One of the random things I happened to notice yesterday, in a list of people who passed away in 2011, was the name of Leonard Stern, co-creator of Mad Libs. (Back in 2008, Arnold Zwicky marked the game's 50th anniversary here on Language Log.) For those who've never seen it, Mad Libs is a word game in which one player prompts a second player for a list of words — give me a noun; ok, now an adjective; ok, now another noun, etc. — where the kinds of words needed are determined by labeled blanks that are situated in a little story that only the first player can see. In the second step of the game, the two players read the story together with the words inserted in their proper positions. The very first Mad Libs gave the following as an example:
"_____________! he said ________ as he jumped into his convertible exclamation adverb ______ and drove off with his __________ wife." noun adjective
(Footnote: I've borrowed the example from the game's Wikipedia entry.)
Thinking about Mad Libs last night after a bedtime conversation with my six year old, I've concluded that someone really needs to design a linguistics course entirely around Mad Libs.
The night was chilly, and the conversation went something like this:
Me: Ok, time to get those socks on your ears.
Me: Oh wait, you're right, time to get those socks on your… nose!
Him: <louder giggle> There's two of them!
Me: Oh, of course, you're totally right. I'm being silly. Better make sure you put them on your eyes.
Him: <even louder giggle>
The juxtaposition of the two things, reading of Leonard Stern's passing and that bedtime conversation, got me thinking fondly back to doing Mad Libs as a kid, since just those sorts of "put socks on your ears" mismatches are what made them hilarious. But then it also got me thinking about Mad Libs and psycholinguistics — I wondered if anyone has ever studied the direct connection there seems to be, in kids under the age of, say, ten, between the N400 (a brain response to semantic anomalies) and the funny bone. (If you want to get a little kid to laugh, start saying things like "Mommy ate the swimming pool!") After a quick look, it turns out there's plenty of literature on the N400 and jokes or humor, e.g. this 2001 paper by Coulson and Kutas (and see Kutas and Federmeier's nice review article for discussion of the N400 more generally).
From there, it was just a short, perhaps slightly champagne-fueled leap to the realization that Mad Libs would make a great starting point for lots of other topics in Linguistics, too…
- Psycholinguistics: Listed here first because I've already mentioned it. Nice lead-in to the N400, plus Cloze tests, which I'm told (by a reliable source to whom I'm married) are used frequently by psychologists, speech pathologists, and special educators.
- Syntax: Mad Libs is clearly a great way to lead into grammatical categories and, for computational folks, the problem of lexical ambiguity and part-of-speech tagging. (For English teachers teaching about the parts of speech, by the way, see here for a nice list of resources.)
- Morphology: Some of the prompts in Mad Libs include things like verb ending with -ing or noun (plural), a perfect lead-in to inflectional morphology. Also, I imagine Mad Libs must work less well, or at least be realized differently, in languages with rich morphology, since words proposed out of context will fail on grounds of syntactic disagreement when plugged in, and syntactic garbling just isn't as funny as semantic mismatch; this might be interesting to explore and discuss.
- Semantics: Mad Libs provides lots of opportunities to introduce concepts like selectional restrictions/preferences (the violation of which is why "ate the swimming pool" is funny), semantic anomaly (do
unmarriedmarried bachelors and colorlesscolorless green ideas denote the same set? [thank you to Tom V in the comments for catching these]), and word sense ambiguity (and the role of context in resolving it).
- Philosophy of language: What about Mad Libs makes it natural (or less natural) to call it a "game"? Leads nicely to Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, not to mention straight back to psycholinguistics via Prototype Theory.
- Statistical NLP: Mad Libs provides a great opportunity to generate and assess the probability of low-probability sentences using language models, not to mention a good jumping-off point for discussing the relationships among possible, plausible, and probable sentences.
- Finally, we mustn't forget snowclones, closely linked to Mad Libs via the notion of a phrasal template. Lots of interesting source material here on Language Log for that, of course, plus nice opportunities for corpus analysis.
From a quick Google search it appears that others have occasionally used Mad Libs to introduce linguistics concepts, though less than I would have imagined. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, I would invite folks to use the comments section of this post to link to relevant materials or suggest more linguistics topics for which Mad Libs might be a useful teaching tool, specifically for linguistics, and in what way.
Finally, ____________[exclamation]! Don't let me forget to ___________[verb] all of you a __________[adverb] __________[adjective] New Year!