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gondolas Note: if you have not yet followed the guide to adverbs, new tab, some of what follows will be more difficult to understand.
on a gondola in winter in Venice

The term Circumstance is drawn from functional linguistics and is an alternative way of viewing things like adverbs, prepositional phrases and other adverbials.  Many find conceptualising the language in this way provides an easier and more intuitive way of understanding and teaching these items.


What are circumstances?

Before we can answer that question, we need to do a little clause analysis.  Bear with us.

There are 13 words in this sentence but they fall into groups in a natural way.  There are five groups.  Can you identify them?  Click here when you have.

The idiotic dog excitedly pursued the old lady's goats for hours on end.

Here are some other questions we might want to ask about a verb to get a full picture of what happened.  Can you add possible questions to the list?
    With what?
    With whom?
    How far?

For clues, look at the circumstances in these sentences and see if you can identify what questions they answer.  Sentences 1, 2 and 3 all contain two circumstances.

  1. We went to Spain last week.
  2. We went because we needed a holiday in the sun.
  3. When it was sunny, we sat on the terrace.
  4. John acted as the tour organiser.
  5. For Mary, it wasn't a very successful holiday.

When you have thought of five or so more questions, click here.


So what?

Why would we bother to teach learners about circumstances rather than sticking to the traditional grammar of adverbs and adverbials?

There are two reasons:

  1. It makes it easier for learners to find out how to qualify verbs intuitively.  Circumstance is a function of language in a way that adverbial is not.
    It also simplifies the issue because the mobility of circumstances allows greater control over things like special emphasis (markedness) and fronting.  If the latter term is foreign to you, there's a guide to fronting on this site, linked from the list below.
  2. It is especially important for anyone who is taking a genre approach to teaching.  If you have done the guide to genre, this will be familiar territory.
    To explain: once we have a grasp of the concept of circumstance, we can begin to predict the sorts of ones we will need to understand and deploy to match the text type we are writing, speaking, hearing or reading.  Here are some examples:
    1. in a text whose purpose is a narrative, such as telling an anecdote, circumstances of location (both time and space) will need to be deployed and/or understood.  For example:
          This all happened when I was on holiday in Venezuela last year
    2. in a text whose purpose is to explain a procedure, such as a recipe, circumstances of manner (means) and extent will need to be deployed and/or understood.  For example:
          Tighten with the spanner and then refit.
          Cook until soft.
    3. in a text whose purpose is a discussion, such as an academic essay, circumstances of contingency, cause and matter will all need to be deployed and/or understood.  For example:
          But for the difficulty of parking, this is a convenient area to live.
          The amount of thorough traffic adds considerably to the pollution problem.
          When it comes to the question of parking controls, ...

The second point is the most important because instead of just practising producing or understanding the text types, we can prepare our learners by teaching them how to form the various circumstances and the kinds of language which we use to realise them.  Here's what is meant by that:

  1. Narratives and Recounts:
    There's little point in asking learners to produce narrative until they have at least some grasp of how to form circumstances of location, manner and accompaniment and so on.  For example, part of a Narrative or Recount might contain
    I was sitting in the bus shelter [location] with my friends [accompaniment] yesterday [location] when I suddenly [manner] realised I had left my homework on the kitchen table [location] so I ...
  2. Discussions and Expositions:
    You can't properly understand or construct a discussion unless you can decode and use circumstances of cause and contingency at least.  For example, a discussion text might contain
    If we want to improve the way we live, we need to encourage the use of bicycles [contingency] in cities because [cause] only in this way [contingency] can we cut down the amount of traffic.
  3. And, of course, matter is key to understanding all texts.

Related guides
adverbs for more on how this form of adverbial functions
adverbials for a more traditional (and quite complicated) approach to this area
adverbial intensifiers for a guide to intensifiers: amplifiers, emphasisers, downtoners and approximators
fronting for a guide to how circumstances (and many other sentence elements) can be moved to the initial position for emphasis
genre for some consideration of how particular forms of circumstances will appear in text types
prepositional phrases for more on this form of adverbial modifier

There is a test on this.

Butt, D, Fahey, R, Feez, S, Spinks, S and Yallop, C, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide. Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, M, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar: 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold.
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar: An introduction for second language teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press