1. As Sam only watched TV all day, he got low marks on the test.
  2. Tom got high marks on the test as he studied English a lot.

Apparently, one of these sentences has 'as' in the wrong position. Both positions seem fine to me, although I would probably rephrase the first sentence to something like "As Sam watched TV all day instead of studying, he got low marks on the test." because the 'only' doesn't sound natural to me.

What am I missing?

Thanks for any suggestions! :)

  • 3
    When you say "Apparently one of these sentences has 'as' in the wrong position." what do you mean by 'apparently'? Has someone told you that one of them is wrong and asked you to identify it or are you just reporting your own opinion? – BoldBen Oct 1 '20 at 12:14
  • 2
    You're right in pointing out that the first sentence doesn't sound natural; this compromises acceptability assessments. 1'a 'As Sam did nothing but watch TV all day, he got low marks on the test.' and 1'b 'Sam got low marks on the test, as he did nothing but watch TV all day.' seem equally acceptable, though there's a difference in emphasis. But with 1c 'Sam got low marks on the test because he did nothing but watch TV all day.' (the commaless variant) there could well be an explaining rather than an unmarked statement of cause-and-effect. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 1 '20 at 12:23
  • @BoldBen Yes, someone has told me one of them is wrong and the problem is that 'as' is in the wrong place. I don't know the original source of the sentences, though - I got the impression they were from an exercise or test. – Eliza Oct 1 '20 at 14:17

One understands naturally, so to speak, that "only" means "did nothing else but"; however, the naturalness is to be placed on the count of the logic of what the remainder of the sentence tells us, not the position of the adverb, this being so because in this position one possible interpretation, "he watched TV but watched nothing else", even if it doesn't make sense, intrudes on the deciphering that goes on as we read. It is true that the unambiguous place of only with respect to eliciting this latter meaning would be right before "TV". So, I feel a little as you do: the use of "only" as it stands does not appear entirely satisfactory.

This would find further explanation in CGEL 8.117

Position and focus
Whether restrictive or additive, focusing subjuncts are most frequently placed at M [right behind the main verb] unless the item focused is the subject, a part of the subject, or an auxiliary verb. But with the subjunct at M, one has the choice of focusing the main verb, another part of the predication, or the whole predication. Compare the following, […] with the restrictive only:

  • John could only <SÈE> his wife from the doorway.
    (eg he could not talk to her)
  • John could only see his <WÌFE> from the doorway.
    (eg he could not see her brother)
  • John could only see his wife <FROM THE DÒORWAY>.
    (eg he could not see her from further inside the room)

I believe that the various possibilities available, easily discernible in the spoken language because of the intonation cues, make out for a certain difficulty in the written part of the language, hence this unease at the reading of "only" in the OP's first sentence.

If "as" could be in the wrong position it has to be in the second sentence; however, I would not make such a strong assertion: there is not doubt that "as" expresses cause in the position it occupies in the second sentence, it's just that it seems to be not as effective as the "as" in the first sentence, whatever the reason; I suspect that this is so because it could be used often in that position as the conjunction relative to time. Both sentences are acceptable but the addition of the precision "instead of studying" in the first one removes any doubt, would there be any.

  • The distribution of 'as' is not asked about, is not relevant, and has been covered before in great depth. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 1 '20 at 13:08
  • @EdwinAshworth I don't know if we should speak of distribution here, but the question is clearly about "as" being, or feeling, wrong in one of the two sentences; I merely try to relate to that as I do myself find the first case without problem, while it seems that the second occurrence does not impress itself upon my mind as neatly. I believe the reason could one of heavily share territory, a suggestion. – LPH Oct 1 '20 at 13:15
  • Sorry, mea culpa. The distribution of 'only' is not asked about, is not relevant, and has been covered before in great depth. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 1 '20 at 14:09
  • @EdwinAshworth In my preceding comment, error: "could one of heavily share territory" to be read "could be the heavily shared territory". The distribution of "only" is not really the term here since this means "the various places where it can be found", if I understand correctly. It is merely a question of focusing the effect of the adverb on different elements in the sentence from one single position. As in the position at hand (M) there are various possibilities, this makes the adverb "versatile" but by the same token something difficult to control. I needed to explain that. – LPH Oct 1 '20 at 14:37
  • But the question is asking abour the acceptability (and if acceptable, any difference in meaning) of fronting the as- (reason) clause. OP recognises that the 'only' messes up analysis, but that it is a distractor. Best ditched here. I adjusted the first example. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 1 '20 at 15:00

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