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  • Galina Blankenship

The Use of Fronting in English Sentences

Updated: Jul 16


In linguistics, information packaging (structure), or information flow, describes the way we package information within a sentence.

The painting "Cashmere" by John Singer Sargent
Cashmere by John Singer Sargent


How We Present Information When We Communicate



We Apply Stress & Intonation to the Sentence ►


When we communicate, we are typically torn between wanting to say something quickly and wanting to say it fully: We want to get to the point as fast as possible without sacrificing the legibility. So, we internally negotiate between what to say first and what to say later.


We also use variations in our voice intonation, called pitch, to indicate our emotions and attitudes. We use intonation to stress the main point we want to make or to signal whether we are trying to convey a question or a statement, a request or a command, an ironic remark, or a rhetoric question to which we are not seeking an answer.


So, when we communicate about an event or situation, we can organize the information in different ways, depending on the meaning we try to convey. In the spoken forms of the English language, we communicate our messages by breaking them down into individual units of information, which we express using intonation and stress.


We also arrange our messages in a specific word order. With intonation, we indicate which unit of information we want to stress or emphasize. In other words, we try to match the units of information we want to communicate with the units of intonation.


Variation in the word order, together with the stress positions, determine the meaning of a sentence.

 

We Change the Word Order of the Sentence ►


When we start conversing, in our opening sentences, the subject is likely to be a character or a thing we are already familiar with, or an idea that has already been under discussion. More precisely, the most common subject in our sentences is … us!


Therefore, the subject is often marked with anaphoric (backward-, context-linking) elements such as personal pronouns (me, us, to him) and possessive pronouns (my, our).


Here are a few examples of opening sentences:


A: How’s Steve?

B: Oh, he got married.

A: Married to whom?

B: He found a lovely girl.

[A̶ ̶l̶o̶v̶e̶l̶y̶ ̶g̶i̶r̶l̶ ̶f̶o̶u̶n̶d̶ ̶h̶i̶m̶.̶]


A: I can’t find my keys.

B: Your keys are under my papers.

[M̶y̶ ̶p̶a̶p̶e̶r̶s̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶o̶p̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶k̶e̶y̶s̶.̶]


A: My father was bitten by a dog last week.

[A̶ ̶d̶o̶g̶ ̶b̶i̶t̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶f̶a̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶l̶a̶s̶t̶ ̶w̶e̶e̶k̶.̶]


A: Our dog bit the postman this morning, can you believe that?

[T̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶o̶s̶t̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶b̶i̶t̶t̶e̶n̶ ̶b̶y̶ ̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶d̶o̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶m̶o̶r̶n̶i̶n̶g̶;̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶b̶e̶l̶i̶e̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶?̶]


The organization of a message into information units often reflects a division between the information that is already known or assumed to be known to the hearer (old information) and the information that is new or important (new information).


In English, the major emphasis tends to fall on the predicate complement (object) or whatever word or structure happens to occur at the end of the sentence. This gives added weight to what tends to be the most important information or the real news of the sentence.


The old information is often referred to as ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄ, and it is often the subject of the sentence. Roughly speaking, the ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄ (subject) often tells us what the clause is about, whereas the ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ (predicate) generally makes a comment about the ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄ.


 

We Choose What to Say First (Topic) and What to Save for Later as the Main Point (Focus) ►


Dividing the message into old information (ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄ) and the new information (ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ) constitutes the foundation of the so-called principles of information packaging, signaled by a special sequence of elements (word order) in the sentence.


In simple sentences, the ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄ and the ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ are usually single words or short phrases. In complex sentences, with a main clause and a dependent clause, For example, we organize the main and dependent clauses according to the main point we want to convey:


Alan failed the test because he did not study.

If the main point (focus) is to provide the reason of Alan’s failing the test.


Because Alan did not study, he failed the test.

If the main point (focus) is to provide the result of Alan’s not studying.


Since in writing, we cannot use intonation for emphasizing, we have to rely on specific word orders, coordination and subordination strategies, use of pronouns, articles (definite, indefinite, and zero), and punctuation.


Grammar allows us to present—or package—the information in a variety of ways. Of these ways, the syntactically most basic way is what linguists call the canonical (unmarked, default, neutral, constituent) word order.


