Adverbial fronting

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While a standard sentence consists of subject + verb + predicate, variations on this are possible. One variation is a fronted adverbial, in which an adverb, adverbial phrase, prepositional phrase, or other element precedes the subject. Consider the following examples. Why did the writers use fronted adverbials, what does it do for the text, and how would the text feel without these forms?

1 Examples

In these examples, the fronted adverbials are underlined.

The Call of Cthulhu[1]

My knowledge of the thing began in the winter of 1926-27 with the death of my great-uncle, George Gammell Angell. Professor Angell was widely known as an authority on ancient inscriptions, and had frequently been resorted to by the heads of prominent museums; so that his passing at the age of ninety-two may be recalled by many. Locally, interest was intensified by the obscurity of the cause of death. The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking black person who had come from one of the strange dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased's home in Williams Street. Physicians were unable to find any visible disorder, but concluded after perplexed debate that some obscure lesion of the heart, induced by the brisk ascent of so steep a hill by so elderly a man, was responsible for the end. At the time I saw no reason to dissent from this dictum, but latterly I am inclined to wonder—and more than wonder.

The Brave Tin Soldier[2]

The table on which the tin soldiers stood was covered with other playthings, but the most attractive to the eye was a pretty little paper castle. Through the small windows the rooms could be seen. In front of the castle a number of little trees surrounded a piece of looking-glass, which was intended to represent a transparent lake. Swans, made of wax, swam on the lake, and were reflected in it. All this was very pretty, but the prettiest of all was a tiny little lady, who stood at the open door of the castle; she also was made of paper, and she wore a dress of clear muslin, with a narrow blue ribbon over her shoulders just like a scarf.

The Watergate Scandal and Its Aftermath[3]

In the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal involving President Richard Nixon made headlines nationwide, but did he have anything to do with the break in at the Democratic National Committee? Even with the lack of evidence tying Nixon to the crime, it is believed he had something to do with the burglary, for why else would he go to great extent to try to cover up and hide the facts. This cover-up attempt shows how easily a president may be above some checks and balances at times, and because of this scandal, many new legislature bills have been passed after Nixon’s resignation to prevent such abuses of power from happening again.

Political and institutional drivers of social security universalization in Brazil[4]

The system appears to reach its limit in terms of the capacity to extend coverage in a context where there is universal formal entitlement to health, but some 30 per cent of the population has access to private insurance. Despite many improvements, many challenges continue to beset the delivery of health care in Brazil, and addressing them adequately will require significant policy changes, not only additional resources. However, finding resources has proven increasingly costly politically and improvements will have to be achieved through efficiency gains. Politically, this is a situation of a zero sum game rather than that of the positive game typical of coverage expansion. Most importantly, the perceived increased personal risks are leading citizens to support creating new resources for the system and for policies to improve the quality of care. A new window of opportunity thus seems to have been opened.

On Human Nature[5]

It is the essential first hypothesis for any serious consideration of the human condition. Without it the humanities and social sciences are the limited descriptors of surface phenomena, like astronomy without physics, biology without chemistry, and mathematics without algebra. With it, human nature can be laid open as an object of fully empirical research, biology can be put to the service of liberal education, and our self-conception can be enormously and truthfully enriched.

2 Definition

A fronted adverbial is a word or phrase that starts a sentence, and occurs before the sentence subject. The normal subject + verb + predicate word order is used, but with a phrase inserted before the subject. If the subject and verb change positions, this is known as inversion, which is a different sentence form altogether.

Common types of fronted adverbials can include simple adverbs or prepositional phrases, such as the following commonly used adverbials.

  • At first,
  • After a while,
  • All of a sudden,
  • In the blink of an eye,
  • Before long,
  • Once upon a time,
  • Sometimes,
  • In a faraway land,
  • Up in the sky,
  • Without a sound,
  • Without warning,
  • Fortunately,
  • Hopefully,
  • Thankfully,
  • Sadly,
  • Naturally,
  • Of course,
  • Unexpectedly,
  • Today,
  • Yesterday,
  • Soon,

As evident in the above examples, they help make smoother transitions, improve sentence flow, provide greater sentence variety for better readability. They can sometimes be used for making comparisons or contrasts, and they may also allow the author to provide commentary indirectly.

