The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

I’m late to the story of Weird Al and his word crimes, and I’m too busy to do it justice, but luckily there has been a glut of good commentary already, some of it linked below.

First, the song, in case you’re catching up. ‘Word Crimes’ is a new release from American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, a novelty number about grammar, spelling and usage that borrows the template of a hit song from last year called ‘Blurred Lines’. You might want to watch or listen first, if you haven’t heard it, and you can read the lyrics here.

The video can legitimately be called a viral sensation, having quickly hurtled past 10 million views on YouTube. I’d love to tell you I enjoyed it, but mostly I winced. The wordplay is ingenious, and the production is slick, but the message – and there is a message, parody or not – spoils it: it’s a hotchpotch of ill-informed prescriptivism, a mean-spirited rant about trivial linguistic errors, non-errors, and non-standard usages traditionally decried by hobbyist peevers.

For example. Could care less isn’t wrong – it’s an idiomatic variant. Whom is on the way out in most contexts. Dangling participles aren’t so bad. The Oxford comma is just a style preference. Abbreviating words as single letters is fine in texting or very informal writing. Less for fewer isn’t wrong. Non-literal literally isn’t either (and has been used even in classic literature for literally centuries).

Anyone transgressing these constraints is denounced in the song as stupid and incoherent, a moron, a clown, a dumb mouthbreather, told they were raised in a sewer and should get back to preschool and out of the gene pool. Spastic used as an insult is less problematic in the US, and Yankovic has graciously apologised for including it. But the song’s hostility, ironic or not, is unpleasant and will give licence to grammar cranks and bullies for years to come.

There is a popular ideology that upholds standard English as a superior form of the language. This view comes from unacknowledged privilege, it is historically and linguistically naive, and it can be socially toxic. I’ve written about privilege and the language police before:

Making a song and dance about minor errors in unedited and informal writing seems to serve the self-righteousness of the complainer more than the edification of the writer or the good of the language. . . .

Language learners and less educated native speakers especially can feel anxious and self-conscious about usage, and this is made worse by the antisocial intolerance and condescension that pass for mainstream sociolinguistic attitudes. Linguistic mistakes are not shameful.

And about ‘bad grammar’ in song lyrics and other informal registers:

informal ≠ incorrect, and non-standard ≠ sub-standard. A particular kind of English – formal written style – is socially privileged, and sometimes it’s exalted at the expense of common sense or courtesy. Ignorance of these nuances means irrational peeves thrive, and people make a habit of collecting and hating everyday usages that don’t fit their narrow sense of what’s acceptable. English is replete with styles, dialects and sublanguages that are fully context-appropriate, and grammatical in their own right.

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stan carey - batman slapping robin meme - could care less vs. fewer

When I linked to criticism of ‘Word Crimes’ on Twitter, I was told he was mocking the language police. I wish he were. But Weird Al is the language police: “it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves”; “I’m always correcting peoples’ [sic] grammar.” Nor am I persuaded by the educational argument. If you’re correcting someone’s language use (e.g., in teaching, editing), it helps to not abuse people, and to know what you’re talking about.

You can probably tell I don’t like language policing. Partly because it’s rude and misconceived, but also because it often serves not to inform but to scorn people who may be less socially or intellectually favoured or who have language difficulties. If you’re in a position of power and influence, why would you punch down? The song’s parodic and absurdist elements, to the extent that they’re detectable, are lost in the barrage of misguided decrees and aggressive slurs.

Weird Al seems like a good sort, and he obviously brings a lot of joy into people’s lives. Most people who have heard it seem to love ‘Word Crimes’. On one level it’s a fun, playful tune. But beneath that it’s a disheartening example of just how routine and acceptable language shaming is in mainstream culture. The following links will give an idea of the strong (if minority) backlash from other language lovers.

Lauren Squires’ 25 questions post at Language Log turns Weird Al’s pedantry into a proper teaching opportunity, and provides insightful and constructive commentary:

many linguists are having a hard time laughing with Word Crimes: to do so feels like complicity in an ongoing project of linguistic discrimination that intersects with class, race, and other kinds of discrimination. . . .

There are certainly valuable linguistic lessons that can be taken from Word Crimes, but not without a teacher encouraging students to think beyond the video itself, to ask questions about the rules Weird Al wants us to abide by.

She also has a good comment in response to arguments that it’s ‘just a parody’ and she should ‘lighten up’.

Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org finds that:

Weird Al is exposing himself as a peever, someone who doesn’t understand that: language changes; there is no single “correct” style that works in all cases; different contexts call for different styles and diction; use determines what is “correct,” not arbitrary rules or logic.

