Thursday, April 17, 2008

My devour is the same as your devour

So a student told the professor during lecture. Just about everyone in lecture agreed that they had the same devour as the professor, except for one student who really didn't see anything wrong with saying "The children and adults from mars told Klem that the cat might devour."

The professor was saying that without saying what the cat might devour, the sentence is incomplete. The student who raised her hand and said "my devour is the same as yours" was stating that she agrees that it doesn't sound right to leave no object after devour. Most the rest of the class also agreed. The professor told the student who didn't agree that his devour must be different from the professor's. You can't say "Tomorrow the world will devour" but you can say "Tomorrow the world will eat." So the question is, what is the difference between the two verbs "to eat" and "to devour" that make this difference? 'Ts interesting.

Elsewhile when the professor sees the students might not be entirely enthralled with the material being taught he writes on the board: "The large dog has shat on the elf" to get their attention. The effect works. This isn't a random sentence though. We have been studying ambiguity in sentence syntax. Most of the time the former pupil of linguist Noam Chomsky has the class laughing--part teacher, part comedian. A couple classes he actually brought in a pet elf a former student had given him to demonstrate the subtle syntactic differences in meaning in a given sentence: "Some angry guy smashed the elf on the table." What does this sentence mean? Well, it actually has several meanings. To demonstrate, Kyle climbed up onto the table/podium in front of lecture to differentiate that "some angry guy smashed the elf on the table" and "some angry guy smashed the elf on the table." See the difference? No? It's okay, I didn't either at first. I'll explain. So in the first, some angry guy smashed the elf while he was standing on the table. Whereas in the second, some angry guy smashed the elf that was on the table. We draw syntactic trees in class to differentiate between all the meanings a sentence like this has. Adjectives and prepositional phrases introduce ambiguity of meaning into sentences we take for granted as having one meaning, when they actually could have many. To show the difference in these two, Kyle climbs up on the podium (which he has a little bit of difficulty doing) and then, standing on the podium, starts smashing the elf. He then gets down from the podium and puts the elf on the table and then starts smashing the elf again. Then the elf starts singing a crazy tune about having no friends because it's a misfit... do you think the student who gave it to Kyle was trying to give him a hint?

Here's a picture of the fine professor:

They don't call it ZooMass for nothing.

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