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Concourse 2

Fronting

fronting

Fronting at sentence level means moving a part of a clause to the front of the sentence before the usual subject-verb structure.

  • It is not the same as simply changing the subject of the verb.
  • The effect is to emphasise the fronted item.  This is a form of marking and for more, you should consult the guide to markedness linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Other terms are regularly used to describe what is here treated as fronting:

  • Topicalisation implies that the fronted item has been made into the topic of the sentence which will then be followed by a comment.  For example:
        That restaurant, it's awful.
    In English, that would usually be rendered as:
        That restaurant?  It's awful.
    but a number of other languages will do this without any hint of a question.
  • Thematic identification is another way to describe fronting.  In systemic functional grammar, a sentence can be broken into two parts.  For example, in:
        Mary and John went to the cinema and ate popcorn by the kilo
    The Theme is Mary and John and there are two Rhemes: went to the cinema and and ate popcorn by the kilo
    One of the Rhemes is then often subsequently promoted to the role of the next Theme as in, for example:
        So much popcorn (the new Theme) made them feel ill (the new Rheme)
    or
        The cinema (new Theme) was almost empty (new Rheme) so they had no trouble getting in (new Rheme 2)
    Then a Rheme can become the Theme of the next sentence and so on.
    In this analysis, the function of fronting is to state what the speaker / writer understands by the Theme of the sentence.  That's really just another way of saying that it shows what the speaker / writer wants to emphasise.
    For more on Theme and Rheme structures, see the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end.

marked

The concept of markedness

This is the first concept to get clear.

Do these mean the same?

  1. I saw him in the garden only last week.
  2. Only last week I saw him in the garden.

Sentence 1 is unmarked because the normal word ordering in English is Subject + Verb + Object + Complement Adverbials (in this case, I + saw + him + in the garden + only last week).
Sentence 2 has non-canonical word ordering and is, therefore, marked.  Placing the time adverbial in the initial position serves to emphasise the element.
We can, of course shift other elements to the front of the sentence and thus break the canonical SVOC word ordering in English to produce various effects on our listener / reader, as we shall see.


analyse

Analysis: how fronting happens


think write

Task 1: Identify the fronted elements in these examples and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.
Think too (and make a note before you click for the answers) about:

  1. the syntax of the rest of the clause or sentence

  2. the effect on meaning that fronting has


Never have I seen such a beautiful tree.
eye open
Never have I seen such a beautiful tree.
There are a number of other adverbials which require an inversion of the subject and object when they are fronted.  Generally, these have some kind of negative or exclusive sense.  They include, e.g., Not only, Rarely, Seldom, Hardly ... than, No sooner ... than, Scarcely ... when, Only then, At no time, Neither etc.  See the notes below on inversion.
Yesterday, he went to London.
eye open
Yesterday, he went to London.
Fronting the time adverbial emphasises its importance.  All time adverbials can be fronted for emphasis and they are separated off, in writing, by a comma.
That factory is where I used to work.
eye open
That factory is where I used to work.
This is quite an unusual example and unlikely to appear in written language.  Many languages do this more comfortably than English and it's a source of much error such as:
*That factory, it is where I worked
There is one thing you should always remember.
eye open
There is one thing you should always remember.
The existential, or empty, there is very commonly fronted.  See also the guide to cleft sentences for more on this.
So badly did he play that I was embarrassed.
So brilliant was the sun that I could hardly focus.
Such experience did he have that few argued with him.
eye open
So badly did he play that I was embarrassed.
So brilliant was the sun
that I could hardly focus.
Such experience did he have
that few argued with him.
These adverbials generally require the inversion structure.
Only under exceptional circumstances can you open this door.
eye open
Only under exceptional circumstances can you open this door.
This, too, is an example of a negative adverbial requiring inversion.  Here, the adverbial is a longer phrase rather than a single word, as we saw above, but the rules are the same.
Having told the truth, he had to live with the consequences.
eye open
Having told the truth, he had to live with the consequences.
The non-finite verb phrase having told the truth is fronted for effect.
Unnoticed, he slipped into the room.
eye open
Unnoticed, he slipped into the room.
This is an example of a participle adjective being fronted (probably in written English) for effect.  Most -ed participle adjectives can be treated in a similar way.
Crossing the road, I noticed the bus.
eye open
Crossing the road, I noticed the bus.
The effect here is twofold:
a) the use of the non-finite crossing suggests simultaneous events and
b) the fronting means that the conjunction (when, as or while) can be omitted.
A short walk I can handle.
eye open
A short walk I can handle.
This is a slightly unusual example of fronting the object which would only occur in spoken or informal written English.  If you transform the sentence into its 'normal' spoken form, the object or its adjective must be stressed to retain the effect.
In the garden sat a huge toad.
eye open
In the garden sat a huge toad.
Here the adverbial is a prepositional phrase, but, as we saw above, fronting adverbials is common practice.
When we front prepositional phrases, we often, not always, invert the positions of the verb and its subject:
On the other side stood his house
is more natural than:
On the other sire his house stood
although both are possible.
We never reverse the ordering when the subject is a pronoun so we cannot have:
*At the meeting spoke he persuasively
Winter I can put up with but spring I like the most.
eye open
Winter I can put up with but spring I like the most.
Many languages front the object more comfortably than does English.  Would you correct a learner who produced this?
That woman sitting in the corner with a book, she's my friend's mother.
eye open
That woman sitting in the corner with a book, she's my friend's mother.
When we have a long noun phrase such as this, there is a distinct tendency to front it and then use a pro-form (she, in this case) to refer to the noun phrase.  The usual format is for the noun phrase to be the complement of a copular verb, rather than an object per se.

