Friday, July 06, 2007

unintentional hilarity in
yesterday's Level 3 class

Although two of the girls in my Level 3 class are on my shit list for whispering too much, the class as a whole is good. I teach the "Reading and Vocabulary" component for the Level 3 intensive course (students have three teachers: one for "Speaking," one for "Reading and Vocabulary," and one for "Writing"), and we meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

On Tuesday, one student asked some questions about punctuation. Specifically, she was asking about the use of commas in expressions like "Me, too." I explained that "Me, too," when written properly, includes the comma, but that many Americans these days drop the punctuation altogether (just as the comma is often-- and incorrectly-- dropped in expressions such as "Hey, Kevin"). It's likely that the proliferation of mistakes will lead to a new sense of what's "proper" for commas, and that was my larger point to the class: language is constantly evolving. Another example I gave of this flux was the expression "online," which is also frequently written as "on line" (two words) and as the hyphenated compound "on-line." English is currently in a state of confusion about hyphenated and compound expressions, I think.

One of my students asked me to give other illustrations of the power of punctuation. I promised I'd have something to hand out on Thursday, which was yesterday. So for yesterday's class, I distributed two handouts-- one was a jokey handout about the power of punctuation based on material I had found online; the other was a Kevin-made handout that addressed a related topic: the manner in which stress can affect the meaning of a question or declaration. The students had fun with the first handout (which was a "Dear John" letter punctuated in two different ways, such that the letters were totally opposite in meaning).

The second handout, the one about how stress affects meaning, was the one that had everyone rolling, though for the life of me I couldn't figure out why. I think the imaginary situations were what tickled the students. For example, one question on the handout was: "Did you eat my hamster?" So we went through the drill:

1. Did you eat my hamster?
2. Did you eat my hamster?
3. Did you eat my hamster?
4. Did you eat my hamster?
5. Did you eat my hamster?

For each question, I offered rejoinders to illustrate how the stress was marking a contrast. Respectively, the rejoinders were:

1. No. But I will.
2. No-- my brother ate it!
3. No... I used it as a baseball.
4. No, don't worry: I ate your sister's hamster.
5. No. I ate your dog.

I read the questions and ad-libbed the replies with my usual Shatnerian delivery. It was the sort of standup routine that would get a guy booed off the stage, but my students thought it was funny as hell. Go figure.

The reason I distributed those two handouts was that I wanted to highlight the fact that the semantic content of a sentence is as much about the delivery as it is about the words. In the "Dear John" handout, the students saw the exact same words in both of those breakup letters, but with changes in punctuation and capitalization, the meaning of each letter was completely altered. In the "word stress" handout, the students saw a similar phenomenon: the words themselves remained the same, but the meaning of a given utterance was utterly changed by a simple shift in stress.

For the asking: a good reference on comma usage. Another, arguably better, reference is here. Lastly, this Duke University reference (it's available as a PDF) covers some areas not covered in the two previous references.


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