May 31, 2004

A Prison Riot Over Strict Transitivity

Well, O.K., not a full-scale riot, but for a few minutes there I wondered if I was about to be in the middle of one. This happened years ago, but I was reminded of it by the recent Language Log posts on Strict Transitivity. I was teaching Introduction to Linguistics at a local maximum-security state prison in Pittsburgh, for the University of Pittsburgh's earn-a-degree-in-prison program, and my co-teacher and I had arrived at the topic of transitivity.

We asked the students whether some verbs had to be transitive. Yeah, a couple of them said, some verbs are only transitive. Like what? Well, there's find, that 's always transitive. No, said another student, you can use find intransitively. "NO you can't!", said the others. "YES YOU CAN" (he was shouting by this time), you can say "I looked all over the house for it, but I didn't find there, and finally I found in the yard." "NO YOU CAN'T!" (a growing number of the other twenty or so men in the class also began shouting) "THAT'S STUPID!" The holdout leapt to his feet and started waving his arms around: "YOU CAN TOO! YOU CAN FIND HERE, FIND THERE, IT'S INTRANSITIVE, IT'S FINE!" "OH NO IT ISN'T!" But at least the others stayed in their seats, so in the end Sasha and I did not have the opportunity to find out if the instructions we'd been given during the required orientation for working in the prison could actually be carried out ("In case of a threatening disturbance, show no fear, walk calmly to the wall and summon help by pressing the red button there"). (Yes, there was an actual red panic button attached to the wall of each classroom in the prison school.)

This incident left me with two main reactions. First, while it was in progress I envisioned the newspaper headlines -- "Volunteer Teachers Injured in Prison Riot over Transitivity" -- and thought that maybe that would finally convince the general public of the importance of training in linguistics. And second, I realized that I will never, never, never see a class of ordinary undergraduates getting so excited about a bit of language structure. It's not that I yearn for classroom riots, but I sure wouldn't mind transplanting some of the intellectual enthusiasm of my inmate students to my regular classrooms. (I've tried telling my classes that I wish they were more like prison inmates, but this doesn't seem to have the desired effect.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at May 31, 2004 10:16 AM