Going forward, it’s an adverb

A colleague recently asked what part of speech going forward is when used in the annoyingly common way such as Going forward, we’ll do it this way. Here’s what I said:

It’s an adverb, actually; present participial phrases can be used adverbially, and all uses of going forward in the sense you (and I) find overused currently are matrix adverbs, modifying the main verb by specifying its temporal ambit, or sentence adverbs, expressing attitude towards the entire utterance by directing its action to occur within a specific time frame.

As a sentence adverb, it is part of the framing discourse, like in fact, from this point on, for all intents and purposes, etc. Whether at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence, it applies to the entire action of the sentence (in syntactic terms, it modifies the whole inflectional phrase). At the beginning, it is not an adjective applying to the noun, nor is it, as it could be, an adverb applying directly to the verb; we can see the difference if we compare, for instance,

Going forward, the driver must put the car in gear [ambiguous: "From now on, the driver must put the car in gear" (sentence adverb) or "When going forward, the driver must put the car in gear"]

The driver going forward must put the car in gear [adjectival: "The driver who is going forward must put the car in gear"]

Going forward, the car must be put in gear [ambiguous: "From now on" (sentence adverb) or "When the car is going forward" (subordinate non-finite clause)]

The car must be put in gear going forward [ambiguous: "In the going-forward gear" or "From now on"]

The car must be put in gear by the driver going forward ["by the going forward of the driver" or "from now on"]

You can see from these the difference between sentence adverbs and other uses of participles.

Although present participles can be used as adjectives, phrases such as “going forward” are not being used that way. A sentence such as

This car is a going concern

uses “going” as an adjective;

This car is a going-forward concern

is odd but understandable and makes a compound with a hyphen;

This car is a concern going forward

is ambiguous; it could be

This car is a concern [that is] going forward [subordinate non-finite clause modifier of noun]

This car is a concern [when] going forward [subordinate non-finite clause modifier of verb phrase]

This car is a concern[,] going forward [sentence adverb]

Since a sentence adverb is framing the speaker’s whole utterance – providing a temporal or attitudinal context – it is not a dangler when at the end. Compare:

Honestly, I can’t say what the problem is [I am speaking honestly to you and I say I can't say what the problem is]

I can’t honestly say what the problem is [I cannot make an honest statement of the problem]

I can’t say honestly what the problem is [I can only make dishonest statements about the problem]

I can’t say, honestly, what the problem is [I tell you that I cannot say – and I am speaking honestly to you – what the problem is]

I can’t say what the problem is honestly [If I try to say what the problem is, I will do so dishonestly]

I can’t say what the problem is, honestly [I say I can't say what the problem is, and I am speaking honestly to you]

Here are dangling or misplaced participles, by the way:

Walking across the street, the car hit the pedestrian

The pedestrian was hit by the car walking across the street

We can see that in a sentence such as

There will be problems going forward

if we are reading it not in the sense “problems with going forward” but rather “From now on, there will be problems,” the going forward modifies the main verb (more about which below), and in

Tell me your problems going foward

if we take it in the sense “From now on, tell me your problems” it is a sentence adverb. (It’s also a silly way to put it, obviously, due to the ambiguity. But we’re just talking about syntactic structures here.)

We will note that usage of commas helps to make it clear what is and isn’t a sentence adverb. But with phrasal adverbs, notably ones of time, we often leave the comma off at the end:

The car must be put in gear from now on

Notice that we can also say

The car must be put in gear from today onward

If you compare with

The car must be put in gear from the 19th century

you will notice that in that case from the 19th century modifies “gear” and changes the entire sense (because in gear must mean “into equipment” or such like); after reading that, we could read

The car must be put in gear from today

to mean “must be put in modern gear,” and even

The car must be put in gear from today onward

to mean “in gear that comes from this moment and the future” (odd, but you see the difference between modifying the noun and modifying the whole sentence).

A reasonable objection can be made that, in the temporal modifying sense, we could make it

The car must from today onward be put in gear

thereby suggesting that the adverb modifies the specific verb rather than expressing an attitude towards the sentence as a whole, so it’s really a matrix adverb. And indeed in such a case there is no particular difference in sense between the two, so they are interchangeable. Likewise, we see going forward as a matrix adverb in

He decided to do it that way going forward

Both possible readings of this use it as an adverb to modify the verb:

He decided to do it that way from that point on

He decided to do it that way in a forward motion

Compare the directive function of the attitude expressed by the sentence adverb:

Going forward, please ask what to do [I want you, from now on, to ask what to do]

Please ask what to do going forward [can also be a matrix adverb meaning "Ask (time not specified) what to do as you go forward"]

In all cases, it’s adverbial. And there is often a better, less annoying way to put it. But if it’s a question of wondering what its grammatical role is, that’s what it is: adverbial phrase, sometimes modifying the main verb, sometimes expressing attitude towards the utterance as a whole (specifically a requirement to its action).

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2 responses to “Going forward, it’s an adverb

  1. You have to put the car in gear to go forward unless it is in neutral and you can push it.

    Sorry, had to add the ‘to,’ just couldn’t see the car going forward without it. ;-)

  2. Pingback: Recent Good Articles About Bad Writing « Jenni Lukac's Translation & Editing Blog

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