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Fun with Minimal Pairs

To linguists, the concept of the minimal pair is crucial to identifying generalizations about how language works. A minimal pair occurs when you have a pair of words, phrases, or sentences that differ in form in just one small way, and that small difference points out a broader generalization about the language and the crucial elements that bear meaning.

A carefully picked minimal pair can also function as an excellent pedagogical tool for the writing teacher. They can quickly illustrate key points about the language while you avoid getting bogged down with complex jargon, explanations, or formalisms. As I discussed in a prior post, it’s crucial to minimize jargon in the teaching of grammar.

First, to illustrate what a minimal pair is, let’s start with a simple example—the pair of words dog and dogs. In form, the two differ in terms of their suffix, and in meaning, the two differ in terms of their plurality. This minimal pair points to the larger generalization that to pluralize many words in English, you simply add the -s suffix.

Though few students need to be taught the patterns of pluralization, we can use more complex minimal pairs to illustrate generalizations that are more relevant to students. For instance, in published writing many authors will use a comma to set of introductory words at the starts of sentences, as in #1:

1. While eating, the dogs barked.

Strictly speaking, the comma is optional after introductory words, but the comma becomes more necessary when it helps the reader to avoid mis-parsing the structure of the sentence, as we see in #2:

2. While eating the dogs barked.

Consider #1 and #2 a minimal pair that illustrates to students why it’s important to set of certain kinds of introductory words with commas. In 1, which lacks a comma after the introductory words, the reader is led up the garden path. As students read, many will briefly think the sentence describes animal cruelty and chuckle nervously. Then when they will realize that that interpretation doesn’t fit with the structure of the rest of the sentence, they will stumble for a second and then re-read the sentence and figure it out. This minimal pair helps point to a larger generalization that punctuation placement is more than an issue of correctness; it can also make the writing easier to read.

Next, consider the following sentence, which is a run-on:

3. I quit my job on Friday I left my wife.

Many students will stumble when they read this sentence, and if they have been taught about run-on sentences, they might identify it as such an error. Then I will ask students how to fix the error. Some students will propose:

4. I quit my job. On Friday I left my wife.

Others will propose:

5. I quit my job on Friday. I left my wife.

There might be a spirited debate in the classroom about which is right. Actually, both 4 and 5 are “correct.” The issue really comes down to what meaning the author intends to get across. Together, 4 and 5 form a minimal pair, which illustrate how the placement of a period is more than an issue of correctness. It can also show where one idea ends and the next begins, which allows students to express themselves with greater precision.

Another (near-)minimal pair that leads to a similar point about how punctuation disambiguates meaning is:

 6. Woman without her man is nothing.

7. Woman: without her, man is nothing.[1]

 Could these sentences be more antithetical? Sentence 6 is—of course—misogynistic, while 7 is a statement of female empowerment.

Students find minimal pairs memorable and humorous, and I notice they tend to remember them better than they do more abstract grammatical concepts. At the same time, they illustrate key points about grammar and punctuation without the need for complex, technical explanations or elaborate definitions of terminology—which tend to confuse many students.


[1] Thanks to one of my students for bringing this pair to my attention.

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