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I am doing a worksheet about adverbs. For adverbs of certainty like 'probably' and 'definitely', it says that they go in the mid-position and it gives this rule: "mid: before main verb; if the main verb is to be, after this."

But the example sentences are:

  • "I’m probably going to try to make a seaweed flavour ice cream next."
  • "She’s probably going to buy a new car."
  • "I’m probably going to get a chocolate ice cream."

I thought that 'to be' in these examples would be an auxiliary? But at the same time, I thought that 'try', 'buy' and 'get' would be the main verbs, not 'going to'? So is the rule wrong? Or am I misidentifying the main verb?

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  • 1
    Why would you classify "going to" as an auxiliary?
    – alphabet
    Commented Mar 22 at 0:02
  • 2
    The main verb is the one that's conjugated. Commented Mar 22 at 0:27
  • 2
    Whatever source you got your "rules" from is rubbish. Take the first example, where the alternative "I probably am going to try to make a seaweed flavour ice cream next" is perfectly valid. It just carries a different nuance to the one you're citing. Don't waste your time with such poor quality teaching aids. Commented Mar 22 at 0:50
  • I’m voting to close this question because it's asking about the validity of some ridiculous arbitrary usage rule. Stacking up multiple verbs [TO BE] + going + try + make is pointless confusion. Commented Mar 22 at 0:53
  • 1
    I’d posit that the structure is auxiliary verb (inflection of to be) + main verb (going) + infinitive (to try / buy / etc.). So the placement is still in line with your “rule.” And having the adverb there does sound more natural to me, though I don’t think switching its location is syntactically incorrect.
    – GrammarCop
    Commented Mar 22 at 1:13

1 Answer 1

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What is called "mid-position" in your grammar corresponds to what is termed "medial position" in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". In this latter grammar, this is defined as follows. (A more careful approach is shown in this definition.)

(CoGEL § 8.16) Medial
MEDIAL position (symbol M) can be preliminarily described as that between S and V:

  • The driver suddenly started the engine. [1]
  • The soprano really delighted her audience. [2]
  • They seriously considered him for the post. [3]

But when the V-element is realized by a verb phrase involving an operator, we see that this first approximation to a definition of M is inadequate. In the following variants of [1], [2], and [3], any native speaker would feel that the adverbials are still in the same position:

  • The driver has suddenly started the engine. [1a]
  • The soprano had really delighted her audience. [2a]
  • They are seriously considering him for the post. [3a]

In consequence, we must refine the definition and say that M is the position immediately after the subject and (where there is one) the operator. This formulation will provide for interrogative sentences:

  • Did the driver suddenly start the engine? [1b] ("Do" is the operator of negation. (user LPH))
  • Had the soprano really delighted her audience? [2b] ("Have" is the operator for question forms of verbs in the present perfect. (user LPH))
  • Why are they seriously considering him for the post? [3b] ("be" is its own operator (no do-support). (user LPH))

It will also provide for imperative sentences:

  • Don't suddenly start the engine!
  • Do seriously consider him for the post!

In view of these examples, we see that an 'initial' adverbial in an imperative such as :

  • Never remove the cover.
  • Carefully remove the cover.

must properly be regarded as 'medial'; cf 'We never remove the cover', *'Never we remove the cover'. One further complication can be seen in comparing the following examples with [2], [2a] and [2b]:

  • The soprano was really at her best tonight.
  • The soprano hasn't really been at her best for weeks.
  • Was the soprano really at her best tonight?
  • Has the soprano really been at her best recently?

We recognize that really seems to be in the 'same' position in all cases. The description of M must therefore be further clarified to accommodate the fact that, in this grammar, we treat BE as an operator even when it is the sole realization of V. So also HAVE, in those dialects of English that would not introduce got in [5] and [7]; […]: Thus:

  • She has really a different approach to the subject. [4]
  • She has really (got) a different approach to the subject. [5]
  • She has really had a different approach to the subject. [6]
  • Has she really (got) a different approach to the subject? [7]

Note The claim that the position is the same (i) between operator and main verb as in [8], and (ii) between finite form of BE and complement as in [9] is strikingly confirmed by the fact that when the following was read aloud, it was perceived as [8] by some hearers, and as [9] by others:

  • The expression on her face was seldom discussed. [main verb] [8]
  • The expression on her face was seldom disgust. [complement] [9]

"Before main verb; if the main verb is "to be", after it."

"if the main verb is "to be", after it" corresponds to the fact that in CoGEL "to be" is treated as an operator when it is the sole realization of the verb. "Try", "buy", and "get" are main verbs, but "going to" is not a main verb, nor any part of speech, this being so because "to be going to" is a verbal idiom. An operator is defined as follows in CoGEL.

(CoGEL § 2.48) Not all simple statements have an operator, but when it occurs, it is normally the word which directly follows the subject. Provisionaly defined as the first or only auxiliary, it has a crucial role in the formation of questions.

In the construction "to be going to + < main verb >" the form "to be going to" is considered to be a semi-auxiliary, and "be" is considered to be the operator (do-support is not possible for negations and questions involving semi-auxiliaries). This is not a case of a clean generalization of the first auxiliary principle as mentioned in CoGEL's definition because "going" is not an auxiliary as "to be going to" is a verbal idiom; instead it is a further definition of what an operator is: for semi-auxiliaries "to be" is the operator.

A few semi-auxiliaries

  • be able to, be bound to, be likely to,, be supposed to,be about to, be due to, be meant to, …
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  • Sick! I retracted my closevote! Commented Mar 22 at 4:25
  • This is why my linguistics professor said that English is as hard to learn as Chinese. Commented Mar 22 at 5:06
  • The CoGEL extract is really helpful, thank you!
    – Rosie
    Commented Mar 22 at 8:17
  • Is CoGEL really claiming that the word order in sentence [4] is the most idiomatic one? While possible, it sounds quite awkward to my ear, and Google's n-gram viewer seems to confirm my gut feeling. It seems to have been more popular in the 1800s, though. (With "got" it sounds more natural, though, as Google again agrees.) Commented Mar 22 at 9:32
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    In AmE one often hears things like "She really has a weird sense of humor". "He really is a pain sometimes".
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 22 at 11:58

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