Tuesday 3 January 2023

Fronted adverbials? What about fronted adjectivals?

 Anyone who teaches KS2 children (10 and 11 year olds) knows that they have to learn about fronted adverbials. In spite of the complicated name, they are not that difficult to 'get'. When we speak and write, we use 'main clauses'. The simplest forms of these are statements, questions, commands and exclamations - with no frills - as with 'I'm going out.' Or 'Do you want a biscuit?' Or 'Don't throw that!' Or 'What a great day!'  We also add stuff to these main clauses which we do using words like 'when' or 'which' or 'and' or 'because'. And we can use phrases that begin with 'prepositions' like 'in', 'with' or 'through'. You can try making up some sentences doing all this, eg, 'When I'm fed up, I go for a walk'. Or, 'Do you want a biscuit, or would you rather have something else?' And so on. 

One name for one kind of word is 'adverb'. It's a strange category of word because some examples are obvious because they appear to be doing what that word 'adverb' sounds like: they add something to a verb. Here we go: 'I'm eating quickly'. So 'quickly' adds something to the verb 'I'm eating'. It tells us more about how I'm eating. Conveniently, for word-spotters, it has an -ly ending which many adverbs have. Note: not all -ly words are called adverbs though! 'I hope you have a lovely time.' ('lovely' is called an 'adjective' because it tells us more about a 'noun' - in this case 'time'.) 

Adverbs: grammarians say that adverb is also the name for words that tell us more about adjectives, more about other adverbs,  and more about whole sentences. Examples: 'You're really cross'. ('really' intensifies 'cross'. 'I'm running very fast.' You can think of many more of these and we keep coming up with new intensifiers like 'terrifically', 'amazingly' and so on.. We can also use adverbs that seem to be telling us more about whole sentences. We have a wide range of these doing quite different things. Try beginning sentences with these words, 'however', 'lately', 'furthermore', 'gradually', 'eventually'. 

I said there, 'try beginning a sentence'. Aha! In other words, that adverb will come in front of the main clause. It's fronted! It's a fronted adverbial. 'Gradually, I eased open the cupboard...' 

Of course, we can do this with more than one word. We can do it with phrases: 'Ever so gradually, I eased open the cupboard...' Or 'In a while, I'll do something else...' So, these are 'adverbial phrases' rather than single word 'adverbs'. 

Now go back to when I said that we can use words like 'when' and 'where'. We make sentences using these all the time and when we do, we can put them in front of the main clause or after them. 'When I dance, I waggle my eyebrows.' or 'I waggle my eyebrows, when I dance'. 'When I dance' is what some call an 'adverbial clause of time'. It's adverbial because it tells us more about 'waggle'. It's a clause because it includes a whole or 'finite' verb ('I dance') and it's about 'time' because it has the word 'when'. There are other kinds of adverbial clauses - try making up clauses beginning with eg 'if' or 'although'.  You will have got it by now that if you can put an adverbial clause in front of the main clause then it's a 'fronted adverbial'. 

Put all that together: adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses can be fronted. 

So far so good. 


Take a look at a passage of writing and you can see writers putting all sorts of things in front of the main clause. You can experiment. How about these - imagine some of them in poems, where we quite often like to 'front' or 'invert' the usual sentence order. Are they all 'fronted adverbials'? As a result of KS2 Grammar teaching, we might think they all are!

How about these?

'Well-known for being a good speaker, Mary stood up and began.'

'As a speaker of French, I knew what to say.'

'Wearier than he had ever been before, old Jack sat in the corner.'

To my mind, these fronted phrases tell us more about Mary, 'I' and 'Jack'. In other words, they 'modify' (in these cases, proper noun and  pronouns. Words that modify nouns, pronouns and proper nouns, get to be called 'adjectives'. So are these 'fronted adjectivals'? Well, according to the grammar being taught, no such thing exists. 

Why not?

One reason I've been given is that grammarians have a secret definition of adverbs(!). Adverbs are words that modify - yes - but they are the kind of word that you can move about very flexibly in a sentence outside of noun phrases. Let's try it with the word 'apparently'. 'Apparently, Gareth liked peaches.' 'Gareth - apparently - liked peaches.' 'Gareth liked - apparently - peaches.' 'Gareth liked peaches, apparently'. Hmmm, some of those are easier to say than others but you can, with intonation, make them all work. 

