Smart Ideas for Using Dumb Laws and Warnings for Language Instruction

I hadn’t visited the Dumb Laws and Dumb Warnings sites for a number of years. I recently took a look and recalled both the potential laughs and lessons that can be found there. There’s an entire Dumb Network that includes sites with silly photos, quotes, facts, and more. Consider the possibilities:

  1.  Use laws to teach modal verbs. Alabama apparently informs all residents of the following: “You must have windshield wipers on your car.” (page 1) Furthermore, “Masks may not be worn in public.”(page 1) Such laws spark smiles and conversation among language learners, and they nicely contextualize modal verbs of necessity. You can have students rewrite a set of laws using a modal verb. You can demonstrate the process with another law made in Alabama: “It is illegal to bike, roller-skate, skateboard, or inline skate in a commercially zoned area.” (page 1) >> You cannot bike, roller-skate, skateboard, or inline skate in a commercially zoned area.
  2. Use laws to practice target sounds. Do you need a sentence that places /l/ in an initial, medial, and final position? Here’s a law in Lee County, AL: “It is illegal to sell peanuts in Lee County after sundown on Wednesday.” (page ) Or do you need to contrast voiced and unvoiced consonants? For /p/: “If one wishes to read palms in the city, they must first pay $10 for a permit.” (page 20) For /p/ and /b/: “People may not slurp their soup.” / “Pinball machines are not to be played on Sunday.” (NY, page 1) As students discuss the logic behind each law, they’ll be using the target sounds.



  1. Use warnings to present vocabulary in context. The warnings are wonderfully brief, and the context is sufficient to understand meanings of unfamiliar words. For example, Dolly Madison Bakery Cherries stuck this label on their cans: “Artificially flavored real fruit.” You can focus on the definition of “artificially” and present the adjective form “artificial”. Discuss what other things are artificially flavored (toothpaste, medicine, etc.) and what kinds of common objects are artificial (flowers, some museum exhibits, etc.)
  2. Use warnings to teach conditionals. You can present a set of laws that are written with an “if” clause and then ask students to change a second set so that they also are written with an “if” clause. You can also introduce more advanced uses of “if”. For instance, the Energizer AAA battery 4-pack reads, “If swallowed, promptly see a doctor.” Here we have “if” followed by a past participle to express a passive meaning. You can ask students to rewrite the warning given by Windex (the glass and mirror cleaner): “Do not spray in eyes.” >> If sprayed in eyes,… and discuss what course of action would be advisable.
  3. Use warnings as a conversational springboard. I love the warning placed on a Batman costume: “Warning: Cape does not enable user to fly.” Have students recall silly and/ or dangerous things they did as children. Did they get hurt? Did anyone warn them or try to stop them from doing these acts? The larger topic is why such so-called dumb warnings are issued by companies. An advanced group of students could debate the need to create numerous warnings for a new product and the worth of lawsuits filed by individual consumers.

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