Mad Libguistics

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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.

Him: <giggle>

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!


  1. Rubrick said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    That is a truly untrammeled idea. I quite swim it.

  2. John Lawler said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    As a linguist, of course, I always prefer the more general solution, so …
    Finally, [exclamation]! Don't let me forget to [verb] all of you a [adverb] [adjective] New Year!

  3. Adrian Morgan said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    Games like this are, of course, usually played without the need to call them anything, so I'm prepared to bet an amount equal to my annual Language Log subscription that fewer than, oh, five percent of people who have played it are aware of the name "Mad Libs" being applied to it. (Make it ten percent and I'll give you twice my annual subscription.)

    I think I first encountered it as a computer game, back in the days when a lot of games were as simple as that. It's also a good one for a beginning programmer to implement, which I probably did.

  4. Tom V said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    @unmarried bachelors and colorless ideas
    Disjoint sets — unmarried bachelors sleep quite placidly except on weekends when they can't get a date.
    Now married bachelors and colorless green ideas probably do denote the same set.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    Those who have played Mad Libs, as distinct from some imitation thereof, are surely aware of the name Mad Libs, since the name is printed on the books. Now, whether to call them a game, or a puzzle, or whatever, is another matter.

  6. Vasha said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

    @Adrian Morgan, yes! We had just such a game, called "Buzzwords", on our Apple II+ circa 1981. I believe I typed in the code from a magazine. Simpler times…

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

    @Tom V: married bachelors and colorless green ideas may well denote the same set, but they are still disjoint. (Ø and Ø are disjoint, having no elements in common.)

  8. Josh said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

    I would think that lol cats would be a good example of how syntactic garbling can be funny. Relative to semantic garbling, i don't know which is funnier, but there seems to be a large audience for both.

  9. Janice Byer said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 12:45 am

    In the US, in the last 50 years, some 45 "Mad Libs" titles of collections of games were published. Also, a game show briefly aired on the Disney Channel from '98-'99, under the same title, based on the same formula.

    Adrian, I'll betcha Australian dollars to doughnuts the percentage, at least, of us Yanks familiar with "Mad Libs" exceeds 10%.

  10. C Thornett said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    I have seen versions for language classes, which may be derived from Mad Libs, of course. The problem with doing this as an open-ended exercise is that language learners tend to go blank, just as a native speaker may when challenged with 'Say something in your language'. It's probably better done with a limited word set and possibly prompts for most students, say a list of recently-learned vocabulary.

  11. Sarah Glover said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 2:37 am

    I'm not sure if the name Mad Libs has reached the UK. I have often done this, both as a child and when older with little children, but never imagined it had been given a name.

  12. Rachel Cotterill said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 6:29 am

    That would make the compulsory "Introduction to Linguistics" module oh so much more fun!

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 7:12 am

    Given Adrian Morgan and Sarah Glover's comments, Mad Libs as a commercial product may be only a U.S. thing. The books with "Mad Libs" on the cover have sold over 100 million copies in the U.S. over the past 50-odd years, so the connection between the game and the name is pretty tight here.

  14. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    >(If you want to get a little kid to laugh, start saying things like "Mommy ate the swimming pool!")< a little kid? I find that only very dour adults indeed can't be made to giggle with a bit of nonsense word-play. A game we play of that kind which often starts with reluctant adult participants is the 'trousers' game (I'm not sure of the origins, and there are bound to be variations) where any number of players insert the word 'trousers' in to book, film, or song titles, Gone with the Trousers, for example. The odd thing is that it doesn't seem that funny until two or three titles have been done but then there is no stopping folk! It is also interesting what 'works' and what doesn't: The Great Trousers vs The Trousers Escape might seem eqaully funny to me but one is often funnier than the other to the ear of someone else. Anyway, now I'm off to watch Harry Potter and the Trousers of Doom…

  15. bookeater said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    Mad Libs (or teacher-created imitations) are fun to use with EFL students. My Korean middle school students– even the shy ones– enjoyed reading their mad-libbed "love letters" aloud in class.

  16. Rachael said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    "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!")"

    That reminded me of a book we recently bought for a friend's 3-year-old: a sort of junior Mad Libs, called Ketchup On Your Cornflakes. Each page potentially shows a sensible combination, like milk on your cornflakes, but each page has been sliced in half, so you can flip them to any combination, and get things like "custard in your bath" and "ice cubes on your head".

    As for the name Mad Libs, I've come across it used for this game, but not exclusively. (UK, age 30)

  17. Adam said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 8:27 am

    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!")

    Wait, there's an age limit for that sort of thing? I'm in trouble…

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    I agree with others that the name "Mad Libs" is widely known here in America. What seems to be forgotten, though it's in the Wikipedia article, is that this game was invented by the surrealists and originally called le cadavre exquis the Exquisite Corpse. Wikipedia also mentions an earlier game, Consequences, in which there was only one template but players used phrases (more linguistics instruction there?) and dialogue.