Hannah Leach at so long as it’s words has a thoughtful and spirited post that takes Weird Al to task for “hurling wildly hyperbolic insults at people for daring to deviate from a standard”:

The only reason to gloat and sneer when people deviate from a rule (that is often not relevant any more) is to get some kind of moral superiority and dismiss them as inferior. It’s founded in classism (and often these days, racism, as a lot of this bile is targeted towards non-native English speakers who, let us not forget, are fluent in at least one whole other language too and that’s pretty damn impressive doncha think?) and it’s gross. Particularly considering – in this example – the rules being upheld are ones which are fading away for the most part because they don’t serve a communicative purpose any more.

Mignon Fogarty has a heartfelt post at Grammar Girl lamenting the song’s “screwed up message”, and is especially bothered that teachers intend using the song to help children “care about grammar”. In contrast, she considers it a “grammar snob anthem” and finds that Yankovic is:

appealing to the base instincts that I’m tired to the bone of seeing: The call to feel superior and to put other people down for writing errors. Prescriptivism sells. Encouraging people to rant against the “morons who can’t spell” sells.

Jane Solomon at Dictionary.com takes the opportunity to summarise descriptivism and prescriptivism, and suggests: “next time you hear one of Weird Al’s many language peeves in the wild, sit back and reflect upon the wonder of the ever-evolving English language”.

Elsewhere, Garrett Ford Morrison at The Seminar Table finds that the song “adopts a view of language that has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm”. Bradshaw of the future thinks it’s “insulting”. Language Hat “enjoyed the parody but deplored the prescriptivism”. Dawn McIlvain Stahl at Copyediting.com “[cringed] at the insults it throws around” and is concerned about how it reflects on editors.

stan carey - surprised koala meme - you used 'whom' in a text messageI know what Dawn means. The woman I bought a phone from lately asked me what I did for a living, and upon learning that I write about language she asked if grammatical mistakes drive me crazy (she assumed they did). This happens regularly, and it shows how thoroughly love of language and linguistic intolerance are united in the public imagination. It shouldn’t be like this.

Also at Copyediting.com, Mark Allen offers a considered defence of the song. He finds that Weird Al’s motivation in writing it “is really less important than what we take away from it”. Indeed, and that’s what troubles me. The song doesn’t ask to be taken seriously, but it will be. Its misinformation will add to the background noise of prescriptivist dogma.

‘Word Crimes’ is not a harmless novelty song. It is loaded, however inadvertently, with ideologies of privilege, prestige, and status. People get their confirmation bias where they can, and anyone for whom an interest in language means ridiculing others for linguistic innovation, non-standard grammar and stale old peeves has a new theme song.

Updates:

I’ll use this space to add links and notes as they arise.

The Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre took a break from climbing ladders and painting to agree with my take on this and to supply a few related links.

At the Daily Beast, John McWhorter observes: “The Word Crimes video, skewering people who neglect the ‘Sunday best’ grammar as degenerates, is one of an endless stream of indications that linguists are fighting a losing battle.”

Nina G, a self-described stuttering dyslexic blogger who’s also a stand-up comedian, has a good post on the grammar shaming of ‘Word Crimes’ that aims to “educate others about a perspective that may not be seen in the mainstream”.

Dan H, a teacher who has made some insightful comments below, has a well-written post at Ferretbrain on why “the song fails as a learning tool (not that it is intended as one…)”, and why “insulting people who don’t speak standard English makes me extremely uncomfortable”.

Edit (28 July 2014):

Thanks to all who have engaged civilly with what I’ve written. Some readers, in rushing to tell me I’ve missed the point of ‘Word Crimes’ – It’s Weird Al! It’s satire! – have missed the point of my post. Quite a few comments were ad hominem (directed either at me or at anyone who misspells a word) and have not been published.

Just because you don’t see a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, so to use Weird Al’s phrase: Listen up.

That it’s satire doesn’t make it harmless. Some find the video funny; not everyone has to. Weird Al’s intent is not the issue, which is that his song helps legitimise the kind of misinformed linguistic intolerance that can hurt, mislead and discourage language learners, people with learning difficulties or language disorders, people using non-standard dialects, and anyone not blessed with the same access to formal education. I’m not OK with that.

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156 Responses to The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

  1. S Bays says:

    How can “could care less” not be wrong? It doesn’t make sense!

    • Stan says:

      If you know what it means, then it must make sufficient sense. Language doesn’t follow formal logic.

