Making sense of Nonsense Literature: when Pragmatics meets Literary Studies in the English classroom

Pauline Madella

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


    This paper contributes to challenging ‘academic tribes and territories’ (Becher 2001) and to promoting the joys of interdisciplinarity in the English classroom. In the context of studying and teaching English in higher education, this translates into the integration of Literature, Linguistics and related subjects such as Creative Writing, and a vision of English as both a diverse and a unified discipline (Clark, Giovanelli, Macrae 2016). My work explores (1) the value of literary and non-literary texts for the study and teaching of Linguistics, and (2) the value of Cognitive Linguistics and Relevance Theory for literary analysis. In this paper, I focus primarily on (1) showing the value of Literary Nonsense and Surrealist Literature as a broad and rich base of support for introducing students to the study of meaning while developing their critical thinking skills and informed creativity as writers. The present work understands ‘non-sense’ as a kind of literature that ‘always exists in relation to, and as a comment on, ‘sense’.’ (Barton 2015). Eliot (1942: 110) wrote about Lear’s world of nonsense that it ‘is not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it.’ I hypothesise that it is by exploring this ‘parody of sense’ and studying texts that make fun of language that students will get a sense of how the linguistic system can be used creatively. Along with my primary focus, I investigate (2) the role of Relevance Theory in making sense of nonsense. There is more to nonsense than this apparent ‘parody of sense’, and the intended sense of it may be found by those interpreters who go down the rabbit hole and search for relevance beyond nonsense or ‘external’ relevance (Cave and Wilson 2018). By way of illustration, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland characters’ mindstyle (Carroll 1865), characterised by extreme literalness, difficulty in assigning reference and in managing semantic ambiguity, reveals their lack of perspective and inability to read their interlocutor’s mind. Carroll’s entertainment is subversive in that he conceals social criticism in nonsense. In taking issue with the Victorian education system, Carroll sheds light on the points of contact between pragmatic competence and critical thinking. I suggest that Carroll’s nonsense can provide an apt base of support for a classroom activity around critical thinking and academic expectations. Practical ideas testing both angles of the study will be implemented in the English classroom in the autumn of 2019. The results will contribute to informing and refining my hypothesis and to supporting my argument for the relevance of nonsense for integrated language-literature studies. References: Barton, A. (2015) Nonsense Literature. Available at (Accessed: 14 June 2019). Becher, T. (2001) Academic tribes and territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines. Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE. Carroll, L. (1865) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan. Cave, T. and D. Wilson. (2018) Reading Beyond the Code: Literature and Relevance Theory. Oxford: OUP. Clark, B., Giovanelli, M. and A. Macrae. (2016) Integrating English. Available at (Accessed: 14 June 2019). Eliot, T. S. (1942) The Music of Poetry. Glasgow: Jackson, Son & Company.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2019
    UCM Predoctoral Conference in English Linguistics 2020: English Linguistics and Diversity Awareness
    - Spain, Madrid
    Duration: 29 Jan 202031 Jan 2020


    UCM Predoctoral Conference in English Linguistics 2020: English Linguistics and Diversity Awareness
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    • Language-Literature Studies integrating English Literary Nonsense Cognitive Linguistics Relevance Theory


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