most neutral way of putting it. As for

Plants were exposed for 2 hours to freezing temperatures.

Here more stress falls on for 2 hours, as it changed its routine place in the sentence without however changing the meaning of the sentence. So the sentence is correct and can be used unambiguously.

Yet, since you say 'no particular emphasis needed', the answer to your question is that your first sentence is standard word order.

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    I believe that the ordering rules apply only to single-word adverbs, not to adverbial phrases.
    – alphabet
    Jan 10, 2023 at 1:01
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Either is correct. Which order you use is a matter of emphasis - the first is considered to have been given more emphasis by virtue of being first in the list, the others in the list will be then placed in decreasing order of importance.

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    Please see my comments at OP.
    – Kris
    Feb 11, 2016 at 13:44
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    Do you have a source for the fact that the first has more emphasis? Sep 6, 2023 at 14:06
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Plants were exposed to freezing temperatures for 2 hours [for 2 hours to freezing temperatures].

An adverb is very versatile in a sentence. Its position in the sentence does not have to be right next to the adjective, verb, or another adverb that it modifies. This is why the adverb prepositional phrases, one answers "What?" and the other "To what extent (how long)?" can be moved around.

What were the plants exposed to? Freezing temperatures.

To what extent or how long were they exposed? For 2 hours.

Both phrases modify the verb phrase were exposed.

You can even place them at the beginning of the sentence.

To freezing temperatures, plants were exposed for 2 hours. [sounds better on the other side of the verb phrase]

For 2 hours, plants were exposed to freezing temperatures. [this one too would sound better on the other side of the verb phrase]

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  • 'To freezing temperatures, plants were exposed for 2 hours.' is something only Yoda wouldn't lose a mark for. Apr 14, 2022 at 14:45
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Adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses have a default order in English: Place, Manner, Time. This can be changed to add slight emphasis.

However, English is very flexible with the position in the sentence of adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses. Everything depends upon context, the speaker’s tone, and which element you wish to emphasise.

……I……...went…to London.....by plane..last week. Subject….verb…….Place…….Manner….Time

This is simply a general guide, all the elements of Place, Manner, Time may not appear, and sometimes there will be more than one of them.

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