Word Count

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The Noun Game

University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron explains how a simple grammar lesson can lead to a clash of civilizations.

Everybody knows that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. It's one of those undeniable facts of daily life, a fact we seldom question until we meet up with a case that doesn't quite fit the way we're used to viewing things.

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.

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.

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, and they further complicate matters by including phrases, clauses, and entire sentences that aren't actually nouns but function like them. 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."

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.

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?

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.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 16th 2009, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Greg G. (Oita Japan)
This article is fascinating. I would like to learn more about culture and grammar.
Monday November 16th 2009, 7:50 AM
Comment by: wesley M. (hesperia, CA)
you people are amazing..this is a part of the universe i,ve been looking for.Im not a highly educated man.but i,ve leaned that if you know where to go to find the RIGHT Words.U can get the key words and have intellegent conversation on that subject.VERY COOL BEANS.keep up the very good work.And remember is,is not allways is. W.H.McConnell,learning every day!!
Monday November 16th 2009, 8:11 AM
Comment by: Sukhmani
I like this article.
Monday November 16th 2009, 11:32 AM
Comment by: LeanneF (Winnipeg Canada)
Brilliant. Thank-you.
Monday November 16th 2009, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Matthew O. (Brooklyn, NY)
The article on "The Noun Game" tells us what education and being educated is all about. It is about discovering those ideas that one did not know before; it is a call for openness and for humility at all times.
Monday November 16th 2009, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Rocket
Interesting article. I enjoyed it. And since you put the challenge out there... If I am a flea, and I send a text to my flea buddy to meet me at the nape of the neck on the black lab at 3pm, that makes the dog a place, right?
Monday November 16th 2009, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Jeannie K. (Scottsdale, AZ)
Good article! I have to agree with grades not being important. Often teachers and parents put too much emphasis on those and forget about the importance of thinking, problem solving ,and creativity.
Monday November 16th 2009, 1:24 PM
Comment by: David D.
I really like this article. I too, would have a problem thinking of a horse as a thing, but that relates to a lifetime of living with animals who became companions. I would hesitate and then get it "right" but feel that it was wrong. The French idea that North and South America are one continent while Europe and Asia (Eurasia) are two is pretty funny. But the point I get is that rigidity of thinking is a formula for blocking good sense and the learning process. Matthew O has it completely right in saying that education is a call for openness and humility at all times. (I wish I could do that!)
Monday November 16th 2009, 2:32 PM
Comment by: Jane A.
A child in school can learn to figure out what his teacher expects the right answer to be. He can then give the answer this teacher expects or learn to express his own reasoning. This recognition of diversity among the "powers that be" will later give the student an edge in dealing with bosses, landlords, committee chairmen and other figures of authority.
Monday November 16th 2009, 4:55 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I was very moved by this article having been the kid who got in trouble for 'thinking' lots of times!

You have no idea how much I regret not having my parents talk to the teachers (in elementary school, nuns) about what they'd said and done!

If they did talk to them, I was never, even as an adult when we discussed this, told so.

I do know that in High School the principal was called once to get a teacher to stop referring to me as a thief, and I heard my mother defend my decision to go to the University of Michigan where I would not, she said, become a Communist, any more than my dad who'd gone there had!

But at the tender years in grade school, no one came to my defense. Later on I did learn that my dad wanted to take me out of that school, but I didn't know that!

So...

I disagree with doing nothing in Ganesh's case being the right thing.

I think the school was right to do some work on cultural differences.

Kids aren't grown-ups just yet, capable of absorbing blows. When he is an adult, perhaps Ganesh will, as I have, overcome the bitterness of not being treated fairly. I hope so.

By the way, despite my parents' efforts in contacting the principal, and the finding of the stolen article (a violin) with someone else, I never did escape that label of thief...

Never did get into the Hourn Society.

Not bitter any longer, but I made sure that I never treated students that way! Perhaps that's the good outcome, the lesson learned.

Oh, and my husband was taught in France that there are only five continets. He was kind of surprised now when I told him there were seven!

Great lesson about thinking in the column, even if I disagree with how to handle it!
Monday November 16th 2009, 4:57 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
But it doesn't help him, Jane A, when he's a kid!

