A brief rumination on fronted adverbials

Until quite recently, I did not know what “fronted adverbials” were. But now that I do know, I find myself using them all the time. Indeed, looking back on my older blog posts, I find I had used them even before I knew what they were. And, on reflection, I think I used them correctly.

Not that I care too much, frankly, whether I used them correctly or not: I worry when my writing does not convey what I want it to convey, or when my phrasing is inelegant; whether or not I stick to some set of prescribed rules is not something that bothers me at all. Which is not to say I am indifferent to grammar: far from it. I belong to a generation that was not taught grammar at school (hence my ignorance till quite recently of “fronted adverbials”), and I regret my lack of education in this respect: I regret it not because I think a greater knowledge of grammar would help me write better – I don’t think it would – but simply because language is such a fascinating human construct, I would, I think, have enjoyed and have benefited from being taught something of how it is constructed. Of course, I could, and, indeed, do, try to compensate for my ignorance now in my adult years, but I don’t really see why teaching something so very interesting in schools should be so derided.

And it is derided. The reader will, I hope, excuse me for not overwhelming this brief post with a plethora of links to demonstrate my point, but you don’t really need to look too far to find often impassioned diatribes against the teaching of grammar in schools. (The teaching of “fronted adverbials” is particularly looked down upon.) Teaching grammar in schools, we are told, is “quite unnecessary”, and one can write perfectly well without being taught anything at all about the subject.

Now, I do not dispute either of these points. What I do however dispute, very strongly, is that “should not be taught” follows from being “quite unnecessary”. When I press anyone on this point, I am told that children are being taught these things at far too young an age, that they are made to learn these things merely by Gradgrindian rote learning, and that all this inhibits something called “creativity”. Once again, I don’t know that I would dispute any of these points (although I may gently suggest, perhaps, that an element, at least, of discipline may indeed help rather than hinder “creativity”). But I do not want to get side-tracked into these matters. I have no opinion – no informed opinion, at least – on when grammar is best taught, or how. My grouse remains that “unnecessary” does not, must not, imply “should not be taught”. Much of what makes us civilised beings is “quite unnecessary” – in the sense that, in most cases, it does not serve any utilitarian purpose. But if we were to restrict our education only to that which is necessary, to that which is useful – if we were to reduce education, in other words, to no more than its utilitarian value – then that indeed really would be Gradgrindian.

I could have written the opening paragraph of this post without knowing what “fronted adverbials” are. But, like Monsieur Jourdain, who was delighted to know that he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, I too am delighted to know what “fronted adverbials” are.  And I really don’t care that it’s quite unnecessary.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christine Lyon on July 24, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    I didn’t know what one was either, until last year when I attempted to do my 11-year old granddaughter’s English SAT. I think I made a guess at the right answer, but I had never in my 70+ years come across the term before. I have actually come to the conclusion that all over-70s should be forced to take one of these tests: it might reduce the number of old-fogies complaining that children today learn nothing. I copied the paper I saw and now produce it whenever someone complains about the ignorance of the younger generation. My first question is, ‘Could you answer this?’, and my second is, ‘Could you have done so at the age of 11?’. No one, so far, has convincingly answered, ‘Yes’ to both questions.

    I do believe a firm grasp of grammar is important, if one is to express one’s self clearly and accurately. In my own case, I think I learnt far more about the mechanics of how a language works from the study of other languages, than I ever did from English grammar classes, yet back in my youth, I was a pretty hot-shot at parsing and analysing sentences. Sadly, the teaching of other languages seems to be very much in decline in British schools today. My sheer joy in the written word came from reading good stories, and from having them read to me, often by teachers who shared that joy. Very few teachers now find it possible to incorporate such life-enhancing activities into the increasingly prescriptive curriculum.


    • Well, I certainly did not know what “fronted adverbial” was when I was 11. I only found out recently, at 59.

      What grammar I think I have picked up, I did so from reading. After a while, certain things just sounded right, and certain things didn’t. I do feel it is fascinating to discover how language is structured, but yes, obviously, it has to be taught correctly – or “taught right”, as I’d have said in conversation. But I know that “right” is an adjective, and that an adverb such as “rightly” or “correctly” would be grammatically correct in this context.

      My objection is to the argument that it shouldn’t be taught at all! It’s such a self-defeating argument, and I don’t think its proponents realise quite how Gradgrindian it is.


  2. Posted by Linda Ferguson on July 25, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Whilst I was reading ‘Good Immigrant’ recently, I came across this term and also tricolon. I was unaware of these grammatical terms and that ‘fronted adverbial’, is included in the national curriculum. I cannot for the life of me see that it is important enough to include this particular term. In my opinion, it is better that the child learns good use of language without necessarily learning a name for a particular construct that is not used, as far as I am aware, in any other context. Certainly I have not come across it in learning foreign languages. I do wonder if some children are switched off learning by introducing such terms that they may not relate to, whereas exposing them to good, well-written stories that employ these constructs might be more engaging and achieve the desired result.


    • Hello Linda,
      I was using “fronted adverbial” as an example: there are, of course, many other terms descriptive of the structure of our language. And I do feel it is a good thing to learn about them even though they may not be of practical use. Because, in more general terms, a liberal education should be more than merely the teaching of that which is useful. Learning how language is structured may not in itself be useful, but I really don’t see why that’s a reason for not teaching it.

      And yes, certainly, they should be exposed to good, well-written stories that use such constructs. But of course, such exposure, and learning about the constructs themselves, are not mutually exclusive.


  3. Posted by alan on July 26, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    If you are interested in this kind of thing then you might enjoy “phrasal verbs”:
    I only became aware of this phenomenon when remarked upon by a teacher of Spanish, not to illustrate something in Spanish, but to elicit sympathy for foreigners having to learn these in English.


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