Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Cheesy Toilet Dogs

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2009

What can replace "the"?I wrote on the whiteboard the familiar sentence I alluded to at teh end of the last post:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.

“Linguists look at parts of speech a bit differently than how you’ve probably been taught,” I said. “They don’t look so much at whether a word refers to a person, place, or thing; or state or action; or what have you. They group them based on what kinds of places they can fit into.”

From there, my plan was to erase one word out of the sentence at a time, and ask for other words that could replace it, and then words that could not replace it, without using part-of-speech labels. Once we had samples of words that could and could not replace each word in the sentence, they would start to fall into families, i.e. parts of speech. However, doing this exercise with two classes of 5th and 6th graders was a reminder to me that linguistic data is always messy. Some of the highlights:

  • For the second the, one student observed that you could replace it with nothing at all; that is, you could say, “…jumped over lazy dogs.” Other students said we could also do that with the first the, which led to a observation that words like fox in English need something like a or every in front of them, but others, like dogs, don’t.
  • Another student offered cheesy as a replacement for the second the, and I put it on the OK list, promising to say more about it later.
  • When we listed words that could not replace quick, brown, and lazy, one student suggested toilet, but I put it in the OK list. We speculated on what toilet dogs might be. Dogs that always drank out of the toilet? Dog figurines to put on the top of your toilet tank? Dogs that guarded the toilet? In any case, it didn’t matter that a toilet was a thing instead of a “describing” word: It fit in the slot, so it went in the OK list.
  • Also during the investigation of quick and brown, one student suggested dead as something that couldn’t fill in the slot, since dead foxes couldn’t jump. But I pointed out that we could certainly imagine one jumping, and even say, “Last night, I dreamed that the dead fox jumped over the lazy dogs.”
  • The same girl had a similar objection to shoe as a replacement for fox, and I had a similar response. And, I pointed out, it certainly wasn’t nonsense in the same way “The quick brown because jumped over the lazy dogs.”
  • For over, the students suggested lots of other prepositions, and then again, one of them suggested replacing over with nothing at all. At first, I said no, on the grounds that to do that, we’d need a different jumped: a homophone that meant “attack someone.” But no: another student reminded me that jump could work just fine without the over to mean “jump over”, and I remembered elephants jumping the fence, checker players jumping their opponents, and Evel Knievel jumping canyons. So I had to leave a null symbol in the OK list for things that could replace over.

When it came time to put labels on the families of words we’d amassed, the students knew which ones would be called nouns, which ones verbs, which ones prepositions, and which ones adjectives. The category of determiner was new to them, of course. A theme I kept coming back to was that even within our families of words, there were different kinds. Some determiners, like a and that, were singular; others, like these and many were plural. So why did we call them all determiners, instead of having two parts of speech for them? Some verbs, like swam, flew, or ran, could replace jumped, but others, like tried and believed, don’t. So why do we call them all verbs, instead of having different parts of speech for the different kinds of verbs? More on that, I told them, in part two the next day.

But I never did come back to cheesy. I could just imagine Doug or one of his classmates saying months or years later, “What do you mean cheesy isn’t a determiner?! You told us cheesy was a determiner! You said any word that could replace the was a determiner!” Well, the classmate wouldn’t be saying “you”; they’d be saying “Mr. Whitman”, but you get the idea. I’d have to do a bit of repair work before I moved ahead into phrases the next day.

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13 Responses to “Cheesy Toilet Dogs”

  1. […] « October Links Cheesy Toilet Dogs […]

  2. 1. Guest lectures to fifth graders
    2. About linguistics
    3. Opening the floor to ANY word that fits
    You are a brave man.

  3. The Ridger said

    Wonderful. That’s a great method.

  4. Glen said

    I don’t understand why “cheesy” is a plausible replacement for “the.”

    • Neal said

      Cheesy lazy dogs is syntactically OK, but *cheesy quick brown fox is not (unless it’s Cheesy Quick Brown Fox, a proper name). So cheesy could replace the — in certain circumstances. Of course, the meaning would be different, but that’s OK for this test.

  5. Some of these things are your own fault: Everyone knows that the last word in that sentence is supposed to be singular.

  6. […] Comments Uly on Cheesy Toilet DogsNeal on Cheesy Toilet DogsNeal on Our Magnificent Bastard TongueNeal on Our Magnificent […]

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