Any Ideas?

Fronted Adverbials and other Pointless Jargon

Knowing the name of something doesn't mean you know something


This morning, my eight year old was even more reluctant than usual to start his homework.  And I could see why.

The homework sheet began with a question: "What is a fronted adverbial?".

When I saw this, I inwardly reacted as I expect most people would.  "I don't know...and furthermore, I don't care".  Fortunately, my son did know, sort of, because he'd had a lesson about fronted adverbials in school yesterday. 

Unless you teach in a primary school, I'll bet you have never heard of a fronted adverbial.  To put you out of your misery, it is a word or phrase at the start of a sentence that describes the action that follows.  In other words, it is sticking the adverb at the start of a sentence. 

Here's an example:  "Amazingly, the teacher asked the children to learn about fronted adverbials".  In that example, the fronted adverbial is "amazingly".

Fronted adverbials are a symptom of the new push for grammar that's part of the Gove curriculum revolution. Until a couple of years ago, I doubt if anyone had ever heard the term.  It certainly never cropped up in my extensive English, Latin and Greek grammar lessons at school.

I'm a believer in good grammar*.  But I hate jargon, and that's effectively what the term "fronted adverbial" is. Jargon is language that 'experts' use to make themselves feel important, while excluding others.  When you're on the inside, it's easy to forget that what you regard as technical terminology is, to those not part of your circle, nothing more than jargon that makes a simple idea seem complicated.  It's bad enough in adult circles, but unforgivable in primary schools.  There's jargon in primary maths, too. Many parents are intimidated by terminology such as "Number bonds" and "partitioning", which are used to describe ideas we already understood before somebody decided to give them labels we have to remember.

I'm reminded of one of Richard Feynman's anecdotes, about when his father used to take him for walks in the woods to discover about the natural world.  Feynman's friends would tease him that despite these walks in the woods, he still didn't know the names of particular birds.  His father pointed out: "You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird".

Feynman's conclusion: "I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing something".

 P.S. For those who think something needs a name before we can learn it as a concept, why stop at fronted adverbials?  I think next week, my child's class should be taught about "Terminal negations".  That label will reinforce understanding of a familiar concept - not.

* Not to be confused with good gra'ma who is staying with us at the moment. She's well educated, a great cook, and has never heard of fronted adverbials.