Affronted Adverbials – 

Brian Richards from the University of Reading says that ‘Adverbs are seldom a good way of starting a sentence

This quotation is not a solicitor’s advice to a convicted client, but guidance for Times journalists. It is contained in the 2017 edition of The Times Style Guide (p.4) in an entry that warns against the careless or excessive use of adverbs. When I first read this recommendation, it immediately brought to mind the debate about ‘fronted adverbials’ in the 2014 National Curriculum and the statutory requirement that primary school children learn to use fronted adverbials with proper punctuation in their third and fourth years. Don’t imagine that I am claiming adverbs and adverbials to be the same, but more about the extent of the overlap later in this essay.

So what exactly is an adverb? One of the earliest grammars of which a copy still exists, and the first analysis of the English language to be written in English, is William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar of 1586. Bullokar was a printer who developed his own idiosyncratic system of spelling and orthography. His definition reads:

An Adverb is known … for-that it … dependeth on som verb and iooneth [joineth] som special signification too the verb, and is not ruled of any word, nether ruleth any word (lines 732-7).

In a partial echo of Bullokar’s words, most non-linguists nowadays would regard adverbs as words that refine the meaning of verbs in some way and typically, but not always, end in -ly. This is perhaps their core, or prototypical meaning, but those of us who were taught English grammar in the days before 1964 when it ceased to be tested in public examinations, may also remember having to distinguish between adverbs of manner, time and place. In fact, the designation ‘adverb’ has been used to represent a varied and multifunctional class of words that can modify whole sentences or clauses as well as verbs, adjectives (‘extremely rich’), other adverbs (‘too fast’) and, as Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum acknowledge, even noun phrases (‘almost the last copy’), determiners (‘virtually all copies’) and prepositional phrases (‘almost until midnight’) (2005, p.123). Nevertheless, even linguists disagree about the items that comprise this part of speech. In The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar, R. L. Trask warns us that:

Traditional grammarians, who worked with too few parts of speech, had the bad habit of applying the label adverb to almost any word that gave them trouble … therefore, when your dictionary tells you that some word is an ‘adverb’, you should be a little cautious about accepting this at face value.  (Trask, 2000, p.7).

So I can’t help wondering exactly what kind of adverbs the Times style guide is discouraging us from using in sentence-initial position. The examples given are ‘interestingly’, ‘oddly’ and ‘ironically’. These are what are commonly known as ‘sentence adverbs’ because they modify the whole sentence rather than just the verb or verb phrase. What puzzles me further is that the final sentence of the entry about adverbs begins with the word ‘thus’, in apparent contravention of its own advice. For whatever doubts there may be about the extent of the adverb class as a whole, membership of ‘thus’ seems unequivocal: all the dictionaries and grammars I have consulted, including the Oxford English Dictionary and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language claim it as an adverb. What varies is the description of the kind of adverb it is. The Cambridge Grammar, for example, describes it as a ‘simple adverb lexeme’, an ‘impure connective’ expressing reason or result; David Crystal’s ‘Making sense of grammar‘ refers to its role as a ‘conjunct’ in connecting the larger grammatical units such as sentences; further back in time, in a textbook that the author hoped would be ‘of some use at Ladies’ Colleges’, J. C. Nesfield’s English Grammar Past and Present (1898, p.v) describes ‘thus’ as a pronominal adverb of manner, thus apparently ignoring its function as a conjunct (the purpose for which it is used both in the Times guide and in this sentence).

It might appear, therefore, that the editor of the style guide belongs to that group of prescriptive authors and sticklers who urge us to ‘do as I say, not as I do’. People like Lynne Truss, a self-confessed stickler (her term, not mine), spring to mind. Her almost legendary failure to follow her own rules in Eats, Shoots & Leaves is particularly unfortunate given the book’s subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.1 By contrast, the Times guide wisely adopts anything but zero tolerance; it advocates common sense and flexibility. In the Introduction it describes itself as a ‘permissive volume’ that ‘avoids unnecessary prescription and prohibition’. But we should also remember that stylistic advice needs to be related to the context and purpose of writing. The crux of the argument in the guide’s entry is that there is no point in stating something at the beginning of a statement that will become evident as the rest of the statement progresses — sound advice for journalists, perhaps, for whom space is at a premium, but not necessarily appropriate for writers of other genres or even for primary school children.

In spite of my defence of the style guide above, I think the entry illustrates an important point about linguistic terminology. By forcing items with different functions and characteristics into the same category, a potentially helpful (at least to journalists) piece of advice becomes over-extended. So, after a somewhat circuitous route, this brings us at last to the matter of adverbs and adverbials in the national curriculum.

