In over two decades of teaching the science of language and basic linguistics to undergraduate college students, I have found that their appreciation for, and understanding of, the building blocks and structure of language can be greatly facilitated by using comic strips, panels, and other jokes to open the door for them.
This is because most of the important language concepts that we teach (such as parts of speech and sentence structure) are precisely the point where ambiguity can arise - the basis of most language-oriented humor. If I can find a comic strip or joke relying on an ambiguity that is centered on a structure I’m trying to teach, then my teaching of that structure is helped along by students’ understanding the joke.
Take a case in point. We know that prepositional phrases can modify nouns or verb phrases, as in:
“We saw a [clown [with a funny hat]]” where “with a funny hat” modifies the noun “clown.”
Or, “I [fixed the chair [with a screwdriver]]” where “with a screwdriver” modifies the verb phrase “fixed the chair.”
Teaching such sentence structure usually involves sentence diagramming or some such tool, and students often don’t understand why attaching prepositional phrases in one way or another makes any difference, even if they are paying close attention to the meaning of the sentences themselves. To help improve their attention to the meaning and their understanding of the significance of the structure, I can present them with an episode from Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s comic strip “Shoe” in which Marge is at Roz’ diner and tells her:
“I tried on that red dress in the window of Dingle’s department store today!”
And Roz replies, “Yeah, I heard … You know, Marge. They do have dressing rooms.”
Suddenly, there’s an ambiguity that makes a difference. Marge means for the phrase “in the window of Dingle’s department store” to modify “red dress” and Roz takes it, tongue-in-cheek, to modify the verb phrase “tried on that red dress.” The ambiguity drives the joke and to the extent that students are able to “get” the joke, they “get” the ambiguity and understand its relevance. All that remains is to teach them how to represent it grammatically.
Teaching word formation and structure is another ready-made case where humor and jokes help the learning process. For example, we teach students that compound nouns involve joining one noun to another to get a new word (such as, “fire” + “man” = “fireman.”) Often (but not always,) this is as far as the explanation goes, leaving students to wonder perhaps whether the difference between “fire man” and “fireman” has only to do with pressing the spacebar. How do we, for instance, get across the point that a compound word is more than the sum of the two words that make it up, and that once compounded, the combination is free to wander far from the meaning of its parts? Here again, a joke or cartoon helps enormously.
In a 2005 episode of Bill Amend’s “FoxTrot” we find young Jason Fox and his best friend Marcus Jones standing in the snow trying to sell tire-shaped snow sculptures as “snow-tires” for $30 each. Jason says “I saw them advertised in the paper for $60.” To which Marcus replies “Weird. You would think people would be lining up.”
With the help of the cartoon, students now have a humorous way to understand the substantive difference between a compound noun and its individual parts.
These are two small examples out of a large universe of language-inspired humor. Having spent many years perusing the comics pages for worthy examples, I can attest that useful material is in abundance. It only requires that one read the comics with attention to their classroom potential. The time spent finding such resources, though, is well worth it, as one carefully selected comic strip can facilitate understanding of language concepts for hundreds of students.
Stanley Dubinsky is a professor of Linguistics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. His book “Understanding Language through Humor” (co-authored with Christopher Holcombe) is published by Cambridge University Press.
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