Cross-linguistically, word order variations—e.g., as a declarative, interrogative, imperative, or exclamative clause as well as the so-called inverted sentence—is one of the main syntactic devices used to convey specific information messages.


 

Canonical (Unmarked, Default) Word Order in English▾


To distinguish between different word orders, we first need to define the word order that is regarded the basic (default, regular, normal, or neutral) one, the word order from which other word orders are deemed different.


Linguists call such a word order canonical. In English, the canonical sentence is a declarative sentence with the word order Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), or more precisely:

My son

gave

his report

to the teacher.

Subject

Verb

[Direct Object

Indirect Object]

SUBJECT

PREDICATE

All the elements in the canonical sentence, except the subject, constitute the sentence's predicate. Therefore, the canonical word order can also be written as Subject-Predicate.


The S-V-O formula defines the ᴄᴏʀᴇ of an English sentence, and, for the sentence to make sense, all the ᴄᴏʀᴇ elements (the subject, verb, and object) must be present and cannot be removed. Nor should they be interrupted by any punctuation or broken in any other way. In fact, English has one of the strictest word order systems.


The only optional element in an English sentence is an adverbial, which syntactically can be removed without affecting the ᴄᴏʀᴇ of the sentence. However, if the adverbial is either topicalized or focused, its pragmatic role renders it essential. In any case, canonically, the adverbial should follow the object and come in the end of the sentence: S-V-O-[A].

My son

gave

his report

to the teacher

yesterday.

Subject

Verb

Direct Object

Indirect Object

Temporal Adverbial

The adverbial element typically expresses either manner, or temporal (time), or locative (place) circumstances of the what is described in the sentence. If a sentence has all these kinds of adverbials, canonical order of the adverbials is manner + time + place:

My son

gave

his report

to the teacher

belatedly

yesterday

in the stadium.​

Subject

Verb

Direct Object

Indirect Object

Manner Adverbial

Temporal Adverbial

Place Adverbial

If we read a canonical sentence in English without a specific context, we would, by default, place a light stress on the subject (ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄ) and a slightly stronger stress on the last word (ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ) in the sentence:

His WIFE

will call you TOMORROW.

TOPIC

FOCUS

A canonical word order is thus defined by its neutral stressing contour. Most opening sentences in essays, academic papers, reports, other public documents would have a neutrally stressed structure.


So, in the English canonical sentence, the main canonical positions are:

  • The subject precedes the verb (predicate).

  • The verb precedes the direct or indirect object.

  • The direct object precedes the indirect object.

  • The temporal or place adverbial follows all these elements and comes in the end of the sentence.


 

Other Canonical Structures in English▾


Canonical positions also apply to other parts of speech:

  • In canonical complex sentences, a main clause precedes the related subordinate (dependent) clause [functioning as an adverbial]: e.g., an adverbial clause, a complement that-clause or wh-clause, an infinitival to-clause, a reduced adverbial clause:

I’ll call you tomorrow

if I am free.

MAIN CLAUSE

ADVERBIAL (CONDITIONAL) CLAUSE [ADVERBIAL]

I think

that I am free tomorrow.

MAIN CLAUSE

COMPLEMENT THAT-CLAUSE [DIRECT OBJECT]

I don't know

whether I am free tomorrow.

MAIN CLAUSE

COMPLEMENT WH-CLAUSE [DIRECT OBJECT]

I’ll call you tomorrow

to discuss your work.

MAIN CLAUSE

INFINITIVAL TO-CLAUSE [ADVERBIAL]

I’ll call you tomorrow

if possible.

