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 conscientiously. Adverbial 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.
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!
- That night I tried again.
- Suddenly it started.
- Hurriedly they darted under a rock.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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!