write

Task 2: Two of these examples are in black.  What's different about them apart from that?
Click here when you have an answer.

  1. the syntax of the rest of the clause or sentence

  2. the effect on meaning that fronting has

Notes on inversion:

  1. The generally accepted term is 'inversion' but that can be misleading.  The example:
        Only under exceptional circumstances can you open this door.
    is a true inversion of verb and subject but that's because it uses the modal can.  In other examples, English actually requires a question formation, not simply the inversion of subject and verb.
  2. True inversion of subject and verb, with no do-operator, occurs when we front prepositional phrases.  See the guide to place adjuncts for more linked in the list of related guides at the end.
  3. English only requires this structure with some adverbials (incomplete list above of some negative ones) although it can optionally be done with others.  For example:
        Out of the room ran the lady
    vs.
        Out of the room the lady ran
    .
  4. The form is witness to English's origins.  German, for example, requires the inversion with all fronted adverbials, e.g., Gestern habe ich ihn gesehen (I saw him yesterday [literally: Yesterday have I him seen]) German is not alone and this is, of course, a source of difficulty for many learners.
write

Task 3:
Why is this sentence unlikely:
    A film I want to see.
but this is quite possible?
    That film I want to see.
Click here when you have an answer.

write

Task 4:
What can we front?

Download this worksheet, fill it in and then click here.



4

4 other forms of fronting

Fronting in many languages is not confined to moving parts of the sentence or clause from their usual position.
There are a number of syntactical structures in English which allow speakers / writers to select that which is most important to them and front it.  Here are four popular ones:

Conditional sentences
Learners are sometimes, unforgivably, told that there is no difference in meaning between:
    She can come on condition that you pay for her lunch
and
    On condition that you pay for her lunch, she can come
That is obviously not true.  The speaker / writer has clearly chosen one ordering over another to suggest what she/he wants to emphasise.
This is the case with all conditional conjunctions, such as if, unless, supposing, providing that etc., of course.
Passive structures
There is a clear difference in meaning among these:
    John broke the window
    The window was broken
    The window was broken by John

    The window got broken
To suggest otherwise and tell learners that they all mean much the same thing is misleading and error inducing.
Subordination
A central characteristic of subordinators is that they can move with their clauses so we can have, for example:
    So that he could see over the wall, he stood on a chair
    He stood on a chair so that he could see over the wall
    Because my train was late, I missed the meeting
    I missed the meeting because my train was late

In these cases, although the central meaning is unchanged, the speaker's perception of what is important is clear.
Coordination
Unlike subordinators, coordinators proper are fixed in position between the clauses or other items they connect.  The items can, however, often be reversed so we can have:
    They cooked curry and rice for lunch
    They cooked rice and curry for lunch

Users of English will usually put the most important of two items at the front.
    She did her homework and spent some time gardening
    She spent some time gardening and did her homework
The chronological ordering when connecting clauses with and is often implied.
    You can come with me in the car or (you can) catch the bus home
    You can catch the bus home or (you can) come with me in the car

There is a tendency for users of English to put their preferred option first when connecting clauses with or.