MAIN CLAUSE

REDUCED ADVERBIAL (CONDITIONAL) CLAUSE [ADVERBIAL]

  • In noun phrases, a noun precedes the related relative clause or reduced relative clause (such as an -ed participial clause or an -ing participial clause) [functioning as a postmodifier]:

the book

that/which your teacher has assigned to you

NOUN

RELATIVE CLAUSE [POSTMODIFIER]

a book

assigned to you by your teacher

NOUN

REDUCED RELATIVE (-ED PARTICIPIAL) CLAUSE [POSTMODIFIER]

books

providing all the necessary facts

NOUN

REDUCED RELATIVE (-ING PARTICIPIAL) CLAUSE [POSTMODIFIER]

  • In prepositional phrases, a preposition precedes the related noun or a noun phrase, or another preposition or prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases often function as adverbials in sentences:

in

years

PREPOSITION

NOUN

for

ten years

PREPOSITION

NOUN PHRASE

as

students of this school

PREPOSITION

NOUN PHRASE

out

of the participants

PREPOSITION

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE

  • In verb phrases, a verb precedes the related determiner or determiner phrase (functioning as a direct or indirect object), preposition or prepositional phrase (functioning as a place/ temporal [modifier] adverbial), adverb or adverb phrase (functioning as a manner [degree] adverbial), or adverb phrase (functioning as a complement adverbial):

told

this

VERB

DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUN [DIRECT OBJECT]

will tell

to everyone

VERB

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE [INDIRECT OBJECT]

are living

for ten years

VERB

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE [TEMPORAL [MODIFIER] ADVERBIAL]

will have moved

rather slowly

VERB

ADVERB PHRASE [DEGREE [MANNER] ADVERBIAL]

should treat

similarly to everyone else

VERB

ADVERB PHRASE [COMPLEMENT ADVERBIAL]

  • In verb phrases, a verb may also follow the related adverb or adverb phrase (functioning as a manner [degree] adverbial), in which their pragmatic meaning changes (adverbs positioned post-verbally receive more emphasis):

slowly moved moved slowly

clearly speaking speaking clearly

  • In noun phrases, a noun or noun phrase follows an article or possessive/ demonstrative/ quantifying pronoun (sometimes referred to as determiner), numeral, or noun/ noun phrase showing a possessor (in a genitive constructions):

this

story

DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUN

NOUN / NOUN PHRASE

today's

topic

POSSESSIVE NOUN

POSSESSED NOUN / NOUN PHRASE

ten

stories

NUMERAL

NOUN / NOUN PHRASE

  • In noun phrases, a noun or noun phrase follows the related adjective that modifies it. Preceding or pre-modifying adjectives are referred to as attributive:

skillful

student

ATTRIBUTIVE ADJECTIVE

​NOUN / NOUN PHRASE

  • Most post-modifying adjectives are referred to predicative. Predicative adjectives function as subject complements:

the student

wasn't

skillful

​NOUN / NOUN PHRASE

LINKING VERB (COPULA)

PREDICATIVEADJECTIVE

  • Some adjectives can be postmodifying but not predicative, called postpositive. Postpositive adjectives often constitute idiomatic or archaic expressions. Regular adjectives, when used postpositively, can have somewhat different meanings:

the best room available the worst choice imaginable Frank senior

somewhere nice attorney general Frank junior

  • In adjective phrases, an adjective follows the related adverb that modifies it:

very happy rather good outrageously fast

  • In adverb phrases, an adverb follows the related adverb that modifies it:

very happily rather well outrageously fast


 

Complements▾


As shown above, the canonical formula of the English language is Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Indirect Object, and all of these elements constitute the ᴄᴏʀᴇ of an English sentence.


There is, however, one more element that is often neglected: a complement, which is required to complete the meaning of certain predicates.


For example:

  • The objects are, in fact, verb complements.

  • The predicative adjectives are subject complements because they complete the linking verb to be (to seem, to appear, to feel, to sound, to look).

  • Subject complements can be any word used predicatively: pronouns, nouns, numerals, gerunds, or participles, or complement clauses used nominally:

Today's topic is Why We Keep Watching Stupid Movies?

The subject complement is a wh-clause.

This is theirs; give it back to them.

The subject complement is a possessive pronoun.

The theater looked old, but the play was charming.

The subject complements are an adjective and -ing participle.

The idea was that we start climbing as early as possible.

The subject complement is a that-clause.

Our office is across the street.

The subject complement is a prepositional phrase.

You seem tired.

The subject complement is an -ed participle.

  • There are also object complements, which complete certain verbs in English:

We find them very pleasant. We painted the house red.

The object complement is an adjective phrase. The object complement is an adjective.

We chose my father as our group leader. He thinks him a friend.

The object complement is a prepositional phrase. The object complement is a noun phrase.