According to the programme of study for English, the concept of ‘adverb’ has to be introduced as early as year 2, followed by ‘adverbial’ two years later. Both terms appear in the statutory requirements for lower Key Stage 2, that is to say for pupils in years 3 and 4. Note that the emphasis here is on the word ‘statutory’ — there is no common sense choice or flexibility here; the requirement (p.41) is that children should learn about them by doing the following:

  • using conjunctions, adverbs and prepositions to express time and cause
  • using fronted adverbials

And children should also be able to ‘indicate grammatical and other features by’:

  • using commas after fronted adverbials (my emphasis)

As far as I can see, there has been little or no adverse reaction to the idea of learning to use adverbs to express time and cause. There have, however, been strong objections to any rigid rule that a comma is always necessary following a fronted adverbial, particularly when it consists of only a single word. Advice from blogs, style guides, websites, grammar books and university guides on usage for students show inconsistency in what kinds of adverb and adverbial require a comma and how many words they should contain before one is necessary at all. According to The Times Style Guide (p.57), ‘There is often no need for a comma after an adverbial formation at the beginning of a sentence’, and this is supported by examples of two-word adverbial constructions. Even the national curriculum glossary itself appears to allow considerable leeway: ‘When writing fronted phrases, we often follow them with a comma’ (p.94). Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that many primary school teachers have interpreted the above statement in the National Curriculum document as meaning that they are obligatory after fronted adverbials even when they consist of only a single word.

But what seems to have generated the most controversy, shock and even anger is the term ‘fronted adverbial’ itself. For many people brought up on more traditional grammar, those who learnt their grammar in the foreign language classroom, or language teachers, professional linguists, and even some academics working in the field of linguistics, such terminology is totally unfamiliar. Why, therefore, should it be inflicted on children at the tender age of eight? In what sometimes seems like a parody of CJ in The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, a 1970s TV series adapted from the novel by David Nobbs, the argument is often along the lines of, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by knowing about fronted adverbials.’ When Warwick Mansell of The Guardian published an article with the headline ‘Battle on the adverbials front: grammar advisers raise worries about Sats tests and teaching’ (May 9, 2017), a certain MsDimple responded online as follows:

A fronted adverbial. Good Lord. I taught English to speakers of other languages for most of my adult life and never heard it called that. Plus, which is more important, that a student know the term or how to use the word? I go with the latter.

Another respondent, milinovak, clearly agrees:

I went to Grammar School when clause analysis and parsing were part of the curriculum. In my first job in another Grammar school I had to teach the same things from a text book by someone called Pendlebury. As the years went by gradually grammar became something that was taught when it was useful to know in order to help students improve their writing. Never in all that time did I ever come across a fronted adverbial.

But what becomes evident when one follows the thread of these online discussions, is that among the participants there is a lack of understanding of what an adverbial is — that, while ‘adverb’ and ‘adverbial’ can often refer to the same word or group of words in a sentence, they don’t mean the same thing. Here is another response to MsDimple, this time from someone called petesire:

I don’t understand why an English teacher can’t just say, when teaching different sentence structures, ‘why not try starting your sentence with an adverb?’ There is no need for this obscure and semi-fabricated term ‘fronted adverbial’.

I suspect that petesire is close to the mark in describing ‘fronted adverbial’ as semi-fabricated and is accurate in drawing attention to its obscurity. Whereas general academic books, linguistic works of reference and popular books on grammar contain references to adverbials and, to a lesser extent, fronting, the collocation of ‘fronted’ and ‘adverbial’ seems to be extremely rare before about 1975. An indication of this can be seen in the output below from the Google Books Ngram Viewer (see below). And even after this date, most occurrences are confined to technical reports in specialist academic publications such as journals of Celtic studies, university departmental working papers in linguistics and collections of conference papers.


The frequency of the phrase ‘fronted adverbial’ between the years 1950 and 2008 in the Google Books ‘English 2012’ data set.



On the other hand, petesire’s post is an example of the failure to differentiate form (in this case, adverb) from function (adverbial) that has been a source of muddled thinking in so many recent discussions about grammar teaching and testing: encouraging pupils to place adverbs at the beginning is not necessarily the same as getting them to use a fronted adverbial. Here, form concerns what part of speech a word is, while function is concerned with its syntactic task in the clause or phrase. As David Crystal puts it in A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, ”Adverb’ is thus a word class (along with noun, adjective, etc.), whereas ‘adverbial’ is an element of clause structure (along with subject, object, etc.), and the two usages need to be kept clearly distinct.’ (p.14). This issue is something that Bas Aarts, Professor of English Linguistics at UCL has repeatedly helped to clarify in his Grammarianism blog, and I would recommend his posts on ‘Adverb and adverbial’ (October 15, 2016), ‘Form and function (1)’ (September 11, 2015) and ‘Form and function (2)’ (March 20, 2017). In the light of the above, it is worth looking at the definition of adverbial provided by the glossary of grammatical terms in the National Curriculum framework document:

An adverbial is a word or phrase that is used, like an adverb, to modify a verb or clause. Of course, adverbs can be used as adverbials, but many other types of words and phrases can be used in this way, including preposition phrases and subordinate clauses. (p.90)

In accordance with this definition we would correctly classify all of the following as adverbials:

  • suddenly (adverb)
  • very carefully (adverb phrase)
  • at the end of the street (preposition phrase)
  • every Monday (noun phrase)
  • because it was raining (adverbial clause)

Note that I have described ‘very carefully’ as an adverb phrase and have steered clear of the term adverbial phrase here. In one of his Grammarianism posts (October 2016), Bas Aarts urged us to avoid the term ‘adverbial phrase’ because of the collocation of a term for a function with a term for a form. My first reaction was that this was going a little too far; surely, as long as we knew what we were referring to, what did it matter? After all, many phrases and compounds in everyday use such as ‘washing machine’ consist of similar combinations of function and form and there is never any problem. Bas’s response to my comment was that evidence from teachers’ in-service training shows that teachers in general had little idea of the form-function issue and that it was something that the national curriculum had failed to explain.

