Through the classroom, it stalked menacingly.
Reading that sentence, two thoughts perhaps crossed your mind.
One: we will not be winning literary awards anytime soon.
Two: we used a fronted adverbial.
Both are accurate – and both, in their way, set the scene for today’s Grammar Bite: how fronted adverbials are valuable, and when they’re not.
The latter, of course, has a straightforward answer that covers any linguistic feature: fronted adverbials aren’t valuable when used for the sake of it.
For that reason, we should all be wary of any features being construed as pro-forma markers of quality. As our own opening shows, that’s absurd. Writing by numbers is neither good writing nor a good pedagogy for writing.
Still, it’s genuinely unfortunate fronted adverbials have ended up as the go-to Gorgon of the curriculum.
Unfortunate not simply because they’re a real thing, identifiable everywhere from essays to fairy tales – nor because they’re handy for lots of things, including scene-setting, textual cohesion, and emphasis.
It’s because, ultimately, they’re a great way of cuing students into the idea of “placement”: how the positioning of a feature subtly keys the meaning of sentence and text.
Take what is perhaps the classic use of a fronted adverbial:
(1) Once upon a time…
Why begin like this? Well, at a basic level, you immediately help to locate the reader within the world of the text, signaling both its distance from – and potential difference to – their own world. At another level, the formulaic nature of the adverbial itself carries specific connotations. Putting it first draws the reader into these connotations: not just that a story this way comes, but a very specific kind of story.
Seen in these terms, cuing students into fronted adverbials is valuable because it provides them with opportunities to more consciously exploit the meaning potential of initial positionings.
Thus, in (1), the adverbial might serve to reinforce the reader’s expectations, with the student writing of ghouls and goblins.
Equally, the adverbial might be a ploy to then subvert these expectations to their heart’s content; as in (2), for example:
(2) Once upon a time, not long ago, when people wore pyjamas and lived life slow…
Perhaps subtler examples of these opportunities are (3) and (4):
(3) Into the river, he swims like a mad thing.
(4) Very slowly, one by one, add 10 hairs from your own head.
(3), by Karen Wallace, describes part of an eel’s life-course. And what a description! Here, the fronted adverbial breaks open the sentence, throwing us headlong into the river alongside the eel. So doing, it not only heightens the eel’s bursting vitality, it tunes the sentence such that the eel’s subsequent description as some "mad thing" resonates more deeply.
(4), by Roald Dahl, uses two adverbials, "very slowly" and "one by one", using this double fronting to foreground and emphasise how to perform the specified action. Pretty useful information in this context! At the same time, Dahl’s fronting plausibly puts other meanings into play, meanings that the book might or might not further explore. Perhaps there is character information here, for example, indicating a personal concern for the instructee, such that the adverbials wouldn’t be fronted, or even mentioned, for other characters. Or perhaps there are suggestions here about their own experience of the recipe. Certainly, these adverbials make it hard for us to imagine the character with a full set of eyebrows...
Crucially, of course, none of the above takes fronted adverbials to be pro-forma markers of quality. On the contrary, properly cuing students into this feature means appreciating what the fronted bit of the term entails: that adverbials can go in multiple positions that subtly shape a text’s meaning potentials.
Ultimately, it should always be this awareness of flexibility and possibility that frames any focus on fronted adverbials, empowering students to take ownership of this potential for themselves.
Ian Cushing is a teaching fellow in English linguistics at University College London and a doctoral researcher in applied linguistics at Aston University. Mark Brenchley is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He works on the Growth in Grammar project, which is seeking to understand what grammatical development in student writing looks like