With both coordination and subordination, there are times when reversing the clauses makes nonsense or provides an unusual connection:
    She cooked dinner and came home
vs.
    She came home and cooked dinner
and
    I rained so I took a coat
vs.
    I didn't take a coat so it rained
and
    The glass broke and he cut himself
vs.
    He cut himself and the glass broke


teaching

Teaching in this area

The first thing to note is that other languages do things very differently.

lion

Subject-dominant languages

Most European languages are known as 'subject dominant' languages because the subject of the sentence is normally placed at the beginning.  As we have seen above, however, all these languages, including English, can topicalise or front items for effect.
In subject dominant languages, such as English, fronting is generally reserved for emphasising particular items in a clause or sentence and it is signalled by a deviation from the canonical (i.e., normal) word ordering in the language.

gorilla

Topic-dominant or topic-comment languages

Other languages, notably, but not confined to, East Asian ones including, for example, Japanese, Lolo–Burmese, Korean, Tagalog, the Chinese languages (and, incidentally, Turkish and a variety of sign languages) are sometimes known as Topic-Comment languages because they routinely drop the subject altogether when it is obvious or remove it to the clause following the topic.  This does not mean that the topic is being emphasised unduly as it would in subject-dominant languages.  Fronting is the normal, unmarked, way of producing sentences and is not particularly marked for prominence.  We get, therefore, for example:
    As for restaurants, my favourite one is just here
    To her next week frequently I'll talk
    Mary I have already seen today

all of which would be unusual if not plain wrong in English.

This is a source of two forms of error:

  • Syntactical errors such as
        *That factory that is where I worked when I was a student
  • Receptive errors in which the speaker's emphasis on, for example, the fronted prepositional phrase adverbial in
        In his new Rolls Royce he came to my house
    is simply not recognised.
angry

Speaker attitude

Speakers and writers choose structures for a reason.  Fronting is no exception and is not a random phenomenon.
Any presentation, therefore, needs to include some awareness raising of the speaker's attitude to the utterance in terms of what he/she sees as the most important information to convey.  Fairly simple tasks such as this can help:

What's the most important information in these sentences?
Sentence Important information 
John went home early yesterday   
Yesterday, John went home early   
I like to eat at the restaurant on the corner   
The restaurant on the corner is where I like to eat   
You must never speak like that to her again   
Never must you speak to her like that again   
If you do that, it'll break  
It'll break if you do that   
etc.

level

Level and structural complexity

As we saw above, many instances of fronting require quite complicated changes in the following syntax.  Some don't and the fronting of attitude adverbials such as unfortunately or adverbs of manner such as carefully, along with adjuncts such as honestly, frankly, possibly etc. is a good choice to introduce the concept at lower levels because it is structurally simple.

Above A2, the approach needs to be a bit more challenging.  One way to start is to take an exercise like the one above and include some specific noticing of both meaning and structure.  Like this:

What's the most important information in these sentences? What changes to the grammar do you see?
Sentence Important information  Grammar changes
John went home early yesterday     
Yesterday, John went home early     
I like to eat at the restaurant on the corner     
The restaurant on the corner is where I like to eat     
You must never speak like that to her again     
Never must you speak to her like that again     
If you do that, it'll break    
It'll break if you do that     
He resigned and that's understandable    
It's understandable that he resigned    
The lights went out    
Out went the lights    
John broke the window    
The window was broken    
Just around the corner a pub appeared    
A pub appeared just around the corner    

However and whenever the idea of fronting is introduced, a key issue is to ensure that learners are aware of the communicative effects of the strategy.  This is especially important, naturally, for learners whose first languages are topic-dominant or topic-comment based for they will have the most difficulty understanding the shifts in meaning that fronting produces.


There is a very brief matching exercise on some of the above.



Related guides
the word order map for links to other guides in this area
cleft sentences explaining how we get from, e.g., She liked the hotel to What she liked was the hotel
markedness for a guide to how items may be distinguished in English (including but not limited to fronting)
circumstances analysing prepositional and adverbial phrases somewhat differently
coordination which all consider the ordering of clauses
subordination
conjunctions
existential it and there for an analysis of what are sometimes called 'dummy' subjects
place adjuncts for more on what happens when these are fronted
negation for more on negative adverbial fronting and the structures they demand
Theme and Rheme for a more detailed guide to how fronting elements in clauses raises their status to Theme
postponement and extrapositioning which explains how items can be moved to the end of a clause or sentence for effect