    • Joe Paul says:

      #1, not every idiom has to correspond to a strict logical syllogism.

      #2, it actually makes perfect sense. “No matter how little you care, I could care less.”

      • Think of it as an elliptical way of implying that while it might be possible, caring any less would not be worth the effort?

      • Christine Donaldson says:

        I speak UK English and the first time I heard the phrase “I could care less” I did not understand what it meant. Not at all. It surely couldn’t mean the same as “I couldn’t care less” because it was the opposite, so what did it mean? It took a long time for me to find out.

        My thinking was this: “I couldn’t care less (than I do)” means that I do not care at all while “I could care less(than I do)” must mean that I care somewhat although I could care less than that.

      • This isn’t a question of following logic. The idiom is “I couldn’t care less”, meaning you don’t care at all. Altering it to an incorrect version doesn’t make it valid just by saying “idioms don’t have to be logical”. And the meaning is changed as well as for how the person is intending to use it. If someone uses “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”, it is wrong… you don’t just excuse that mistake.

      • Christine, you are pointing out what Weird Al said. When you say “I could care less”, that means “you do care, at least a little”. But that isn’t the context in which people use the idiom. They are trying to say they don’t care. Similar to if I use “it’s” like “We found it’s food”; while “It’s” is a valid word, the usage in this case is incorrect.

      • Dan H says:

        “I speak UK English and the first time I heard the phrase “I could care less” I did not understand what it meant.”

        I speak UK English, and the first time I heard the phrase “more honoured in the breach than in the observance” I did not understand what it meant. That does not mean that people who use the phrase are wrong or uneducated.

        It’s fairly common in English for phrases that look equivalent to have the opposite meaning, or for phrases that look like opposites to have the same meaning. Take, for example, “we cannot underestimate the importance of this event”. Does it mean that the event is *very* important (and therefore we must not, under any circumstances, underestimate its importance) or that it is *not important at all (and therefore no matter how little we estimate its importance to be, it will not be an *under* estimate)? It means both, and is commonly used to mean both.

        Could(n’t) care less is the same phenomenon, just in reverse.

      • Christine Donaldson says:

        Erik and Dan, thanks a lot for mocking my post and pointing out that I’m stupid, don’t understand how language works and with a poor vocabulary.

        “This isn’t a question of following logic.” “Christine, you are pointing out what Wierd Al said…” And Dan’s parody of my opening sentence.

        This was the first time that I’ve been to this forum and it’s certainly the last time that I’ll comment here. I thought I’d enjoy it here as I love language and am not, at least as far as I know, a language Nazi.

        Bye, guys. It’s not been fun.

      • Christine, I said you were pointing out what Weird Al was saying, that “I could care less” isn’t the same. I was not mocking you, nor did I say anything insulting to you. The comment about “following logic” was a response to Joe.

        I don’t think Dan was mocking your opening line. He was repeating it so that it was understood to what he was referring to. That is called “quoting”.

        As to this forum.. it isn’t. It’s a blog page with comments. A real forum would be much more flexible in the posting, including quoting, to make responses clear.

      • Wild park says:

        I’d agree with Erik here. I don’t think either person was mocking you.

    • Dan H says:

      Neither does “couldn’t care less”.

      Couldn’t care less than what? Than you currently care now? Than any other human being? If you couldn’t care less, does that mean that your capacity for caring is infinite?

      It certainly doesn’t mean “care very little” (even if you care very little, you could still care less) or “don’t care” (if you mean “don’t care”, say “don’t care”).

      They’re both idiomatic phrases which imply “care very little” without actually strictly meaning “care very little”.

      • Rebecca White says:

        Exactly – you don’t care, so you couldn’t care less.

      • Dan H says:

        But that is both bad logic and bad English.

        It’s bad logic because while not caring would imply an inability to care less, an inability to care less does not imply not caring.

        If you say “I couldn’t have got to work any earlier” it might mean that you got to work *as early as it was humanly possible to get to work* or it might mean that you got to work as early as it was possible for *you* to get to work, but that you actually got to work relatively late.

        If you want to use a comparative to express the fact that you don’t care (and why bother, when you could just say “I don’t care”) you would have to say “nobody could care less than I do”.