That should be Honor Society in my post. It's a jiggling effort to post and when you get to the end of the box, the jiggling is harder to deal with!
Tuesday November 17th 2009, 1:50 AM
Comment by: Randy Alexander (Jilin City China)
Since Dennis didn't mention this, and it is a horrible area of confusion for most people, I'll chime in and say that nouns aren't people, places or things at all; nouns are words!

Actually Dennis said (and I know this isn't his own understanding of the matter; he is just putting forth the understanding that most people have of the matter) that nouns are names of people, places, and things. But, as he illustrated through the story, they aren't that either.

Nouns form a class of words, and classes of words are defined by their syntactic properties, not their semantic qualities! The properties that nouns have are that they inflect for number (horse/horses), and that they can be count or uncount (or non-count, if you prefer). They can also be heads of noun phrases. If a word can do those things, then it's a noun! If it can't, then it's not. Throw away the buckets!

Another important thing to understand is that quite often, words do not have intrinsic parts of speech (word classes); it depends on their context. Is "horse" a noun in "stop horsing around"?

Awareness of cultural diversity and differing perspectives is something to be promoted, but I don't think that's the main issue here. I applaud the teacher for accepting her mistake and trying to promote awareness of cultural diversity, but I would applaud her much more if she were to improve her own knowledge of the subject she was teaching.

A clearer understanding of grammar can only lead to clearer communication, wouldn't you agree?
Tuesday November 17th 2009, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I definitely agree. The reason I stressed what happened to the child is the familiarity in my own life experience.

If it were not for that, I might have dwelt on the same aspect as you did, Randy.

I notice you post from China, Did you enjoy snow recently? (Both a verb and a noun!)
Tuesday November 17th 2009, 11:02 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
I don't draw to this day due to the ridicule of a kindergarten teacher after teaching us to draw flowers. She pointed out to the class how wrong it was that my flowers had the same color stems as the flowers themselves, instead of the proper green.

I'd like to get with Ganesh and do some bucketing. I have no idea what that means. Probably a thing and a verb, filled with Schadenfreude.
Wednesday November 18th 2009, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I understand, Clarence! Math and I have a similar relationship and history.

I did learn to apologize to kids if I'd got something wrong. They'd be shocked at first that a teacher could make a mistake and admit it, but they got used to it!

