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Literal Thinkers and Language

Children are literal thinkers. I recall once asking my then two year old son if he’d like to “give me a hand” opening a garage door. When he reached out his hand to me, I was reminded that colloquial expressions are beyond the grasp of young children.

Reading A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King that Rained, both written and illustrated by Fred Gwynne, enhances our understanding of the literal way children think. With humor, he plays with words that confound all learners of English and send our imaginations on flights of fancy or fear, depending on what’s being said.

If we live in Alaska, a moose might amble past our house while we’re eating dinner, but he’d not be chocolate. What do you mean by calling chocolate pudding mousse anyway? Children know rain. It falls from the sky. They can walk in rain and splash in puddles, but reign? That sounds like rain but is altogether different. Even for adults imagining one word being used for another brings fanciful and humorous situations to mind.

On the other hand, hearing that Grandmother has “a frog in her throat” could cause a kid to worry. How did that happen? What’s Grandmother to do? How’s the frog going to get out? Could it happen to me? Horror of horrors. Think how easily a hospitalized child might misunderstand a term and imagine something altogether different from what the speaker said. Think IV and ivy. The child hears the nurse say she’s going to start an IV, and not knowing what that means, the child thinks ivy, the plant growing in the parkway outside her home.

Many words are confusing. Take bear and bare. A favorite teddy bear might well have been loved and cuddled so often that he’s become thread bare. Then, too, words used as both nouns and verbs in the same sentence can be amusing or bewildering. Take, for instance, the child who could not bear to part with his bare bear.

What other pairings of words come to mind that might confound and confuse a literal thinker and amuse those of us who enjoy word play? We’d be delighted to hear your favorites.

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