Fronted adverbials: what the hell is going on with English grammar?

Every so often a kerfuffle erupts about the teaching of grammar in English schools, and the focal point these days is often the ugly term “fronted adverbials”. What on earth are these obscure things, people wonder, and why are young children being forced to learn about them?

Two daunting words, one simple concept

Let’s start with “adverbial”. It looks like an adjective, doesn’t it? “Of or relating to adverbs”, that sort of thing. But, unhelpfully, it’s actually a noun. An adverbial does the same job as an adverb (modifying a verb or a clause, typically to express manner or time), but it can consist of more than one word.

And “fronted” means it’s at the start of a sentence or clause. That’s not too tricky to grasp, but we hardly use “fronted” to mean that in other contexts, so the phrase feels kind of strange.

Here are some fronted adverbials:

  • Cheerfully, I bit into the apple.
  • Yesterday evening, they went out.
  • Further along the road, a cat was sitting on top of a car.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

It’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. Whichever linguist came up with the term needs to be docked a week’s pay, but a fronted adverbial is a pretty basic grammatical device that we all use every day.

(The term dates back to the 1960s, but it’s only recently escaped from academia to bother the public at large.)

Well, we never needed to be taught that in my day

Most of us have been confused by why this new term is being taught in primary schools when we as adults have managed perfectly well without it.

I suspect that kids may not find this kind of novel jargon nearly as discombobulating as we adults do. When you’re at school, you expect to learn new things, to be taught new words for new ideas, all the time. “Fronted adverbials”, for all its unintuitive awkwardness, is just another to add to the list. But as adults, we like to think we already know what’s what.

It can be uncomfortable to find your children learning things that you don’t know, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the new teaching is needless or too advanced, or that you are stupid. It just means that teaching has changed – in this case, because it’s become informed by a better understanding of English grammar.

(One of my nieces, aged five, impressed me by introducing me to the word “digraph”. It means a pair of letters that combine to make a single sound. So in the word ”shoot”, “sh” and “oo” are digraphs. Simple. But the term itself is baffling if you don’t already know it.)

I’m neither a parent nor a teacher, and I don’t have a view about how old children should be when they meet adverbials and their fronting. I would say, though, that this concept should be taught not just as a term to memorise, with bland exercises that require kids to identify or create example sentences on demand. Fronted adverbials are a way of shifting emphasis, of re-ordering information, of changing the rhythm of a sentence. Children should be guided to try out using them, or not, in passages of writing to see the different effects that result. That’s how a knowledge of grammar really helps to improve your writing ability.

And yes, you can achieve that without knowing that there’s this specific term, but having a term can help you identify and think about the concept more tangibly than just “that bit at the end could go at the front”.

The theory can help with the practice. You can walk and run and jump without knowing anything about the muscles and bones in your legs, but if you want to train to get really good, or to deal with the risk of injuries, it’ll help to know a bit about what’s going on inside.

Fronted adverbials are only part of it, though. There’s a lot more grammar in the curriculum than there was in my day, and the grammar taught nowadays is quite different from the grammar that was taught in my parents’ day.

Let’s have a bit of a history lesson.

The decline and fall of the Roman linguistic empire

Social climbers, in their yearning for prestige, often adopt the language of the upper classes – often unconvincingly. The same thing happened to English grammar itself.

A rough, common tongue that grew up on a rainy island on the outskirts of Europe eventually came of age, and it realised that despite its growing literary prowess it still lacked respectability. So it modelled itself on the noblest and most distinguished language of all: Latin.

Sadly, some of the concepts and categories and distinctions used in Latin grammar didn’t fit English very well, but enough of the literati and educational establishment still insisted on adopting them. For this act of vanity, generations of schoolchildren have suffered.

Roman rule in Britain ended before the (Old) English language had even taken hold. But, a millennium later, Rome’s dead language colonised our understanding of our own. It ruled, ineptly but firmly, for a few centuries. Then, after a string of revolts, Latinised English grammar was finally overthrown in the 1960s, and – after a few decades of anarchy – a more authentic understanding of English grammar is now being applied in classrooms.

The new regime has had no shortage of teething problems, and sometimes its proponents implement their concepts with heavy-handed revolutionary zeal. It also has to contend with nostalgics, counter-revolutionaries, and people who just don’t want to have to think about this stuff.

(For a more thorough and less metaphorical telling of this history, try David Crystal’s book Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar.)

The aversion to “fronted adverbials” is part of this. It’s a sound concept but it comes across badly. While the theory of grammar is in a much better place than it used to be, it will take a while to figure out how best to present the ideas in schools.

But what’s the point of talking about fronted adverbials?

This morning Michael Rosen, who abominates the current state of grammar teaching, wrote:

Just last week I was privileged to record a radio programme about writing with one of the great modern writers, Hilary Mantel. We talked about the sound and rhythm of sentences, the struggle to find the right word, the shaping of a paragraph so that it sets a scene before introducing a character, and much more. We talked for nearly an hour and we did not mention a fronted adverbial once.

The shaping of a paragraph so that it sets a scene before introducing a character. That’s exactly what Rosen does here, and he uses a fronted adverbial – “just last week” – to do it.

They’re worth knowing about. I just wish they had a better name.

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  • Andrew Ingram  On January 23, 2021 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for this. Alice has just had to find out what a fronted adverbial is, to keep up with Noah’s lessons – you are quite right about the way schoolkids absorb new terms much more easily than adults.
    Did you ever watch the series Homeland? CIA, terrorism etc. Before every episode, they would do a little catch-up on what had happened in the story so far, with the voiceover saying “Previously, on Homeland….”. I have found this to be a useful example of an FA – not quite as well known as “to boldly go” for a split infinitive, but pretty well known.
    I found myself wondering if “Hopefully, Tom knows the answer” was a FA or (as it is in my head) a sentence adverb.
    Hope you are keeping well. I am now retiring from home!

  • Jason Preater  On January 23, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    Knowing the names for things is great. My kids at five were more interested in knowing the names of dinosaurs, and I encouraged them to ignore the teacher when she talked about phonemes and graphemes

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