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Comedy Can Teach You About Grammar, Speaking

Comedy Can Teach You About Grammar, Speaking
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Jokes can not only challenge your ideas and make you laugh. They can also teach you about grammar.

Today on Everyday Grammar, we will show you how humor can help you with speaking, word stress, content words and function words.

Dick Gregory had a long career as a comedian. Gaining fame in the 1960s, he was involved in comedy and civil rights issues in the United States.

Gregory continued performing late into his life. In the late 2000s, he recorded a special performance that dealt with politics, race and even the questions of journalists, such as reporters from The Associated Press and CNN. Let us listen to part of it.

“I came back in from Europe last month…”

CNN: “Mister Gregory, do you think we’ll ever catch Bin Laden?”

“I say’ ‘We?’

I ain’t looking for him.

I’m still trying to find out who my daddy is.”

Now, let’s think about each of these lines.

I came back in from Europe last month.

Note that Gregory stresses, or says more forcefully, the words Europe and last month. The reason he does this is because Americans usually stress content words – words that carry the most meaning. Content words are usually nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. In addition, Americans often stress content words toward the end of the sentence.

Let’s listen to the next line from the recording:

CNN: Mr. Gregory, do you think we’ll ever catch Bin Laden?

In this question, Gregory tells what the journalist asked him. Note how he stressed the content words. He seemed to call attention to the nouns Bin Laden, Mr. Gregory, and CNN. He also stressed the verbs think and catch and the adverb ever.

Note that he did not stress the pronouns you or we. He also didn’t stress the auxiliary verbs. That is because these words are function words. Pronouns and prepositions are two examples of function words. So are auxiliary verbs such as BE or DO. Americans generally do not stress function words when speaking -- unless there is a good reason... which leads us to our next line:

I say ‘We?’

In this question, Dick Gregory stresses the pronoun we. Although function words are usually not stressed, Gregory stresses it because he is noting its importance.

He wants to make clear that he is not part of the “we” that the journalist is talking about. He then says the following:

I ain’t looking for him.

Note that he does not stress the pronoun him.

But he does stress the word ain’t. This is a casual kind of negation. It is short for the words am not. Although Americans generally do not stress auxiliary verbs, in cases of negation, Americans sometimes stress them - especially if they want to show that they have a different opinion.

In the next line, Gregory makes the surprising claim that he still does not know who his father is. Ask yourself: Which words does he stress?

I’m still trying to find out who my daddy is.

Closing thoughts

In our report today, we examined two kinds of words in English: content words and function words. The idea is that function words show relationships between content words. Content words – nouns, verbs, adjectives – generally get stress because they are the most important words in the sentence. Function words – prepositions, auxiliary verbs, pronouns – often do not get stress because they are less important. But, as you have learned, in some cases, Americans stress function words. And when they do, it is likely for a good reason.

The next time you are watching the news or a comedy special on the Internet, listen to how the speaker stresses certain words. Over time, you will begin to note regular, repeated ways that English speakers stress words. And if they do something different from what you expect, then ask yourself why. And, hopefully, try to laugh and smile in the process.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

challenge – v. to test; to compete against

grammar – n. the whole system and structure of a language

stress – n. the act of noting the importance of something

comedy – n. a play, movie, television program, or performance that is meant to make people laugh

journalist – n. a person who collects, writes, and edits news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

casual – adj. unofficial, informal or unceremonious

negation – n. grammar to make (a word or phrase) negative

certain - adj. fixed or established; known for sure

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