Sunday 3 July 2016

Fronted adverbial, fronted adjectival - let's call the whole thing off

1.One of the terms that children aged 10 and 11 in English schools have to learn is a ‘fronted adverbial’. They may well have to spot one of these in the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test which comes towards at the end of Key Stage 2. What’s more, they will have to show that they are able to use a fronted adverbial, in order to reach the ‘expected level’ of writing.

2. Many people who have studied languages, who’ve done English degrees, who do jobs involving editing have remarked that they are unfamiliar with this term and that they’ve been able to get along fine without knowing. That is, they know plenty of other terms that they have found useful, but this one doesn’t seem particularly so.

3. It is one of 50 or so terms that 10 and 11 year olds have to know.

4. My argument is that it is amongst a group of some 30 or so in this test which I would regard as an unnecessary burden on teachers and children at Key Stage 2 and an absurd criterion for what makes ‘good writing’. Writing does not become good as a consequence of using fronted adverbials.

5.However, some of my arguments about the particular kind of grammar that the teachers have to teach - and it is only one kind of grammar, there are others - is that some of it is a matter of dispute and conjecture between linguists. Another argument that I have is that the terminology itself raises problems. I’ve given the example of the sentence type ‘command’ as one that is confusing. In teaching grammar, I'm in favour of grammars that include 'social function', investigating and showing how and why we use grammatical structures.

6. In addition to my argument that this particular term is both unnecessary for this age group and burdensome for teachers and children, there is something odd and confusing going on with the category itself.  In speaking and writing English, we are quite fond of putting phrases in front of main clauses. That sentence ‘In speaking and writing English, we are quite fond of putting phrases in front of main clauses’ contains an example!

7. Observations: not all of fronted phrases are ‘adverbial’ in function; if some are not adverbial in function, why teach ‘adverbial’ ones as being the only ones?; if some are not adverbial what are they?

8.If you go online and research this sort of thing, you will come to many sites which are supposed to be grammar-made-easy for teachers, children and parents. These are littered with what the people who write these curricular materials would regard as errors. What’s more, across the English-speaking world there are variations in terminology.

9. With that in mind, I thought that I would a) not look for examples myself, b) not use the popular sites online, c) restrict my searches to academic ones. I found a chapter in a book that talks about ‘adjectival phrases’, some of which are ‘fronted’. As someone who was taught traditional grammar at secondary school and university in the 1950s and 60s, this doesn’t come as a surprise. If they came before the main clause, we didn’t use the term ‘fronted’. I think (from memory) we used to call them ‘inverted’ - which is a pretty useless term as it suggests that saying something one way is a reverse of a ‘normal’ way.

10. Meanwhile, back with what I think are ‘fronted adjectival phrases’ and academic articles: below (see 12.) - first I’ve put the details of the book I’ve looked at, secondly the examples that Peter Erdmann gives of sentences including fronted adjectival phrases. 
11. My questions for anyone reading those sentences are:
do you think those phrases are adverbial or adjectival?
if you are someone who has had to teach or learn what a ‘fronted adverbial’ is, do you think you might have called the phrases below ‘fronted adverbials’? 
(This is not in order to catch you out or pull rank - very usual amongst people talking about this stuff - but merely to point out the level of confusion going on in this field. )

12. “Supplementive adjective clauses in English’

Peter Erdmann


‘Language History and Linguistic Modelling”

eds Raymond Hickey, Stanislaw Puppel

Trends in linguistics, studies and monographs

Mouton de Gruyter, 1997

“Nervous about the future of their family, some Indians, the descendants of 19th century indentured laborers, are thinking of leaving, Mohamad Yusuf, a handyman said:

(Honolulu Star-Bulletin 25 Nov 1986, A-14:5)

“Flush with cash, and with their plants already close to capacity, manufacturers of trucks, chemicals, machinery and a wide range of other items are scrambling to build new factories and boost the efficiency of older ones to catch up with surging demand for industrial goods.”

(Business Week 19 Sept 1988 46:1f)

“From Alaska to California, discontinuously, the flexibly tipped western hemlock shares the great upland forests with the Douglas fir, the Sitka spruce..., western red cedar, alpine fir, red fir and white. Massive and bothered by few insects, these conifers preside over a complex web of animal and plant life and some forms in between.”

(Caras, Forest: 12f)

“Tall, solidly built, face adorned by a luxuriant growth of whiskers that swept down from his ears to his clean-shaven chin, Ambrose E.Burnside was a fine figure of a man - imposing, dapper, and conspicuous”

(Pizer, Word: 29f)