        It’s bad English because – well it isn’t really *bad* English, but it *is* idiomatic, informal English. “I couldn’t care less” on its own is an incomplete statement – it relies on the reader/listener inferring for themselves what you couldn’t care less *than*. After all, if you don’t care and other people *do* care, then it follows that you absolutely *can* care less than those other people. It would be perfectly consistent with the literal meaning of the phrase to interpret it as meaning that you care *soooo much* that you cannot care less than anybody else, no matter how much that person cares. That isn’t what people mean when they say it, because “couldn’t care less”, like “could care less” is a set phrase with a set meaning.

    • lectorconstans says:

      What they really mean is, “I could care less – but it would be difficult”.

  2. Mark says:

    I think you’re being too forgiving. I was recently reading an io9 article called “How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War”, where the entry for Britain starts with the sentence “Make no mistake, Britain could have cared less about Serbia in 1914.” I took it to mean what it literally said, causing much confusion further on in the piece.

    • neminem says:

      I do agree with that: the phrase “I could care less” is a phrase, that makes sense as a phrase – it’s sarcasm. You generally don’t expect sarcasm to be used on behalf of a third party, though. Like, if I said “oh yeah, I *totally* loved that movie, it was *great*”, in appropriate context, you would probably pick up I thought the movie sucked. If I said “*he* totally loved the movie”, and I meant it sarcastically, you’d think I was weird, cause that’s not how it works.

  3. Miriam says:

    I think an io9 article is a good example of a context that blurrs the lines (pardon) between formal and informal language use, and in that case the writer perhaps should have erred toward the formal for clarity. On the other hand, if we’re having an informal conversation (or even if I’m giving a semi-formal verbal presentation) I could probably use the phrase “could care less” and make my meaning perfectly clear to my audience using inflection as well as context. And the spoken instance might go by so fast that listeners (even who dislike “could” vs “couldn’t” in this phrase in writing) might not notice which one I used.

    • Mark says:

      Have to say I don’t understand the usage. How hard is it to say “couldn’t”? Americans seem to have a knack for mangling phrases like this that borders on the wilful!

      One thing not mentioned in the song is the American habit of inserting a redundant “of” into sentences, eg “It’s not that big of a problem”, “how great of an offer is that?” etc. What is it supposed to mean? Drives me nuts.

  4. Stan says:

    Mark, Miriam: That’s an interesting case. Even allowing for the breezy style of online magazines like io9, I would definitely have changed that to couldn’t have cared less if I’d been editing it. In speech of course, tone and inflection signal the sense clearly, as Miriam says.

    For anyone just joining us, I wrote a bit more about could care less for Macmillan Dictionary Blog last year.

  5. While I agree with you that “English is replete with styles, dialects and sublanguages that are fully context-appropriate, and grammatical in their own right” (which is why I think words like y’all and youse should come back into common English use), is the purpose of grammar not to create clarity and specificity so that it is easier to understand what someone means?

    If so, then “to whom” is better because it’s more specific; the Oxford comma is better because it’s clearer; using “literally” to mean “figuratively” is worse because it’s using a word to mean its opposite when the opposite is still in common use.

    Determining a speaker’s intention is difficult – it’s easier when you know the person, and know, for example, how much they care about Serbia so that when they say “I could care less about Serbia” you can surmise what they mean. But what about when you don’t know the person? Imprecise language use clouds the issue.

    Sometimes we don’t WANT to be understood; if we’re being deliberately vague or poetic or are trying to demarcate the in-group from the out-group. But if our default position is that we want to understand each other, then we’re going to have to draw a line in the sand and insist on the proper use of ‘its’ rather than ‘it’s’.

    • Stan says:

      Adam: Thanks for the engaging comment. I’ve addressed most of the issues you raise in older posts linked in paragraph 4. Whom is generally still favoured immediately after a preposition; the Oxford comma isn’t always clearer, and can even introduce ambiguity; and literally is not really used to mean figuratively, but rather functions as an intensifier (often of figurative statements). Besides, English has many auto-antonyms, and they seldom if ever cause confusion.

      I didn’t mention its vs. it’s in the post, but I agree with you (and with Weird Al) that it’s an error. When I’m editing, I fix it; but I don’t harass or insult anyone over it.

    • Brendan says:

      You don’t seem to know what grammar is. Grammar is not a set of rules written in stone to proliferate clarity in language. Grammar is just the collection of tacit rules agreed upon, more or less, by hairless apes who make a similar set of noises and grunts (ie language).

      Nobody is in charge of this. Nobody short of Charman Mao CAN be in charge of this. Grammar is just a description of whatever rules speakers of the same language generally agree upon. What may seem like real, strong rules can be broken and changed at will so long as the speaker is still understood.

