Saturday 27 September 2008

On ordering adverbials

A correspondent cites these sentences from a grammar book:

I'll meet you _____.
(a) on Sunday at 8 o'clock at Heathrow Airport
(b) at Heathrow Airport at 8 o'clock on Sunday
(c) at Heathrow Airport on Sunday at 8 o'clock

Apparently his key says that only (b) is acceptable. He asks if the others are ungrammatical.

Not in the slightest! Though that isn't to say that they would all be equally frequent. Grammar books point out positional preferences governing adverbials of place, time, manner, and so on. But all options will be heard - including the other three possibilities.

(d) at 8 o'clock on Sunday at Heathrow Airport
(e) at 8 o'clock at Heathrow Airport on Sunday
(f) on Sunday at Heathrow Airport at 8 o'clock

Which will be used, on any particular occasion, depends on many factors. Here are a few:

- the preceding context: e.g. if the preceding question had been 'Where shall we meet - and when?' that would privilege reply (b) or (c), whereas 'When shall we meet - and where?' would privilege (a) or (d).

- rhythm: the strong stresses on 'Heathrow Airport' disturb the underlying stress-timed rhythm less if they are in final position.

- weight: longer elements tend to occur later in the sentence, which motivates the use of 'Heathrow Airport' in final position.

- emphasis expressed by tonicity, usually on the last content word: this could push any of the three elements into final position, depending on which meaning is most in mind - time, day, or place.

- tone-unit divisions, which would allow a distribution of emphasis onto more than one element, if the speaker wanted to draw attention to two of the elements, or all three ('Now listen carefully: At 8 o'clock / On Sunday / At Heathrow Airport'), in which case any sequence is equally possible.

- semantic bonding between the verb and the following adverbial: the locative element in the meaning of meet is stronger than the temporal, and would pull 'Heathrow Aiport' towards the verb.

- other stylistic factors: for example, whether there is structural parallelism between this sentence and others in the surrounding discourse, or whether a rhetorical contrast of some kind is being made.

These factors pull our intuition in different directions, of course. We must expect considerable usage variation here.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I actually had someone tell me on a mailing list that it was flat-out ungrammatical EVER to put an adverb of time before an adverb of place - she said her English teachers (at her posh public school in the UK) had said so.

Where on earth did this notion come from?

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I thought your readers might be interested in this
as it's very topical at the moment!

The Ridger, FCD said...

e and f sound strange to me - there would have to be some governing context for me to split the time from the date with a place like that (something like, "I'll meet you at 6 on Sunday at Heathrow, right?" "No - Sunday at Heathrow at eight.") But I agree that all are possible.

That said, an English teenager on a mailing list once informed me, snootily, that her teachers at her fancy school had told her you can never put an adverbial of time before one of place, making "I saw him yesterday on the bus" absolutely ungrammatical.

Where do such notions come from?

DC said...

Nothing about adverb order in here, but yes, this sort of discourse analysis is always interesting.

DC said...

Yes, context is everything, as I say in the post. Sentences like these should never be judged in isolation.

Where does this rule come from? I'm not sure. It's been a standard part of ELT for a long time, perhaps influenced by languages (such as German) where the sequence rules seem to be stricter. It's not something prescriptive grammarians worried about. If anyone knows an early reference, I'd like to hear of it.

Unknown said...

I've often wondered why I put adjectives in the order I do. I can't discern a rule, but I would never say "a pink small thing", but always "a small pink thing". I guess there must be rules for this, but I don't know them.

baralbion said...

Being able to give ELT students ‘a rule’ makes life simpler both for the students and the teacher. Sometimes you have to withhold part of the truth.

DC said...

This is fair enough when students are in the early stages of learning, but once they become advanced they need to know that what you call a 'rule' is in fact only a tendency. If they don't realize that the alternatives exist, they will fail to appreciate the range of usage which actually exists in the language, and cut themselves off from actively controlling the full expressive richness of English.

DC said...

[Ian] Adjective order is much more tightly constrained. You'll find a good statement of the restrictions in the reference grammars, such as the Quirk et al Comprehensive Grammar.