Does this make my phrases (I'm saying they are adjectival) become adverbial because they've been fronted? That doesn't seem right.

Now for a bit of logic. Let me introduce you to dangling or hanging modifiers. 

Here's a sentence I spotted in the Guardian:

'As a former Bank of England economist, it must have struck Rachel Reeves that her old employer...etc etc.

Very strictly speaking, according to the old rules derived from Latin, different parts of sentences have to 'refer' to each other. Ask yourself what does the 'it' refer to? The 'it' seems to refer to 'As a former Bank of England economist' because the 'rule' says that a modifying clause or phrase has to modify the subject of the main clause - unless you slot in a phrase straight after the noun being referred to. The subject is 'it' but clearly the phrase refers to Rachel Reeves. (Incidentally, I'm not bothered one bit by this, I'm simply citing the kind of 'rule' that people like me were taught.) One way out of this supposed 'error' is to write, 'It must have struck Rachel Reeves, as a former Bank of England economist, that her employer etc etc...' Slotting the phrase in straight after Rachel Reeves, prevents the modifying phrase from dangling, we might say.

Why am I saying all this? Because that sentence is an example of fronting. AND, if it's an example of a dangling modifier, in this case, it must be adjectival - either modifying 'it' (no) or Rachel Reeves (yes). So it's a fronted adjectival.

But no, say the grammarians, fronted adjectivals don't exist. 

Why do I think any of this matters?

1. Making a great big fuss about fronted adverbials is nothing to do with 'grammar' and everything to do with 'style' or 'stylistics'. I resent the fact that grammarians have nosed their way into the matter of style in writing, demanding and claiming that their version of how we describe language is right. I resent the fact that they are imposing this particular stylistic trick on to primary school children as if it's in some way or another more important than 100s of other stylistic tricks we can go in for. This field could have been left to people who are great at talking about stylistics. This would have been much more useful for children and their writing. 

2. I think I have shown that there's something faulty or inconsistent in the way the language is being described here. Logically, there is clearly a way in which we can front adjectives and adjectival phrases. They must therefore be as equally interesting or uninteresting as fronted adverbials. I suspect that something arbitrary has taken place. The grammar curriculum was put together in a rush by a group of grammarians hired by Michael Gove to do a job that had nothing to do with grammar or language. Grammar was chosen as a topic for assessing teachers. This was done by the Bew Report (2011). It was decided that Grammar could be tested because, it was said, it had 'right and wrong' answers. This is nonsense, as has been shown by many people including Professor David Crystal (see the famous 'The sun shone bright' example). In the rush to find what the grammarians thought were suitable topics for testing children, they arrived at 'fronted adverbials'. One account of what happened suggests that one grammarian just came up with it on the spur of the moment and it was quickly shoe-horned into the curriculum. 

3. Clearly, fronting takes place in English. People do it all the time when speaking or writing. The most common one is using the word 'hopefully' at the beginning of a sentence! But as I've said, it's just a matter of style. Singling it out as super-important, or as a feature we should be concentrating on because it's good, is illogical and absurd. There is no virtue in fronting or not fronting. Some fronting is good. Some fronting is naff. And as to whether it's adverbial or adjectival has just complicated matters for everyone concerned. I've highlighted it simply in order to point out the feebleness of the terminology that they insist is accurate and necessary. 

Elsewhere on this blog, I've pointed out that there are plenty of other examples of dodgy terminology, disputed terms that they demand children learn as if they are the final and sole ways of describing language. I've leave you with one of them: 'I'm going out tomorrow'. The 'tense of the verb in that sentence is described as 'present progressive' though we used to call it 'present continuous'. The names of these parts of speech keep changing and no one ever explains why they change! Another absurdity! So that's a 'present' tense but clearly the sentence is talking about something happening in the future - ie 'tomorrow'. In other words, a particular verb form is not automatically referring to a particular time-frame. The word 'tense' is not always useful or relevant when talking about English. Much better, would be to have a concept of sentences being able to indicate time through a variety of words. In this case, 'tomorrow' is part of how that sentence indicates time. Conceptually, thinking of time as fixed by verbs and verbs alone is faulty. The daft thing is that once you accept that language is varied, full of variants, and ever-changing, you can rid yourself of these prescriptive ways of describing language and come up with much better, flexible ways of doing it. But then you can't come up with the false concept that grammar is right or wrong, can you? (Bew Report).  And then force teachers to teach it, so that teachers can be assessed...