      • Stan says:

        Brendan: I take it you’re addressing Adam here, not me. What “grammar” means to different people causes no end of confusion. Many people equate it to style, spelling and prescriptivist shibboleths, or what I’ve described before as any aspect of language use that might be regulated; we see this for example in lists of “common grammar mistakes”. I tend not to use it this way, as I think it blurs useful distinctions, but it is a very widespread interpretation of the word.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        I may not know what grammar is, either, according to some of the commenters here, but I know what the American Heritage Dictionary thinks it is, and (surprise!) it’s no one thing:

        1. a. The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences.

        b. The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history.

        2. a. The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language.

        b. The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.

        3. a. A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes.

        b. Writing or speech judged with regard to such a set of rules.

        4. A book containing the morphologic, syntactic, and semantic rules for a specific language.

        5. a. The basic principles of an area of knowledge: the grammar of music.

        b. A book dealing with such principles.

      • lectorconstans says:

        Stan: “What “grammar” means to different people ……” I suppose these different people have never heard of a dictionary.

        Brendan: I agree, up to a point,we haven’t reached the absurdity of the French Academy – that stalwart guardian of the language. On the other hand, we need some commonly-agreed-on standards (rules) of speech, just as we need some standards of behavior – otherwise, it’s every man for himself.

        If someone’s writing a resume letter, he’d better have good grammar and spelling, or he won’t get in.

        I could make myself understood using Pidgin English, or Ebonics, but there;s a real good chance that the other person just might not want to understand me.

        There’s no doubt that language changes over time – just read Shakespeare, or Beowulf. But I maintain that change should be slow, and for the better. Yes, that’s subjective, but it can be handled

        Otherwise, we break up into argot and dialect, and the New Hampshireman wouldn’t be able to understand the Santa Barbaran (I almost wrote “Barbarian”)

      • Stan says:

        lectorconstans: ‘we need some commonly-agreed-on standards (rules) of speech, just as we need some standards of behavior – otherwise, it’s every man for himself.’
        There are commonly-agreed-on standards: the dialect(s) known as standard English, suitable for formal communication. People who are trained in it tend to use it when necessary, and to use other styles as the context requires. This does not result in a breakdown of society: quite the contrary. We don’t use CV-speak in conversations with family and friends. I don’t anyway. And I see you’re excluding women and children – just how slow do you want change to be?

        ‘Otherwise, we break up into argot and dialect’
        It’s all dialects, and slang serves its own vital purpose.

      • lectorconstans says:

        Stan: I see you’re a bit obsessed with gender and language (“I see you’re excluding women and children….”)

        When we say or write “man” – as in “mankind”, or “all men are created equal” – we understand that we mean men and women, and possibly also (depending on context) children – by which we understand “boys and girls”).

        Barbarisms like “s/he” or “he and she” and other atrocities do no good to the language. I would be happy if everyone switched from the pronoun “he” to “she”, but I suspect that some eyebrows would be raised and foreheads wrinkled.

      • Stan says:

        lectorconstans: I don’t know who you mean by “we”. Generic man is widely considered sexist by those who pay attention to changing usage and the politics of language. So is generic he. S/he and he or she are undeniably awkward (though to call them “atrocities” suggests a lack of taste and perspective); luckily, there are other options.

        Drawing attention to sexist usage twice in a fortnight, on a blog about language, does not constitute obsession. You’re all for people looking up words in a dictionary: there’s an idea.

        For good analysis of the problem with sexist usages such as generic man and he, I recommend the work of Casey Miller and Kate Swift, for example their Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, or Words and Women.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        “He or she” is not a “barbarism”. It is, quite to the contrary, an honest attempt by civilized people to overcome a shortcoming of the English language, namely the omission of an inclusive gender-neutral option in the only remaining place where gender still matters: the 3rd-person singular pronoun. “He or she” is both more accurate and less objectionable than such proposed alternatives as the unpronounceable “s/he”, the number-inaccurate “they”, the human-inaccurate “it”, or the obvious contrivances “xe” or “co”.

      • Stan says:

        I don’t consider they to be “number-inaccurate”. Rather, it can be either singular or plural – just as you can, though of course there were also complaints about singular you, back in the day, by those who would stop the tide.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        I don’t consider “they” to be “number-inaccurate”.

        Let’s play a little game of “find the antecedant”, shall we? “When a witness appears before the commission, they must remain silent until the TV light goes on.”

        As I’ve said before, ambiguity is the thief of meaning. Using “they” to refer to a single person promotes ambiguity and undermines comprehension.

      • Stan says:

        ‘Let’s play a little game of “find the antecedant”, shall we?’