2.1 Punctuation

As a rule of thumb, a fronted adverbial may be separated by a comma from the subject if it meets one of these criteria.

  1. It is a conjunctive adverbial, that is, an adverbial that functions like a conjunction or connector.
    • Furthermore,
    • However,
  2. It is a sentence adverb or evaluative phrase
    • Fortunately
    • To no one's surprise,
  3. It is a prepositional or adverbial phrase that five or more words long, and would require a brief pause or intonation break if one were reading it aloud. This is a general rule of thumb, not an absolute rule.
    • Soon everything will be mine.
    • In a matter of time, everything will be mine.
  4. If it is intended to convey emphasis or contrast; this would also require a brief pause or intonation break if one were reading it aloud.
    • Soon, everything will be mine!
    • Now, you must go.

3 Types

Different phrases can be used as fronted adverbials, and these phrases can be classified in different ways. They can be classified by their lexical class (“part of speech”), sentence syntax, or pragmatic functions.

3.1 Lexical classes

These can be classified by their word classes or so-called “part of speech.”

1. Adverbs

These often include time adverbs.

  • Today we learned about adverbial fronting.
2. Prepositional phrases
  • In the park we saw a man selling Turkish ice cream.
3. Conjunctive adverbs

These are adverbs that are used like conjunctions, and as logical connectors or for contextual flow.

  • Furthermore, I hope we can agree on a deal soon.

4. Sentence adverbs These modify the entire sentence, and indicate the writer's evaluation or narrative commentary on the content of the sentence.

  • Fortunately, we finished in time.
  • Naturally, this must be done soon.

3.2 Sentence syntax

These phrases can be classified by how their grammatical forms fit with the sentence.

1. Adjuncts

This is an additional element such as a prepositional phrase or time phrase. This is a phrase that is not strictly required for a complete sentence (i.e., it is not required by the main verb). The sentence would make sense without it, but it provides additional information.

  • In the park we saw a man selling Turkish ice cream.
  • Today we learned about adverbial fronting.
2. Conjuncts

These perform an explicit connective function, i.e., serving to logically connect the sentence with the previous sentence or context. That is, it provides contextual links for logical or contextual coherence. Some more common ones consist of a single word and function like conjunctions, and are called conjunctive adverbs.

  • Furthermore, I hope we can agree on a deal soon.
  • However, I disagree.
  • To begin with, you have not fulfilled your previous promises.
3. Disjuncts

These are sentence adverbs and similar phrases These indicate the speaker’s evaluation or attitude toward the sentence.

  • Probably, we will get to Mars by 2040.
  • Fortunately, I am staying here in case it all doesn’t go well.
  • Politically, it would be very difficult to nationalize all our transportation infrastructure.

3.3 Functional classifications

Fronted adverbials can also be classified functionally, that is, by their intended meaning or function in the context.

1. Temporal phrases

These are time phrases, whether they are single words or prepositional phrases.

  • Soon we will have everything.
  • At 5pm everything ground to a halt.
2. Locative phrases

This includes many prepositional phrases.

  • In school we learned about fronted adverbials.
3. Manner phrases

These indicate how something was done.

  • As fast as possible, the scared animal zipped away and out of sight.
  • Confidently, she moved away from the fight that was about to happen.
  • Ever so softly, she whispered into his hear.
4. Linking phrases

These include many connective phrases like those above.

  • However, we found the concert to be disappointing.
  • While I cannot go, I can send my fully authorized representative.
  • Yet I believe this is the best way.
5. Evaluative phrases

These indicate a speaker’s attitude or evaluation of the contents of the sentence.

  • Allegedly, that man stole a million dollars worth of cryptocurrency.
  • In my opinion, his assets should be confiscated.
  • Fortunately, he was caught and sent to prison.

  1. The Call of Cthulhu, by H. P. Lovecraft; from
  2. The Brave Tin Soldier, by Hans Christian Andersen; from
  3. From K. Choulnard, “The Watergate Scandal and Its Aftermath” [abstract],
  4. From Campelo de Melo & Marcus André (2014), "Political and institutional drivers of social security universalization in Brazil" [abstract],
  5. An excerpt from On Human Nature by E.O. Wilson, as cited in Libuše Dušková (2017), "Syntactic and FSP aspects of fronting as a style marker", Acta Universitatis Carolinae, p. 63-89