Memes Can Teach You English Grammar

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25 February 2021

If you spend time on social media or the internet, chances are that you have come across memes. Memes are humorous words, pictures or videos shared widely around the internet.

Memes can make us laugh. But they can also teach us a lot about English grammar. They can demonstrate such things as sentence structure. And they can show how meaning is affected by punctuation or spelling mistakes.

On today's program, we look at three popular memes and discuss the grammar behind each one.

The mystery of ‘had had'

The first meme is the most complex of the three. It is an example of just how strange the English language can be.

The word "had" is unusual in English. It is probably the only word that can appear consecutively many times and still be grammatically correct.

Listen to this meme, which is so popular that it has been used on coffee mugs and clothing:

All the coffee she had had had had no effect.

The simplest meaning of this sentence is: A woman drank some coffee but it had no effect on her.

Notice that it uses the word "had" four times consecutively. How is that possible? Let's try to make sense of it. To do that, we need to first discuss the past perfect verb tense.

The past perfect is formed by adding "had" to the past participle of the main verb. An easy way to think of this is had + past participle. Some examples include "had eaten," "had seen," "had helped" and, as in the meme, "had had."

We use the past perfect to express that something happened before another action in the past. It can also express that something happened before a specific time in the past.

So the sentence about the woman's coffee suggests that something happened after she drank it. But for the purpose of this lesson, that thing is not important.

To make sense of the coffee meme, it also helps to understand adjective clauses.

The meme contains an adjective clause – a part of a sentence that acts as an adjective and has its own subject and verb.

Adjective clauses begin with relative pronouns, such as "that." But the word "that" was not used in the meme because its use is not required. Listen to the line again, this time with the word "that":

All the coffee (that) she had had had had no effect.

The adjective clause here is "(that) she had had." Again, adjective clauses act like adjectives, which describe or give more information about nouns. In this case, the adjective clause "(that) she had had" describes the noun "coffee."

Now, let's take the adjective clause out of the sentence for a minute to see what is remains. Here is the sentence without the adjective clause:

All the coffee had had no effect.

Here, we have a fairly simple sentence with the verb "have" in past perfect form, which is "had had." We can call this sentence the main clause.

So, to sum up what is happening in the meme: The verb "have" is used in past perfect form two times consecutively.

Commas save lives

Now let's move to our second meme.

Listen carefully to it and see if you can catch the difference in meaning between two sentences:

It goes like this:

Let's eat, Grandma.

Let's eat Grandma.

Commas save lives.

In the first sentence, "Let's eat, Grandma," notice the pause after the word "eat." The pause is meaningful here.

When we are making a suggestion, such as "Let's eat," and we pause to say a person's name afterward, it shows that we are speaking directly to that person. In writing, we use a comma to signal that we are speaking to or addressing someone.

However, the second sentence, "Let's eat Grandma" has no comma. This suggests we are speaking to someone else about Grandma. So the sentence means that we are suggesting to another person that we eat our grandmother. The ridiculousness of this suggestion expresses how important commas are to meaning. So, commas really do save lives!

They're and you're

And finally, we move to a meme about homophones. A homophone is a word that sounds like another word but has a different meaning and spelling. English contains many homophones.

Listen to this popular meme that can be found all over the English-speaking internet. Reading along as you listen is useful here since some words sound the same as others.

Here is the meme:

If I ever use "there" instead of "they're" and "your" instead of "you're," I've been kidnapped and am signaling for help.

The writer of this meme is clearly someone who finds spelling mistakes problematic.

One of the most common mistakes Americans and other English speakers make is confusing the word "there," spelled t-h-e-r-e, with the shortened version of "they are," spelled t-h-e-y-apostrophe-r-e. Many English speakers also mix up the word "your," spelled y-o-u-r, with the shortened version of "you are," spelled y-o-u-apostrophe-r-e.

By saying only their kidnapping could cause such a mistake, the writer drives home that they would never mix up these homophones.

Memes like these can help us learn more about English grammar. They can also help us to laugh at common mistakes even native English speakers make.

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Jill Robbins.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

punctuation –n. marks, such as periods and commas, that are used in writing to make meaning clear and to separate ideas

spelling –n. the way to use letters correctly to form specific words

consecutively –adv. following one after the other in a series

mug –n. a large drinking cup with a handle

sum –v. to tell information again in fewer words

pause –n. a temporary stop; a period of time, usually short, in which something has stopped before restarting

comma –n. a punctuation mark used to separate words or groups of words in a sentence

ridiculous –adj. very silly or unreasonable; to be laughed at