The popular sports blog Deadspin isn't the first place you'd expect to find a lesson in inflectional morphology. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the recent post "Learn Linguistics the Latrell Sprewell Way," featuring this shot of a linguistics textbook:
If you're unfamiliar with the exploits of now-retired NBA star Latrell Sprewell, this ESPN article should get you up to speed on the notorious 1997 choking incident involving P.J. Carlesimo, then the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. (Sprewell was suspended by the NBA for a year and then came back to play with the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves.)
So who's responsible for these peculiar example sentences? After checking the likely suspects, I determined that the textbook in question is Relevant Linguistics (2nd ed., 2006), by Paul Justice. Paul explains the rationale for the book in a note to students in the book's preface:
For many first time students of linguistics, the subject is inaccessible, boring, and seemingly irrelevant. The purpose of this textbook is to make linguistics more accessible, more interesting and more obviously relevant to you.
Part of making linguistics accessible to students in general, then, is coming up with lively example sentences. These are certainly lively, though I wonder how many undergrads these days would be familiar with the '97 incident, especially since Sprewell retired in 2005. Since retirement, he's mostly been in the news for his financial troubles, so he's probably not count-ing his money right now.
Relevant Linguistics is hardly the first scholarly text to use colorful example sentences. Geoff Pullum describes a famous case in his 1987 article, "Trench-mouth comes to Trumpington Street" (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 5:139-147, reprinted in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). Geoff recounts how Cambridge University Press tried to pull the plug on Georgia Green's 1973 book Semantics and Syntactic Regularity, based on fears that bluntly political sentences like They're going to kill a hippie for Reagan were defamatory. Even more innocuous sentences like Mary gave John a hickey were seen by CUP's lawyers as potentially libelous to people named Mary and John. (Though CUP never distributed the book, it was eventually published in unexpurgated form by Indiana University Press.)
In The Linguistics Wars, Randy Allen Harris explains how Green came out of a tradition of generative semanticists who exulted in dropping political and pop-cultural references into example sentences. Perhaps most notable in this regard was Green's advisor, James McCawley — along with his satirical alter ego Quang Phúc Ðông of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology, whose "English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject" (1971) gave us such classics as Fuck Lyndon Johnson.
The Green story shows up rather unexpectedly on the TV Tropes website, which has a Textbook Humor page among its many delights. TV Tropes also mentions that the textbook Language Files repeatedly uses the sentence There is a platypus in the bathtub. (Platypus links to yet another fascinating TV Tropes page, "Everything's Better With Platypi.") Also worth checking out is the discussion thread, "awesome EXAMPLE sentences that make even linguists' heads explode!" on the Facebook group "I wish I were an anaphor so I could be bound in your domain." Ah, linguistics humor.