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I saw the first formulation in Astérix, but I was under the impression both were acceptable. Am I right or wrong? I know negation always surrounds/follows the conjugated verb itself, allons in this case, and adverbs like bien generally do as well, but does that always apply to adverbs, particularly those relating to time?

I believe it is correct to say "Nous allons arriver demain," for instance, and while I know demain is a noun, in English I think we would treat bientôt the same in terms of placement. How does this work in French, exactly? Are adverbs of time treated the same as other adverbs, and thus the second formulation is simply wrong?

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A few stabs before owners of good reference books set this straight. :)

Firstly, as you likely know, an adverb must come after some verb. Hence, in simple tenses like the present and imparfait, they absolutely have to go after the verb. Thanks to the modal verb, adverbs can often go on either side in this construction, though certain ones may have a bias for one side or the other.

The two possible placements of bientôt are neck and neck in ngrams.

isolated bigrams

I notice that "déjà" has about the same picture as "bientôt" and so does "désormais". But "vite" and "prochainement", while apparently attested (and the examples in book search are indeed comparable uses), statistically seem to prefer the postverbal slot.

On the other hand, the go-to adverb "bien arriver" is far preferable to "arriver bien", presumably because there's a difference in meaning: "On va bien arriver" insists on the fact that it's going to happen, but "On va arriver bien" suggests that it will be done in good health, a rarer utterance... the distribution is similar for "mieux arriver" and "mal arriver". Meanwhile, "vraiment" appears on either side about equally.

Interestingly, specific times don't seem to work preverbally, even for a one-word adverb: "On va demain arriver," "hier arriver". (Yet "maintenant arriver" is pretty well attested!) A two-word adverbial phrase is utterly out: "On va le matin arriver" marche pas.

Adverbs of place don't work at all there either: "ici arriver", "là arriver"...

Incidentally, "poliment dire" is right out:

only one result

So is "doucement dire", so perhaps adverbs of manner are also not flexible...

/terminate guesswork

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I think we can say both. In fact, playing and replaying them in my head, I have a hard time deciding what the difference would be. It's not a difference of language register, and it doesn't feel like there is any appreciable difference in meaning either.

Curiously, in the very common:

On arrive bientôt

you cannot use any other word order. Ha! It's possible with the original sentence because the verbal group is long enough! We can also say, on the same pattern:

Nous allons bientôt manger

Nous allons manger bientôt

For other expressions (taken from Luke's answer):

On va arriver bien

doesn't sound very natural at all, because the bien is not very clear. I would have said, e.g. On va arriver frais et dispos, which is now clear. This one is a bit tricky, because on va bien arriver can mean in the end, we'll ge there, the bien being there only for emphasis.

On va demain arriver

is definitely not a possibility. You have to say: On va arriver demain, or on arrive demain, but:

On va doucement lui dire ...

On va lui dire doucement ...

are both possible. So are:

On va vite arriver

On va arriver vite

with maybe a nuance: the first one meaning that we are going to arrive very soon, whereas in the second, we will arrive quickly (an evanescent or mirage nuance: you hear a nuance at first, but when you really try to definitely put your finger on it, it's harder than expected...).

A possible rule could be that the verbal group has to be complex enough to make it possible to insert a word before the main part of that verbal group. But even so, there seems to be quite a few exceptions, so it's not so much a rule as a pre-requisite. If the verb is a simple form such as on arrive, it's not even possible to contemplate putting a word in between the subject and the verb.

  • Good point -- the tense must at least be compound... – Luke Sawczak Mar 16 '17 at 5:28
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    Concerning On va bientôt manger (manger bientôt), I feel there's a slight difference, though they likely could be interchanged. Preventing someone from starting something that could be long (e.g. a fancy drawing on the kitchen table or an advanced topology exercice), I would use Ne commence pas tout de suite, on va bientôt manger, while answering hungry kids repeatedly asking for an estimated time of meal, I would go (when it's not lying) with Soyez patients, on va manger bientôt. Does it make sense, or is it just the way I came to express myself? – Montée de lait Mar 16 '17 at 16:22
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    Try the test of the gueuloir: say both hundred times, and see if after that you are still convinced there is a real difference :-) I kept scratching my head on that one (and other similar ones), but in the end, I was less and less convinced there was a real difference. – Frank Mar 16 '17 at 17:48
  • Thank you for the trick. I tried, and indeed, way before thirty times, I could feel that there was a way to bend the tone, speed, emphasis and all those other parameters whose names and concepts are still hazy in my understanding in order to go from one meaning to the other, in both cases. Actors and actresses must be good at this game, I guess, as they have to become the voice of a character born in someone else's mind. – Montée de lait Mar 16 '17 at 21:04
  • I feel the same as @Frank and I prefer bientôt manger in both cases. I would put bientôt at the end to emphasize the word. – Destal Mar 17 '17 at 12:17
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Nous allons bientôt arriver

tends to give equal importance to the action (arriver) and the moment (bientôt) whereas

Nous allons arriver bientôt

is the preferred option if you want to slightly emphasize on the moment (bientôt).

As reflected in the answer to

Quand allez-vous arriver ?

:

=> Nous allons arriver bientôt.

preferred to

=> Nous allons bientôt arriver.

In contrast, Nous allons bientôt arriver is the more idiomatic option when the action is followed by a location adjunct :

Nous allons bientôt arriver au point de rendez-vous. (correct)

Nous allons arriver au point de rendez-vous bientôt. (sounds awkward)

In general, the further away an adverb is from its verb, the less natural the sentence tends to sound.

Il chercha une grande agrafeuse dans le tiroir du bureau de sa collègue de la comptabilité frénétiquement. (kind of clumsy)

Il chercha frénétiquement une grande agrafeuse dans le tiroir du bureau de sa collègue de la comptabilité. (better)

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