Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Elementary school linguistics’ Category

The Keyest Concept

Posted by Neal on November 4, 2009

“The discussion we had yesterday,” I began, “was a reminder to me that language data is always messy. I was trying to show you a simple picture of how parts of speech worked, and you guys kept giving me words that messed up the nice picture I was trying to paint for you. Language was invented over thousands of years by millions of people, so there are going to be exceptions, and words that you can’t easily label as one part of speech. That’s just the way it is. The good news, though, is that the tests we’re doing here are tests that you can do on your own, so you can see how a particular word is behaving.”

“Yesterday was also a reminder to me,” I continued, “that you can’t rely on just one test to determine what family some word belongs to. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Elementary school linguistics, Syntax | 5 Comments »

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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Posted in Elementary school linguistics, Syntax | 13 Comments »

A Predicate Has to Have a Verb?

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2009

About a month ago, I was reading a draft of a five-paragraph essay Doug had to write for language arts. I pointed out a couple of run-on sentences, and a minute later, he had separated them with periods. Then I moved on to the fragments. One of them was something like, “His brother, who wants the duke’s title.”

“But that’s a complete sentence!” Doug protested.

“OK, then what’s the subject?” I asked.

“His brother.”

“And the predicate?”

“Wants the duke’s title!” Doug answered.

I’ll spare you all the arguing that went on during the next half hour. Eventually, Doug grudgingly and still somewhat incredulously conceded that sentences could be packed inside larger things that weren’t sentences. The most eye-opening moment I had, though, was when I asked, “Is Nick the cat a complete sentence?”

“Yes!” Doug said. The subject was Nick. The predicate was the cat. Likewise, in the kitchen was a complete sentence, with subject in, and predicate the kitchen. “The subject comes first,” Doug told me, “and the rest is the predicate. That’s the rule they taught us.”

“I see the problem,” I said. “You’re right that every sentence has to have a subject and a predicate, but what you didn’t realize is that not everything is a sentence. Predicates have to have a verb, at least in English they do. If there’s no verb, it’s not a predicate, and you don’t have a complete sentence.”

“A predicate doesn’t have to be a verb!” Doug said. “They never told us that!”

“Well, what you probably didn’t notice on all the worksheets you did where you identified subjects and predicates was that the predicates all had verbs.”

Doug was furious with his previous teachers for having allowed him to arrive at this overgeneral definition of a sentence.

“Do you think other kids have this same misunderstanding?” I asked. “Or other misunderstandings about sentences?”


“Hmmm,” I said. At the beginning of the school year, Doug’s language arts teacher had given me an invitation to come in and speak to her classes about linguistics when I had a chance. She didn’t even care about the topic; whatever it was, she’d find a way to connect it to the objectives the students were working on. She’s been doing Latin and Greek word roots with them, so I’d been thinking about bringing in an exercise in reconstructing words from proto-languages, if I could find one that didn’t require too much preparation work in phonetics. Now, though, there seemed to be a more immediate objective that I could give a linguist’s perspective on.

So it was that last Tuesday, I stood in front of Doug’s language arts class, asking how many had ever lost points on a worksheet or test because they hadn’t written an answer as a complete sentence. Just about all of them had. Only a few dropped their hands when I asked if they’d ever wondered what the big deal was, as long as the teacher had understood their answer. Then I moved to a different topic, and reminded them about learning about parts of speech in previous years. My question: Who had ever wondered what they were supposed to do with this knowledge now that they’d learned the eight or ten or however many parts of speech. They all had. My aim, I announced, was to take these two topics, parts of speech on the one hand, and sentences on the other, and fill in the missing material that connected the two. We’d start with a sentence they’d probably heard before…

To be continued

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Posted in Doug, Elementary school linguistics, Syntax | 7 Comments »

Save the Voice for Last

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2008

What did I do wrong? It worked so well with the second graders last year! The second graders had figured out what made [z] different from [s] in pretty short order. Remember the kid who said,“Your tongue vibrates more for the Z”? And the one who said, “Your teeth vibrate more, too”? They nailed that distinction in voicing, and from there we were able to sort all the other consonant sounds into ones that were voiced like [z], and ones that were voiceless like [s]. But now, here I was with Adam’s first grade class, and the same technique was crashing. Maybe I should explain…

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Posted in Elementary school linguistics, Phonetics and phonology | Leave a Comment »

Even More Elementary School Linguistics

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2007

“Okay, ready?” I asked. All Doug’s classmates put a hand on their throat, and we began: “Aaaaaalaaaaaa.” I couldn’t resist adding, “Peanut butter sandwiches!” One girl said, “Huh?” Other kids just looked puzzled. What had I been thinking? Had I really expected them to catch a 1970s Sesame Street reference? That’s OK; I had no idea what the kids in the back were doing when my “peanut butter sandwiches” line inspired them to start chanting, “It’s peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time!”

Now for my Lost/Alias-style transition: 20 MINUTES EARLIER

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Posted in Elementary school linguistics, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology | 11 Comments »

“I Saw a Ogre!”: More Elementary-School Linguistics

Posted by Neal on January 30, 2007

Last Friday I delivered my second linguistics presentation at Doug and Adam’s elementary school. I’d mentioned to Doug’s first-grade teacher from last year that I’d done a presentation in Mrs. K’s room, and could do one for her if she wanted. She said sure, and asked if I could do something about when to use a vs. an. Let’s see, should I tell about the way I did the presentation, or the way I should have done the presentation? We’ll go with the way I did do it.

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Posted in Elementary school linguistics, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology, The darndest things | 1 Comment »

LSA 2007: Elementary School Linguistics

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2007

“Before we start,” I said, “I need to make sure I know what language you guys speak.”

“English!” they said.

“Ah, good! That’s what I speak, too. So Mrs. K,” I said, turning to Adam’s teacher, “Do they speak English pretty well?” She said they did. “OK,” I said. “Let me try a little test. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Elementary school linguistics, LSA, Phonetics and phonology | 3 Comments »