Monday, 14 March 2016

Health alert: how fronted adverbial disease (F.A.D.) took over.

For people wondering what the heck I'm on about with 'fronted adverbials' - and why it matters is this:

1. Very young children are having to learn what  'fronted adverbials' are and then to make their writing supposedly better, use them in their writing.
2. 'Fronted adverbials' is a fairly recent term to describe anything 'adverbial' (I'll come back to that) that comes before the verb e.g. 'On the hour, the bells rang out.'
3. It's not clear to anyone why writing in this way is better than writing 'The bells rang out on the hour.' As many have pointed out, this is not a 'grammatical' view. It's all about style.
4. My view also is that it's all based on a false view of what grammar is and how it can be described. That's because the grammatical terms (like 'fronted adverbial') are not connected to meaning and purpose.
5. So now back to 'adverbial' and 'adverbs'. In the 'old' grammar, we used to say things like 'adverbs' qualify or modify verbs. (I always forget which of 'qualify' or 'modify' it was, even though I was told 5000 times.) We used to say, 'adjectives' 'qualify' or 'modify' nouns. All nice and neat.
6. However, with certain verbs like 'to be' and 'to feel' and 'to sound' these qualifying or modifying terms ('adverb' and 'adjective') are not so clear. 'the bell sounded good' - er... so is 'good' an 'adjective' or an 'adverb' is it talking about the 'bell' or 'sounded'? Well, it's both.
7. Now, just as you can have an 'adverb', this old grammar says you can have an 'adverbial phrase' or an 'adverbial clause'. That was your 'on the hour' thing with the clock in number 3 above. Old grammar said that a phrase had no verb in it, a clause has a verb in it. Some modern grammars say there's no difference between phrases and clauses.
8. So, now have some subversive fun. Listen out for (or make up) some sentences that have phrases or clauses in front of the verbs, and see if you can work out exactly if that phrase or clause that comes before the verb, is 'adverbial' (qualifying the verb) or 'adjectival' (qualifying the noun that is the 'subject' of the verb). If you can't tell, or think that it's a bit of both, the terminology is at fault, not you. You are an intelligent reading, talking, writing person. If distinctions about such things are not clear and obvious, the system is at fault, not you.
8. My view, as I've said, is that the system is at fault because it is separated off from meaning and function. So, with this case of fronted adverbials, it's clear to me that sometimes (that's function) we put some stuff at the beginning of our 'utterances' which modify and qualify what's coming next. Whether it's adverbial or adjectival is often (not always) beside the point. To just focus on whether they're 'adverbial' is pedantry beyond belief or use. To lumber kids with it, even worse.
9. Now to function: yes, this is about 'style' but 'style' is about purpose: 'who am I writing for?' 'Why do I want or need to say this in this particular way?' As it happens (snort snort) the two main reasons for 'fronted' phrases are when we speechify and when we write poetry! Speechifying, it's sometimes handy to leave the main clause of the sentence till last for 'effect'. 'Never in the field of human conflict...' etc . Poetry often needs 'fronted' phrases and clauses because it helps to emphasise and you might need a rhyming word from that part of the sentence! For this reason, it often sounds a bit antiquated or pompous. (Did you see the fronted bit there?!)
10. By focussing obsessively on this kind of stuff, without it being connected directly to meaning, audience, purpose and function, we give children and teachers a false idea of what is good writing. Booklets and worksheets come out full of exercises in spotting these things, and of course test marks depend on them. That's bad enough. What's just as bad is that it pretends to be about something rule-governed, accurate and quasi-scientific. But it isn't. It's based on a bog of hybrids. Bogs of hybrids in language are actually what make language studies very interesting. You don't have to do it when you're 7 (the age when 'fronted adverbials' kick in in schools by order of Gove, Morgan and Gibb).