I love the Schadenfreude! Now, what bucket would that go into? (LOL)
Thursday November 19th 2009, 12:44 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Our office puts the Schadenfreude in a special subset of bucket called Shenanigans.
Thursday December 3rd 2009, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Beautiful article. I really enjoyed reading it. I have to admit that it made me laugh, though not when I was thinking about the children, because
from a child’s perspective, I found it sad, as for a child it is traumatic to be unfairly treated (it is not a child’s fault he does not know something he has not been taught yet). It would have been helpful, and that’s something that I could not infer from the article, if the teacher had explained to the child that in that part of the world the two Americas are seen as one continent, and at the same time, if the parents had also explained to the child that in other parts of the world the two Americas are seen as two continents, and as they happened to live in that part of the world where the two Americas were seen as one continent, the child, for the time being had to chose between stubbornly supporting the two continents idea or submitting to the teacher’s one continent idea, the first leading him to failure, and the second to success. Certainly the story about the flatness versus the roundness of the earth would have been helpful, as perhaps, would have made the child see the similarity between himself and those burned because of their stubbornness in supporting the idea of roundness. Surely, at this point, the child should have been made aware that his controversy with the teacher was not entirely similar to the earth story, as indeed the earth is round, while considering one or two continents for a certain extent of some land could be seen as an arbitrary matter, judged to be this or that from one country to the next, as the geographers from the different countries of the world, perhaps, had not reached an agreement as yet regarding the number of continents, a thought that should have been immediately checked with the highest bodies, if such bodies exist, responsible for such knowledge related to the number of continents. As it happens there is an International Geographical Committee, (and its website is http://igeoc.com/) so the matter could have been settled in relation to the criteria that define a piece of land as a continent, I would imagine at once, after which either the parents or the teacher would have needed to undertake a basic geography course.
In relation to the four versus three noun buckets, considering that the definition of noun differs from language to language, and in this case the two languages are Indian and English, the child found himself between two parties (the teacher and the parents) unable to explain to him this very difference (perhaps because both the teacher and the parents did not know both English and Indian grammar). Had this fact been thought about and acknowledged by both parties, the child would had been first taught (by a teacher having this sort of knowledge) that such a language difference exists (and I emphasize language rather than culture difference), and therefore, most likely, after acquiring such knowledge the child’s mark would have been higher rather than lower, and everybody would have been happy, including the child.
As for the grades, I think they are very important indeed, or else they would not count when it comes to get admission to university, at least to some universities, in some countries, and in these times. It might have been possible for an Edison, in old times, to be thought as an idiot by his teachers and still become the Edison we know, but I do not think that’s possible anymore in the times we live in, and to say why I think that’s the case it would take a space much larger than allowed for a comment.
Thursday December 3rd 2009, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Jane A.
Very well thought out and summarized, Antonia. I would want you for a mother (or a teacher).
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 3:00 AM
Comment by: ppeffy@bigpond.com.au
Having spent my working life as a medical practitioner with a large number of patients for whom English was not their first language, and having to speak simple English, I now have time to educate myself with such treasures as this article. I had more. I hated telephone interpreters as there were long conversations and the only words from the Interpreter was Yes or no. I had trouble with some English speaking people who would say I was talking Jargon,, and I thought I knew from body language if I was understood. Rephrasing my words sometimes caused confusion. Not learning grammar ( after my time) is a mistake. I still remember the rules for Gerunds.
Thursday March 18th 2010, 10:50 AM
Comment by: jean S. (tucson, AZ)
Delightful! Thank you.
Thursday March 18th 2010, 11:02 AM
Comment by: jean S. (tucson, AZ)
Delightful! Thank you.
Tuesday October 18th 2011, 5:41 PM
Comment by: Emerson W.
cool
Thursday December 15th 2011, 2:53 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I feel like the only nut in the VT community. Paragraph 11 sent diving under the bed--'advanced grammar of animate/inanimates, abstracts/concretes, and phrases, clauses and entire sentences that function like nouns', proved to be too much for me. I am not a teacher, but I had plenty of good teachers in elementary school. Their teaching was not flexible--which worked for me, at that time (the 50's). I too would have found all 'this indeterminacy uncomfortable'. Judging from the comments, I see that the VT community gets it. I can appreciate their point of view as one of open-mindedness. The Ganesh's of this world can hopefully fair better with people like Dennis Baron and other who are flexible progressive thinkers. That's what I love about this community. I have been forced to confront my own narrow mindedness more than once.
Thursday December 29th 2011, 2:35 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Loved this article. Very touching having been the "smart" kid more than once. Thanks, Dennis.
And El- I symphathize. Really I do. In sixth and seventh grade, diagramming sentences had me whimpering at night and having nightmares of grammar tests. And to make matters worse, my eighth grade English teacher delighted in giving us pop quizzes if her favorite football team lost. Unfortunately, this culminated in several unwanted pop quizzes of different types of verbs and other parts of speech- enough to send me into a cold sweat.
The participles had me sweating, too, and I studied like anything for the test, in which I missed nearly all of the present, future, present perfect, future perfect participle questions. That was the worst English test of my middle school career.
The paragraph about animate/inanimates, abstracts/concretes sent me into a panic, too; so take comfort that you're not the only nut. There is at least one more person who's in the same boat, if it's any help at all.
Friday December 30th 2011, 10:37 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
HAHAHA. Hank you.
Friday December 30th 2011, 10:39 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
That's a thank you.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:48 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Wonderful article!
Saturday July 21st 2012, 4:49 AM
Comment by: Santhosh K. (Hyderabad India)
Very good article!.
Wednesday December 19th 2012, 1:11 AM
Comment by: Ava L.
Good article!
Wednesday February 13th 2013, 3:22 AM
Comment by: NIken J.
Yes, Mr Baron.

There are also some interesting discussion in my team when we want to categorise the word "god" in the thesaurus (we speak Indonesian Language). "God" is not a thing, probably it's more like a concept.
Thursday March 28th 2013, 7:56 PM
Comment by: Michelle L.
A dose of curiosity can take the class on an unexpected adventure:

"Ganesh, how interesting that you put the horse in the person bucket. I am very intrigued. Please explain to the class how you decided where it should go."
Tuesday January 21st, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Mr. khudri (Indonesia)
i like this article.
Wednesday October 1st, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Viktorija B. (Slovenia)
I loved this article.

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