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  • The Noun Game -- a simple grammar lesson leads to a clash of civilizations

    That's exactly what happened to a student in Ohio when his English teacher decided to play the noun game. To the teacher, the noun game seemed a fun way to take the drudgery out of grammar. To the student it forced a metaphysical crisis. To me it shows what happens when cultures clash and children get lost in the tyranny of school. That's a lot to get from a grammar game.

    Anyway, here's how you play. Every student gets a set of cards with nouns written on them. At the front of the classroom are three buckets, labeled "person," "place," and "thing." The students take turns sorting their cards into the appropriate buckets. "Book" goes in the thing bucket. "city" goes in the place bucket. "Gandhi" goes in the person bucket.

    Ganesh had a card with "horse" on it. Ganesh isn't his real name, by the way. It's actually my cousin's name, so I'm going to use it here.

    You might guess from his name that Ganesh is South Asian. In India, where he had been in school before coming to Ohio, Ganesh was taught that a noun named a person, place, thing, or animal. If he played the noun game in India he'd have four buckets and there would be no problem deciding what to do with "horse." But in Ohio Ganesh had only three buckets, and it wasn't clear to him which one he should put "horse" in.

    Ganesha, the Hindu god with an elephant head on a boy's body

    The Hindu god Ganesha has the head of an elephant on the body of a boy. Is Ganesha a person, place or thing?

    In India, Ganesh's religion taught him that all forms of life are continuous, interrelated parts of the universal plan. So when he surveyed the three buckets it never occurred to him that a horse, a living creature, could be a thing. He knew that horses weren't people, but they had more in common with people than with places or things. Forced to choose, Ganesh put the horse card in the person bucket.

    Blapp! Wrong! You lose. The teacher shook her head, and Ganesh sat down, mortified, with a C for his efforts. This was a game where you got a grade, and a C for a child from a South Asian family of overachievers is a disgrace. So his parents went to talk to the teacher.

    It so happens that I've been in a similar situation. We spent a year in France some time back, and my oldest daughter did sixth grade in a French school. The teacher asked her, "How many continents are there?" and she replied, as she had been taught in the good old U.S. of A., "seven." Blaap! Wrong! It turns out that in France there are only five.

    So old dad goes to talk to the teacher about this. I may not be able to remember the seven dwarfs, but I rattled off Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, North America, and South America. The teacher calmly walked me over to the map of the world. Couldn't I see that Antarctica was an uninhabited island? And couldn't I see that North and South America were connected? Any fool could see as much.

    At that point I decided not to press the observation that Europe and Asia were also connected. Some things are not worth fighting for when you're fighting your child's teacher.

    Map of the world showing 5 continents, from Wikepedia France

    The five continents, according to the French Wikipedia: America (which includes Greenland), Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea)

    Anyway, let's get back to nouns. School grammar texts typically divide nouns into person, place, or thing. More advanced grammars separate nouns into animates and inanimates, or abstracts and concretes, or mass nouns and count nouns, and they further complicate matters by including phrases, clauses, and entire sentences that aren't actually nouns but nominals that function like nouns. None of this lends itself to buckets, and none of these systems specifically mentions animals. In English, though, animals can clearly be things: "The dog is hungry. Feed it."

    School House rock video showing animals as things

    Schoolhouse Rock is the source of much of my students' grammatical knowledge. According to the segment on nouns, animals are things.

    However, animals can also be persons: "Babar became king of the elephants when the old king ate a poisoned mushroom and died." They can even be ideas, like the Cheshire cat in "Alice," or the Loch Ness monster: they're not real, so they must be ideas. I guess an animal can't very well be a place, but I'm sure some reader will attack me for placism, arguing yes, it can.

    Babar, king of the elephants

    Babar, king of the elephants, bears an uncanny resemblance to Ganesh, the elephant god. Is Babar a person, place or thing? According to the French Wikipedia, a noun is "a thing or idea by itself." But in French schools, it doesn't matter whether Babar is a thing or an idea, so long as you use the correct gender of the definite article: le roi Babar, not *la roi Babar.

    But that's not the point, is it? The point is that lots of nouns don't fit neatly into noun buckets. What is East? Is it a place or an idea? Can it exist without West? Or North and South? Calling nouns persons, places, things, ideas, or even animals, is a way to help students recognize nouns when they stumble upon them. It is not meant to limit the imagination or categorize every possible noun the mind can come up with. Anyone looking at all closely at language must see that its categories are suggestive, permeable, inconclusive. As linguists like to say, all grammars leak. Some teachers find this indeterminacy uncomfortable.

    Is the point of the noun game to see whether students recoginze possible nouns as nouns, or whether their view of the universe agrees with the teacher's? Is education fitting things into buckets, or wondering why the categories don't fit the facts? Does education consist of grading you on how well you can play a game?

    another noun game shows a basketball hoop and asks if

    Another noun game for the computer requires some suspension of disbelief: here the student is asked to imagine that the basketball is a bicycle. But what if bicycle is a verb?

    So what do I advise Ganesh's parents to do? Forget it, that's what. Ganesh has done more thinking about the nature of language than his teacher has. His performance in the noun game won't keep him out of Harvard, or Ohio State. The teacher isn't going to change. The grade is not important. It's the thought, not the noun, that counts.

    This commentary is based on an actual incident that occurred more than a decade ago. An anxious parent called the National Council of Teachers of English for advice, and I responded with an earlier version of this essay that appeared in Inflections (vol. 2, no. 1, 1994), a Council newsletter. The parent, who received a copy of that response, discussed the issue with the school principal, who was moved to schedule a schoolwide assembly to increase awareness of cultural diversity among students and teachers. I have no idea whether teachers at that school still prefer teaching grammar as a set of testable formulas instead of a way to explore the complexities of language.

judynewman@gmail.com Oct 24, 2009 6:47 pm
I remember in school in NY State over 60 years ago learning that Europe and Asia were really one continent-- Eurasia. Going to school in another culture is a valuable experience for students. I remember my furious first grader coming home from school in Bavaria and not taking off his coat before he put a handle on the "Easter Nest" he had made in school.
gary.fitzgerald@tic.toshiba.com Oct 27, 2009 9:36 am
I am not a Hindu, but I tend to agree with the kid about the placement of the horse. I find animals to be much nicer persons than most humans. Gary B. Fitzgerald
trewth_seeker@yahoo.com Dec 10, 2009 4:05 pm
This is ridiculous; what is important is to be able to identify nouns, not to put nouns into buckets as if the "or" of "person, place, or thing" were exclusive. If you're silly enough to distinguish between persons and things then what, grammatically, are corpses? Fetuses? Aborted fetuses? Stem cells? Human tumor cells? Fictional persons? Feh.
isnorden@gmail.com May 11, 2010 8:56 pm
Some fictional and religious writing does blur the line between animal/place: Jonah in the fish's belly, the world supported by cosmic turtles, etc. The person/place line also blurs in science fiction, whenever Character A gets shrunk down to explore Character B's body and correct some problem. Granted, your average grade-school English class isn't likely to think of those examples...but the more that come to mind, the more I think that parts of speech should be defined by their _functions_ (What does a noun do in a sentence?) instead of their meanings.

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