I realise I’m late to the party when it comes to fronted adverbials. That’s because I couldn’t decide which hat to wear.

As a former Primary School teacher, I know that my brothers and sisters at the chalkface of education have to teach this stuff, whether they want to or not (and even if they don’t fully understand it themselves… but that’s another story).

Wearing a linguist’s hat, I can tell you that fronted adverbials are nothing new, even if they haven’t always been called that. People with a bit of power in these matters have been coming up with fancy names for different bits of English for centuries. Whatever they’re called makes no difference to the way we actually use our language.

Sporting both the above hats at once, I am bewildered as to why this aspect of the grammar curriculum has come in for such attention, from parents and experts alike. (The nation’s 7-year-olds are also required to learn about subordinate clauses, but you don’t see those getting a bad press.)

But I’m writing here as Pernickety Kate. So it’s with my editor’s hat on that I would like to cut through the waffle and explain what’s useful.

What ARE fronted adverbials?

‘Adverbial’ refers to any word or phrase that behaves like an adverb. This means it’s a chunk of language that gives extra information about how, where, when or why something happens. (If you want to get technical, an adverb modifies a verb.)

Here’s a simple sentence using the verb ‘ate’:

Jim ate a banana.

This doesn’t say how, where, when or why he ate it. We could add all sorts of single words to the sentence to give some of that information. These single words are adverbs, eg:

Jim ate a banana rapidly.

Jim ate a banana outdoors.

Jim ate a banana yesterday.

Sometimes, the extra info we want to give needs more than one word:

Jim ate a banana perched in the branches of his favourite tree.

Jim ate a banana because he had run out of pomegranates.

In all the above examples, the adverbial comes after the main part of the sentence. But in English, we are lucky – we can choose to put such additional information first, eg:

Rapidly, Jim ate a banana.

Perched in the branches of his favourite tree, Jim ate a banana.

A fronted adverbial is simply an adverbial that comes at the front of the main piece of info, rather than afterwards, or in the middle.

Do fronted adverbials have to be followed by a comma?

The short answer is no, not always. But sometimes yes.

At the time of writing this blog, the nation’s children are taught that a fronted adverbial must be followed by a comma. They won’t ever be wrong if they do this, and commas can avoid confusion.

However, there is no reason for a comma to be a hard and fast grammatical rule. Who are we to argue with author Daphne du Maurier? Here is the opening line to her famous novel Rebecca (published in 1938):

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Last night, as used here, is a fronted adverbial. It adds information about when the narrator dreamt, and it’s at the front of the sentence. Does the lack of a comma change the meaning, or make the sentence hard to understand? No. Did Daphne du Maurier just forget to put a comma there? No – I can assure you that professional authors and their editors think very carefully about such details. If she didn’t use a comma, there was a good reason for it.

There’s a problem with insisting on too many rigid rules about writing; learners are not asked to think WHY they do something.

A comma has two main purposes – to break up long sentences visually, or to indicate where a speaker would give a very short break when saying the words aloud (this is one of the ways that English speakers indicate the grammar/meaning of their utterances). Sometimes a comma does both jobs at once, but not always.

If a fronted adverbial is very short, it does not need a comma… but you might choose to use one because it changes the emphasis slightly. Consider the following:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.

If you pause after Yesterday (as Paul McCartney’s famous song intended, and as the comma indicates), it really emphasizes the word. But without a comma, the eye reads straight through (if you read it aloud, you would not pause). It’s a subtle difference, but the whole point of punctuation is to give writers ways of indicating differences in tone or meaning.

A fronted adverbial with many words might need a comma, if only to let the reader mentally draw breath. Also to make the meaning clear. Try the following sentence…

After the disaster with the jar of honey and the antique lace wedding dress Bertha wore a wetsuit to every social occasion.

On first reading, did you think it was Bertha who wore the wedding dress? A comma would solve any mis-understanding. The fronted adverbial (in bold below) actually tells us when and why Bertha wore a wetsuit, and the comma makes this much clearer:

After the disaster with the jar of honey and the antique lace wedding dress, Bertha wore a wetsuit to every social occasion.

So sometimes you need a comma, but not always.

Do children really need to learn about them?

Learning about the way our language works helps us understand what others really mean, how words are used for certain effects, and how to communicate better. Fronted adverbials are just a small part of that learning, but they take many forms and are very common.

Knowing specific names for bits of language is useful – it’s much quicker to say “fronted adverbial” than to say “the part of the sentence at the beginning that tells us how, where, when or why something is happening”. So I’m not knocking the terminology – as long as everyone understands what is meant by it.

Fronted adverbials do not necessarily make writing better. They are not superior to other ways of expressing yourself. (Beginning every sentence with an adverbial would make speech or writing very dull.) They are simply one way to provide variety, or to emphasise a particular point. Children should not be made to use them just to pass an assessment.

I’m not sure why the nation became obsessed with fronted adverbials. They are harmless. Like most language, they can be both simple and infinitely complex. We all use them. Let’s not be afraid of language! Hopefully this blog has helped to put fronted adverbials in their place.


For help with your writing style, get in touch for a chat about editing: catherine@pernicketykate.co.uk