Following many requests for help, Grammar Puss has decided to start a new blog for parents. Grammar Puss for parents

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Using commas with fronted adverbials

The new National Curriculum requires children to be taught to use fronted adverbials and to indicate these as a grammatical feature by ‘using commas after fronted adverbials’. (Years 3-4 Programme of Study).  This statutory requirement appears in appendix 2: Vocabulary, grammar and punctuation under Year 4.

I have no disagreement at all about teaching children to front adverbials, since these enable them to create different effects for their readers and also provide variation in sentence structure.  However, I think the statement ‘Use of commas after fronted adverbials’ needs a little mediation, since not all fronted adverbials will require to be punctuated.  In fact, hidden away in the glossary of the National Curriculum, it does state ‘When writing fronted phrases, we often follow them with a comma’ (my italics). 

The task for us is to teach children:
  • What function adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses have in a sentence, e.g. where, when, how, why things happen.
  • What words, phrases and clauses can fill the adverbial positions in a sentence.  When considering single word adverbs, children need to recognise that these can end in –ly, but also include other words too, such as away, off, well.  Adverbial phrases are often prepositional phrases, but could also consist of a single word adverb an a premodifying adverb, e.g. extremely well, really quickly, very conscientiouslyAdverbial clauses are subordinate clauses that fill the adverbial position.  Very often we teach children the subordinate structure for these, but don’t highlight the adverbial function (other functions of subordinate clauses are nominal and relative).
  • How to construct adverbial phrases and clauses, e.g. a prepositional phrase = a preposition + a noun or noun phrase.
  • How and when it is appropriate to punctuate adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses, especially when these are fronted.

Children need to understand that the purpose of punctuation is to help a reader (who is usually not present) understand clearly what the writer intended.  I don’t think that this is discussed explicitly enough with children.  It is not obvious from the classroom context that the purpose for writing is usually for a reader who is not present at the time of writing.  In many instances, children are writing for a teacher, teaching assistant or peers who are in the same room, maybe sitting at the same table.  This means that any misunderstandings in what they have written can be explained verbally. It is extremely difficult for children to read their writing as another reader would: they know exactly what they had in mind and reading with somebody else’s ‘eyes’ is a skill that needs to be learnt.

So, how can punctuation of fronted adverbials help a reader understand the text more clearly?  Well, most punctuation is a matter of convention, rather than definite ‘rights and wrongs’.  In spite of what some may say about ‘rules’ of punctuation, use of commas is optional in many cases and very much depends on personal preference, avoiding ambiguity and promoting clarity of message.  This clarity is not just about the sense the reader can obtain from the text; it is also about creating the effect the writer desires.

Bearing what I have just said about optional use and personal preference I would simply offer the following ideas about use of commas with fronted adverbials.  Not everyone would agree with me!
With this type of adverbial, which can usually be placed in different positions in a sentence, I would be much more likely to consider sense, and the effect I wanted to create. 

In short sentences, or those where I wanted to develop some pace, I would be less likely to use a comma since these do cause the reader to pause mentally (or physically if they are reading aloud).  We should avoid telling children that punctuation makes the reader ‘take a breath’: the reader is very capable of controlling their own breathing, especially if reading silently! However, pausing at the grammatical boundaries in a sentence does give the reader chance to consider what has gone before, take in the meaning, and prepare for the next piece of information.

Consider the following examples.  The sense is clear and I would prefer to build the pace so have not used commas.  
  • That night I tried again.
  • Suddenly it started.
  • Hurriedly they darted under a rock.
Now compare these two similar structures. What difference does the punctuation make?
  • Explosively the fiery lava spurted from the mouth of the volcano.
  • Gradually, the viscous, black oil dripped from the pipe.

I would also use a comma if my opening adverbial was lengthy. (David Crystal discusses the issue of use of commas with longer grammatical structures in his book: Making a point, for anyone interested in further reading.)  With short term memory being what it is, slowing the reader down can give time for the information to be processed:
  • In the silent darkness of the gloomy forest, the red-cloaked child felt nervous.
  • Because of the clear tones of her voice and the beauty of the melody, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Of course, if the fronted adverbial is a subordinate clause, I would use a comma to demarcate the boundary:
  • Since she was a child, Sophie had wanted to work with horses.
  • Climbing to the top, he had a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

Conjuncts (adverbials with a cohesive function)
With most of these adverbials, I would use commas to separate them from the rest of the sentence.  Conjuncts are used to help the text flow and are therefore on the periphery of the sentence.  They are usually placed at or near the beginning of the sentence, so that the reader can use this early information to link to what has happened in the previous sentences or paragraph:
  • Furthermore, animals do not have as much room to move in captivity.
  • Later that afternoon, he left the house and wandered through the streets again.
  • In the meantime, she would practise making cakes.
  • The prince was, however, not ready for the responsibility of ruling the kingdom.

With some conjuncts though, especially in short sentences, I might omit the comma, e.g.
  • Finally they arrived.

I would use commas to separate these adverbial words, phrases or clauses from the remainder of the information in the sentence, since they are not integral to the sentence, but purely convey the writer’s feelings.  It seems right to me to help the reader distinguish the main message from the writer's feelings, beliefs and opinions.  For example:

  • Frankly, he is unlikely to remain a politician.
  • Seriously, I heard them say so on the radio.
  • To be precise, not all the details are available.
  • With regret, we will not be able to attend.
  • If I can be direct, I don’t agree.

However, once again I think that I might omit the comma if the sentence is very short and the disjunct is a single word.  Consider the structures below.  Does the reader really need the benefit of a comma here?
  • Obviously I care!
  • Clearly it's not.

In the grammar and punctuation tests, children are likely to be required to identify a fronted adverbial punctuated with a comma as the correct option.  I just hope the people setting these tests choose examples where there is no doubt a comma is required for sense and effect.  If that is the case, we can teach children to write well, using adverbials and commas to aid sense and effect, rather than requiring them to punctuate every single fronted adverbial in order to pass a test!

1 comment:

  1. Here, here Sandra. I couldn't agree more.