Fronted adverbials

Periodically, a debate breaks out in the British press about whether schools in England teach too much English grammar or too little English grammar. The trigger for the latest outpouring was an academic study suggesting that teaching grammar does not improve children’s writing. For some commentators, the phrase ‘fronted adverbials’ now exemplifies excessive focus on the teaching of grammar. Critics of teaching this phrase have argued that:

  • most adults in Britain never learnt this phrase at school, and get by perfectly well without it.
  • linguistic terminology like this horrifies and baffles parents. And most professional writers don’t use, or even know most of the technical definitions.
  • teaching children to analyse language crushes their enjoyment of language and stifles their creativity.  

What are fronted adverbials?

The phrase ‘fronted adverbial’ isn’t difficult to understand, even if you have never seen it before:

  • If you have ever learnt any grammar at all, you have almost certainly heard of nouns, verbs, adjectives—and adverbs. You probably know roughly what each of those words means, even if you can’t define them rigorously. You probably know that an adjective modifies a noun. You probably also know that an adverb modifies things that aren’t nouns: for example, an adjective, verb, clause or sentence.
  • It isn’t hard to guess that an ‘adverbial’ must be something that isn’t exactly an adverb, but is like an adverb in some way.
  • It also isn’t hard to guess that ‘fronted’ means that the item has moved forward somewhere.

That simple guess at the meaning is not far off. The glossary http://www.englicious.org/glossary defines:

  • an adverbial as a word or phrase that is used, like an adverb, to modify a verb or clause. More specifically, adverbials are optional units in a clause and they answer one or more of the questions ‘when did this occur?’, ‘where did this occur?’, ‘why did this occur?’, or ‘how did this occur?’
  • a fronted adverbial as an adverbial that is placed at the start of a sentence or clause

So:

  • an adverbial is a single category. Some adverbials are adverbs (single words). All other adverbials are phrases (made up of more than one word). Adverbials modify verbs or clauses.
  • a fronted adverbial is an adverbial that has been moved forward—to the start of a sentence or clause.

Englicious is a free online library of English language teaching resources. The aim of the resources is to enable teachers to help schoolchildren learn about English grammar in a fun way. The authors of Englicious are academics in the Survey of English Usage at University College London.

The Englicious glossary gives two examples of fronted adverbials:

  • Reluctantly, we left the theatre.
    In this example, the adverbial is a single word (an adverb).
  • In the evening, we had a party on the beach.
    In this example, the adverbial is a phrase, not just a single word.

If the adverbials in those two examples were not fronted, they would read as follows:

  • We left the theatre reluctantly.
  • We had a party on the beach in the evening.
    or:
    We had a party in the evening on the beach.

Sharing terminology

In my view, it is helpful to teach children at least some aspects of grammar. If they gain same insight into the structure of their native language, that insight can help them understand how to improve what they write. It can also help them explore ways of speaking and writing more effectively. And conversations about the structure of language can be more effective, efficient and even enjoyable, if children and teachers share terminology for talking about those structures.

Indeed, it would amaze me if anyone were to advocate not teaching any grammatical vocabulary at all. For instance, would anyone seriously suggest that children shouldn’t learn what nouns and verbs are? Or what sentences are?

Having a label for a concept

Having a label for a concept makes it easier for people to talk about that concept. To give an analogy, in learning to read at school at the age of 5, my grandchildren learnt the term ‘digraph’. A digraph is a combination of two letters representing a single sound. A common example in English is the digraph <th>. This represents a single consonant, for example the one found at the beginning of <the> or <these>. https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/12/can-english-words-start-with/ Another common digraph in English is <ng> https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/droppin-gs-bad-speech/

Although I could guess what this term means, I didn’t know the term before my grandchildren started talking to me about digraphs. There is no doubt that having a label for this concept made it easier for them to talk about it.

Is the concept of ‘fronted adverbials’ helpful?

In my view, it is very helpful to teach children the concept of a ‘fronted adverbial’. Once they have that concept, they can explore with their teacher when it would be a good idea to place an adverbial at the front and when it would be better to place it later in the sentence or clause.

In my last job, I spent a lot of time reviewing draft documents. In many cases, the authors weren’t natural writers and had never had any training in how to structure a text to make the logic flow clearly within sentences, between sentences and between paragraphs. One way to alter the flow of logic is to move an adverbial to the front, or away from the front.

Once you have a shared vocabulary for grammatical structure, it is much easier to talk about what kind of structures favour or obstruct the flow of logic. So teaching writers some terminology for these processes makes it easier for writers to reach good decisions.

Thus, if children and adult have a label for the concept denoted by the term ‘fronted adverbial’, it is easier for them to discuss with others how to make texts they write more effective and more engaging.  

The term ‘fronted adverbial’

Some recent commentators have called the term ‘fronted adverbial’ ugly, arbitrary or unclear. I don’t agree with those comments. As shown above, it is easy to work out roughly what the term means. It should also be easy to retain its meaning when someone has explained the meaning to you.

I suspect most resistance to the label ‘fronted adverbial’ is due to its unfamiliarity. Most adults in Britain never learnt this concept at school, nor did they learn any label for this concept.

Improving children’s writing

The trigger for the latest round of comments on teaching the term ‘fronted adverbials’ and other aspects of grammar was an academic study. The study considers whether teaching grammar improve children’s writing. I will examine the findings in a future post and discuss whether newspapers have reported the findings accurately. Now posted at  Teaching English grammar in school doesn’t improve children’s writing. Really? – Language Miscellany

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