It is indeed true that linguists who write grammar guides, such as David Crystal, Larry Trask, and Bas Aarts and his fellow authors of the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar are meticulous in the appropriate use of ‘adverb phrase’ for a unit headed by an adverb. But what really convinced me that I had been wrong was when I saw the material used to train the markers of the SPaG tests. In 2016, I interviewed a retired teacher who had spent part of her summer marking 24,000 Key Stage 2 spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) tests. This person has a degree in modern languages, had worked as a translator and interpreter before a successful career as a language teacher, advanced level examiner for French, and teacher trainer. Yet a surprising amount of the grammar content in the national curriculum was unfamiliar to her. I asked what had troubled her most:

…certainly in terms of terminology…having absorbed my English grammar through a rigid grammar school education and two foreign languages…I was used to the imperfect tense and they’re called different things in English which I hadn’t appreciated um…other than that I was just stunned by the complexity of the various tasks which are going to be laid before a ten-year-old. Unless the teaching really supports it, it looks to me to be very tricky.

We went on to discuss the support and training the markers receive. The Department for Education subcontracts the responsibility for this to Pearson Education Limited, a private company that provides a ‘mark scheme training meeting’ and documentation including a Marker Engagement Programme Booklet containing activities similar to the tests themselves.

Unfortunately the section of the activities booklet titled ‘Adverbial phrases and adverbials’ (pp.22-3) is a perfect example of the kind of confusion outlined above.2 Quite apart from the question of whether ‘adverbial phrase’ is a meaningful description, there is no attempt here or anywhere else in the booklet to differentiate between an adverb and an adverbial, nor to differentiate between form and function. There is no separate section on adverbs. The result is a series of anomalies in the booklet illustrated by the following examples of so-called ‘adverbial phrases’:

  • yesterday afternoon                         (No! It’s actually a noun phrase)
  • in five minutes (It’s a preposition phrase)
  • last night                         (No it isn’t! It’s another noun phrase)
  • by five o’clock (It’s another preposition phrase)
  • really quickly/very soon/very carefully (These are all adverb phrases)

Of course, it is easy to criticise.  Such errors are understandable and even predicable from people who were taught according to different models of grammar. Who could possibly blame anyone for adding the suffix -ial to the noun ‘adverb’ and imagining they were doing no more than deriving an adjective from a noun with no significant change of meaning. Couldn’t ‘adverbial phrase’ be a perfectly valid umbrella term for adverb phrases, noun phrases, preposition phrases and all words and groups of words that function as adverbials? As noted above, many everyday descriptions in our language such as ‘curling tongs’ also combine form and function in a single noun phrase. So surely, as long as we know what is being referred to, it shouldn’t matter. On the other hand, let us not forget that learning this aspect of the syllabus is meant to take place in years 3 and 4 at primary school, and the term ‘adverbial’ is being used so loosely at present that we often do not know what is being referred to! In one of several recent research papers demonstrating that pupils do in fact enjoy learning grammar and doing the tests, Kimberly Stafford of the Open University quotes Teacher A as saying, ‘The children quite enjoy learning it … they love knowing what an adverbial phrase is … They quite like having that kind of vocabulary.’ So if teachers and even the trainers who train the markers who mark the tests at the end of Key Stage 2 have a flawed understanding of the subject matter, we need to ask ourselves exactly what we are teaching at this level, how we justify its purpose, and how we move children towards what they will really need in the secondary school and in later life. One of the many things that concern me about the national curriculum for English, and particularly about the way it is being delivered and tested, is a combination of a lack of precision and a lack of flexibility in accepting different, but perfectly valid, ways of conceptualising grammar.

Any readers of this essay who are nitpickers and sticklers, and who have nothing better to do, might like to count the number of sentences that start with an adverb and note how many fronted adverbials are not followed by a comma — just don’t bother to contact me about them!



1 Louis Menand’s excoriating review of Eats Shoots and Leaves in The New Yorker magazine begins: ‘The first punctuation mistake … appears in the dedication, where a nonrestrictive clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from there … it’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.’ The review is well worth reading. As well as being amusing, it makes serious points about prescriptivism and the confusion between what Menand regards as the technological versus aesthetic aspects of writing.

2 I’d like to thank Bas Aarts for confirming my opinion of this section of the booklet. He described it as ‘very problematic and riddled with errors’ and commented that, ‘With texts like this no wonder there is so much confusion out there.’




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