Near an operator sighs a steer: Generating critical thought with nonsense

Now it all makes sense!

I love playing with the syntax and semantics of nonsense. As it turns out, most students get a kick out of it, too. These activities will definitely engage your students and make them think.

Nonsense with impeccable grammar:

Kids love making up weird, nonsensical stuff. The cool thing about letting them make stuff up is that, to do it effectively, they have to think.

English, like any language, relies on syntax to help convey meaning; however, ensuring the syntax and grammar are correct does not necessarily mean the sentence makes sense. Noam Chomsky, in showing that grammar is distinct from meaning, famously quipped:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

The syntax of the sentence is just fine. There is a clear subject and a verb, and a complete thought is expressed…but that thought doesn’t make any rational sense. Another example:

The hacking sect leaps against the complaint.

And it’s not restricted to declarative sentences. You can ask nonsense questions:

How will the suspect diverge within the lemon?

Or give nonsense commands:

Climb the nonchalant tulip sauce.

And make nonsense exclamations:

The taste orbits!

Though that last one sounds like a Skittles ad tagline.

Talk about this idea with your students. Ask them to make up their own nonsense sentences, and check to make sure their grammar is correct. Make it a competition to come up with the most ridiculous sentence, and watch your students crank up the creativity. Heck, you can even turn this into a sentence diagramming exercise, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Add a non-linguistic aspect for critical thinking

I’m always looking for ways to engage my visual learners, and this nonsense exercise is a great way to incorporate some non-linguistic representational thinking.

After the students have shared all their nonsense sentences, choose one as a class to illustrate. Figure out a way to visually represent the nonsense. Sometimes this can be very difficult, but that’s where the critical thought comes in. You have to rely on alternate meanings of words, abstract images, and artistic license to make it work. You also don’t need to restrict yourself to a single picture as a drawing. Try communicating the meaning of the nonsense in a comic strip, or act it out in a skit.

As an extension activity, you can have your students discuss, diagram, or illustrate randomly generated sentences…

This website is an awesome resource for nonsense. The site has a number of generators – from single random words to full random paragraphs based on topics you provide.

Tell your kids to generate a random phrase/sentence/paragraph through the site, then ask them to illustrate it.

Randomly generated sentence from the website above: “An engine negates an encouraged purchase.”

Or…

Tell them to construct a paragraph that incorporates the sentence or uses it as the topic sentence.

Or…

Tell them to brainstorm story ideas from the random words generated. Then write the story. For an added bonus, tell them they have to incorporate at least one nonsense sentence per paragraph of their story.

There are dozens of ways to use syntactically correct nonsense to generate critical thought. And like I said, I’ve yet to meet a student that doesn’t get a kick out of making up ridiculous sentences.

Go. Do it. And have fun. (:

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