On fronted adverbials and other fancy names for everyday things

A white female teacher wearing a green cardigan holding a globe in her hand with South America most prominently showing, pointing to one of a group of five children facing her, two of whom have their hands up. Behind her are shelves full of books, and some children's artworks and learning materials.

Recently my Twitter feed has been buzzing with talk of “fronted adverbials” with tales of children losing marks in their school English work for not using enough of them, parents having to ask their seven-year-old children what they are and writers having made a living for years without knowing what they are. This all comes from the government having made the use of these and other obscure grammatical rules and terms a mandatory part of the primary school English curriculum as a result of the latest media panic about children being inadequately literate when they start secondary school. The term refers to the use of a word or phrase describing a verb at the beginning rather than the middle or end of a sentence. For example, “you give your love so sweetly” uses an adverb (sweetly); an example of a fronted adverb would be “respectfully I say to thee, I’m aware that you cheat”, and “with respect” rather than “respectfully” would be a fronted adverbial in this context.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with my second driving instructor who asked me if I knew what “cadence braking” was. I had never heard the term. It turned out that this referred to what you do when you are trying to brake in slippery conditions: you pump the brake rather than jam it down hard once. I actually did know that, but I didn’t know there was a term for it other than “pumping the brake”. I was never asked about that term at any test (I passed on my fourth attempt in 1995 and there was no theory test then) so I’m not sure if examiners would fault a learner for not knowing that particular term rather than the practice of pumping the brake itself — I really hope not. There are some things we do that have technical terms for them that we do not know about, yet we can still use them without knowing what some people call them. Brake-pumping is just as effective whatever you call it, and language can be just as expressive whether we know the grammatical technical terms or not.

Image source: Mundial Perspectives. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) Licence. Original here.

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