We consider the director a fool. My father was named the winner.

The object complement is a noun phrase. The object complement is a noun.

She found the toddler walking in the kitchen.

The object complement is an -ing participial phrase.

  • And there are prepositional complements:

I'm interested in learning how to fly.

The prepositional complement is a -ing participial clause.

I feel angry with what the they have done.

The prepositional complement is a wh-clause.


Therefore, the more extended formula of the canonical English sentence is:


Subject + Verb + Object + Complement + [Adverbial]

We

named

our baby girl

Masha

like her grandma.

Subject

Verb

Object

Complement

Adverbial

 

Canonical Phrase/Clause: Head + Dependents


Apart from representing the ordering of words, all these constructions also represent certain dependency relations: one of these elements, the head (the modified), governs the rest of them, the dependents (or modifiers).


The canonical structures in which heads precede their dependents are called head-initial. The canonical structures with the heads following their dependents are called head-final. Other canonical structures have their heads in the middle, surrounding with their dependents, and they are called head-medial.


Some languages are strictly head-final (for example, Turkish). English, however, is mostly head-initial.

Generally speaking, English is considered a head-initial language, meaning that in most English canonical structures, the dependent elements follow the element they depend on, or the head comes before the elements it governs, the dependents.

As shown above (the heads are in bold), most structures in English are head-initial, except most noun phrases, adjective phrases and adverb phrases.


 

SVO vs. OSV Word Orders▾


The canonical word order is also considered unmarked, as it conveys the most neutral message, with the stress (ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ) naturally falling on the last lexical item of the sentence. This would be a sentence with which we start a conversation or an essay. Basically, this is the most common pattern of an opening sentence.


In writing, the canonical word order is presented as having no punctuation between the ᴄᴏʀᴇ elements:


Grammar | rules even kings.

T F
Molière

On the other hand, the far less typical word order Object + Subject + Verb (OSV) is defined as noncanonical and, as such, is marked, as the disrupted word order causes the stress (ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ) to shift, which, in writing, is often signaled by a comma:


Even kings, | grammar rules.

F1 T1 (F2)

In most cases, we place ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ in the end of a sentence (ᴇɴᴅ-ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ). However, sometimes, we may choose to shift the ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ to the beginning of the sentence to give it prominence (ᴄᴏɴᴛʀᴀꜱᴛɪᴠᴇ ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ) or to establish a connection with the previous sentence (ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄᴀʟɪᴢᴀᴛɪᴏɴ).


 

Fronting: Focus Fronting & Topicalization▾


In English, shifting an element to the beginning of a sentence makes it stand out—the processes called ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ ꜰʀᴏɴᴛɪɴɢ or ᴛᴏᴘɪᴄᴀʟɪᴢᴀᴛɪᴏɴ. Generally speaking, ꜰᴏᴄᴜꜱ ꜰʀᴏɴᴛɪɴɢ refers to the initial placement of any ᴄᴏʀᴇ element that is normally found in post-verbal position (objects, complements, adverbials).


In other words, fronting is one of the ways to break a canonical sentence, and it can only be done if pragmatically required (by the context).


Sentences with fronted elements thus become noncanonical or marked. In English, with its strict word order, fronting rarely touches the ᴄᴏʀᴇ of the sentence. It has to be pragmatically warranted to do that.


The elements that are often fronted are, therefore, adverbials:


In one bedroom, the Suites des Seigneurs de Balzac, mermaids wave palm fronds and monkeys playfully gaze into looking glasses. In another, the large Salon aux Bouquets, a mural creates the conceit of a columned terrace with a view of the flower-speckled countryside and in the dining room the striped fabric is by Preile of Lyons. Between the several doorways, with their painted, broken pediments, chubby putti hold back green curtains from panels set on a Pompeian red ground.


Even physically, Europe’s neighborhoods are drawing closer, with road and rail lines bridging the Baltic countries, and a new waterway joining the North Sea with the Black Sea.


Other elements that get fronted are objects and complements:


This argument, I simply do not accept.

The difficult, we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.

The slogan of the US Army Corps of Engineers

A comma placed after a fronted element—known as an introductory comma—helps identify the fronting, signaling the disruption in the canonical word order.