  19. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    @Jeremy Wheeler: My friends and I play "the pants game" as well (AmE here), but it started with substituting "pants" into lines of dialogue from Star Wars. (We've since moved on to other movies, including whatever we happen to be watching at the time.) The point is to gets something that *is* semantically felicitous (or at least marginally-acceptable) but that alters the sense or context of the line.

    The two generally-accepted winners in the Star Wars category are: "The pants are down! Commence attack on the Death Star!" and "I used to bulls-eye womprats in my pants back home all the time."

  20. Dan Hemmens said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    The two generally-accepted winners in the Star Wars category are: "The pants are down! Commence attack on the Death Star!" and "I used to bulls-eye womprats in my pants back home all the time."

    Lock the door, and pray they don't have pants?

  21. David L said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    @Jerry Friedman: the wikipedia article doesn't actually say that the game was invented by the surrealists — it describes 'consequences,' a game familiar from my childhood, as being similar to 'exquisite corpse.' I have a vague feeling, though I can't come up with any specifics, that I've come across references to 'consequences' in Victorian literature.

  22. Nathan said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    If pants is all that you love, then that's what you'll receive.

    Sorry, I'll stop now.

  23. Patrick Hall said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    One pedagogical possibility that comes to mind (for an introductory syntax class, say) is to use Mad Libs to teach subdivisions of the major word classes. The game would be to find words that fit the category label given in the Mad Lib, but which would not in fact be grammatical that slot.

    This could lead to a discussion of topics such as countability, e.g.: Explain why furniture wouldn't fit into "There is a ▁▁▁▁▁ in the room." (Articles don't appear in English before uncountable nouns, etc.)

  24. Nathan said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    Actually, I think it's only indefinite articles that don't appear before mass nouns.

  25. Teresa G said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    Another use for MadLibs in discussing morphology would be to illustrate the difference in use between function and content morphemes. I played MadLibs a lot as a child and again with my own children and I don't recall ever being told "I need a preposition" or "give me a determiner" or "I'm looking for a possessive pronoun."

    I haven't done an exhaustive check, of course, but I would suspect requests for these closed-class types would be rare at best, and would lead more to syntactic anomalies than semantic ones.

  26. Andy Averill said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    Played it one Christmas with my extended family. Most people, when asked for a noun, would give really boring answers. My aunt thought for a second and said "fantasy." The sentence turned out to be "Driving Tips: Never stick your fantasy out the window." Words to live by.

  27. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    I played MadLibs as a parlor game at least 10 years before it was "invented" and named. I don't even think we had a name for it, but the rules were the same as those for Consequences, so far as I can determine.
    Game manufacturers, in their desperation to come up with new games, have at times repackaged old games under new names (e.g., Reversi, which became Othello, or "wiff waff," which became "Ping Pong" under the aegis of Parker Brothers), and MadLibs is one of them.
    BTW, I also played Yahtzee and Farkel before those games were marketed. All they require is dice, paper, and a pencil, and the effrontery of the manufacturers amazes me. MadLibs doesn't even require dice, so the effrontery is even more amazing.

  28. Janice Byer said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    Ralph, "Consequences" requires more than pencil and paper. It's a party game. "Mad Libs" have added value as solitary quiet amusement for beginning readers.

  29. Rosemary said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

    I remember Consequences as a party/parlour game in England more familiar to my parents and grandparents than to my generation. We did use pencils and paper, but I think there was a general format (boy meets girl story), and the story always ended with, "And the consequence was…" to be filled in by the player.

    Now that I'm thinking about it, I believe each story paper was folded back after each paragraph or sentence with the filled-in word and past to the next player or group so that the next section would be filled in by a person unable to see the previous section.

  30. Rosemary said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

    passed. sorry

  31. TB said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 12:58 am

    Running with what Patrick Hall says, one thing that is interesting about MadLibs is that when it says "noun", it doesn't really mean "noun"; it doesn't even mean the old elementary-school "person, place, or thing". It just means "thing". Anything else tends to be awkward even as a joke.

    I've only ever heard of the drawing version of Exquisite Corpse, where I draw the head, you draw the shoulders, she draws the torso, and he draws the legs. Never knew it was also a word game!

  32. Nadnerb said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 3:36 am

    A game of Consequences is played (with consequences) in Evelyn Waugh's "Black Mischief", 1932.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    @David L: Sorry to be unclear. I meant that the Wikipedia article on Mad Libs connects it to Exquisite Corpse and Consequences.

    But I think I was wrong to say Exquisite Corpse is the same as Mad Libs. The latter provides a lot more of a frame; I think the former leaves all the content words up to the players (or poets).

  34. Kris said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

    I used MadLibs with my elementary-aged clients in speech therapy sessions with great success: it forces them to use newly learned skills and it makes them laugh. A key joining if you're going to be successful with some kids.

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