Understanding Language through Humor: How jokes make concepts clear

Written by Stanley Dubinsky

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, and linguistic ambiguity is the basis of most language oriented humor. Working backwards, if I can find a comic strip or joke that relies on an ambiguity which is centered on a structure that I am 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 “in a funny hat” modifies the noun “clown”, or in

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 this along (both 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 “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.

Understanding Language Through Humor

Stanley Dubinsky and Chris Holcomb’s new textbook Understanding Language through Humor is available now in print and as an eBook (including a Kindle edition).

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