Is there any rule that explains why

Data can be arranged arbitrarily. (1)

is much more common than

Data can arbitrarily be arranged. (2)

according to the google search results (23M vs 33k results)? Is the sentence structure as in (1) wrong? I checked the common rules for adverbs (e.g., grammarbook.com) but I could not find any explanation for that.

  • 2
    Could this be a possible explanation? It basically states that there is no general rule and one has to consider the modifier, i.e., "arbitrarily" modifies "arranged" and not "data" in my example sentence. – Patrick May 20 '20 at 10:19
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? "Can easily be" vs. "can be easily" — what's the difference? – FumbleFingers May 20 '20 at 16:37
  • (You missed out the sequence can be arbitrarily arranged, which I'd say is at least as common as your first version can arbitrarily be arranged.) – FumbleFingers May 20 '20 at 16:46
  • @FumbleFingers Thanks but Edwin's answer is much more helpful. I didn't even think about can be arbitrarily arranged as it somehow sounds wrong to me. But thanks for pointing that out! – Patrick May 21 '20 at 22:43
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    Noting @Peter's charts showing the difference between easily and arbitrarily, I guess I can't deny that Edwin's answer is more helpful for your exact question. But ideally it would be nice to have a single question with a "perfect answer" summarising which "types" of adverbs can be more or less freely relocated, along with some "rules of thumb" setting out how the meaning is likely to change according to the position of the adverb (especially when there's a modal verb involved). But maybe there are no such general principles anyway. Perhaps it's all "learn by rote". – FumbleFingers May 22 '20 at 12:38

In this case, the positioning of the adverb makes a significant difference to what is modified, and the polyseme involved.

Using the adverb after the main verb

  • Data can be arranged arbitrarily

dictates that the main verb is modified ( ... arranged in an arbitrary as opposed to a set fashion) and virtually dictates that, as indicated, the 'random' / 'up to the arranger' sense/s are in play:

arbitrary [adjective]

  • 1 Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.
    • his mealtimes were entirely arbitrary



But using 'arbitrarily' right after the modal gives the sense that the decision to implement the action (spelled out by the verb) has been taken arbitrarily, this time with the default sense peremptorily, without discussion:

arbitrary [adjective] ...

  • 1.1 (of power or a ruling body) unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority.
    • arbitrary rule by King and bishops has been made impossible


  • Congress can arbitrarily prohibit the interstate transportation of all intoxicating liquors

[Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the ... United States Congress]

Its use in the given sentence (2) might be considered unusual. You might find that someone / something has arranged the data.

  • 1
    Consider these two Ngrams: easily ... – Peter Shor May 20 '20 at 10:40
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    and arbitrarily. The specific adverb makes a big difference. So this is correct. – Peter Shor May 20 '20 at 10:41
  • There is the added complication that 'arbitrarily', unlike 'easily', switches default meaning with position. OP's second sentence would need rather peculiar context to sound natural. – Edwin Ashworth May 20 '20 at 10:58

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