        Let’s drop the condescension instead.

        ‘Using “they” to refer to a single person promotes ambiguity and undermines comprehension.’

        It usually doesn’t. In cases where ambiguity is possible, such as in your example, they should be avoided. But in general it’s the best solution to a longstanding anaphoric problem.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        One person’s humor is another’s condescension. I can live with that.

        As to “It usually doesn’t”, it used to be that it never did. “They” was 100% plural 100% of the time. Using it as a singular in cases where the meaning is clear may seem excusable to you, but those are the very cases which legitimize such a usage, thereby creating ambiguity where none heretofore existed in the non-trivial number of instances where context is of no help.

        It’s akin to the practice of referring to people only by their family names, which may make sense in the workplace but utterly screws up your family reunion.

        Anyway, my main point was that “he or she” avoids that problem by paying the price of 2 extra syllables per occurrence. I too wish there were a widely recognized 1-syllable substitute for it, but “they” just replaces one problem with another.

      • Stan says:

        Richard: ‘”They” was 100% plural 100% of the time.’

        So was you, at first. Do you avoid singular you because it was once 100% plural? Singular they has been a normal and legitimate pattern in English since the 14th century. It has been used by Austen, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Defoe, George Eliot, Shelley, Goldsmith, Edgeworth, Thackeray, Dickens, Ruskin, Stevenson, Whitman, Shaw, Wilde, Kipling, Wells, Wharton, Orwell, and many others. The authors of the King James Bible evidently found it “excusable”.

        I sometimes use he or she (or she or he to avoid the more subtle sexism of order), but this phrase soon becomes unwieldy and distracting, especially when repeated. It also perpetuates a false idea of gender as a binary set, whereas they is implicitly and broadly inclusive.

        How often do you see an ambiguous use of they, excluding made-up examples? I think you’ve decided, for whatever reason, that this is a far bigger problem than it really is.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        Stan:

        I’m not happy with the ambiguity of “you”, either, and have proposed pushing for “y’all” as the plural.

        In any event, I don’t see its relevance here. 2 wrongs don’t make a right. Neither does longevity. If we see an opportunity to improve clarity and accuracy, we should push for it.

        Re “How often do you see an ambiguous use of they, excluding made-up examples?”, I haven’t performed a massive analysis of modern text to be able to answer your question with specific statistics, so you’ll just have to be content with the general answer “whenever the speaker has occasion to refer to a single individual and a group within a sentence or 2 of each other.” I guess you think that hardly ever occurs, whereas it seems to me that it pops up with some regularity. You’re probably insensitive to such occurrences, whereas I’m probably oversensitive to them. In the absence of hard data, we’re both just relying on anecdotes to confirm our preferences, and I think we’ve reached an impasse.

      • Stan says:

        ‘2 wrongs don’t make a right. Neither does longevity.’

        Actually, that’s how language change often happens. For example: until the late 18thC, if I wanted to say my shoe was being repaired, I couldn’t phrase it like that; I would say my shoe is repairing. Thus Pepys’ diary has: “the King’s statue is making by the Mercers’ Company”.

        This is no longer grammatical, just as my shoe is being repaired was not grammatical at first. Larry Trask notes that the “is being [verb]ed” construction was attacked when it first emerged; conservative critics called it illogical, confusing, clumsy, and monstrous. Yet it displaced the standard usage, and nowadays few people are even aware of the shift. It is a question of convention, not some higher logic or order.

        But by all means keep rejecting singular they (which, it bears repeating, has been normal in English since the 14th century) if that’s what floats your boat. I don’t need a “massive analysis” of data, by the way, but a few real-life examples of genuine ambiguity in its use would help indicate the type of problem and its provenance. If it’s as regular an occurrence as you say, this should not be difficult.

        Alternatively, I’m happy to drop this now, since we appear to have, as you say, reached an impasse.

  6. fenambulist says:

    You’re right, Stan. Self-appointed prescriptivists are a PITA, but we can only hope that they will shut up when they realise that their own writing is going to be mercilessly examined and their faults exposed.

    That said, just watch Al’s “Mission Statement” and you will forgive him for “Word Crimes”.

  7. Patty says:

    Wow! Being a longtime copyeditor, I never considered worrying about “Word Crimes.” (I was actually happy I could now listen to the tune, which I loved, without Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams’s offensive undertones. But that’s a different story.) I didn’t take the song seriously, as I presumed, perhaps wrongly, that Weird Al just used these examples to flesh out a funny song and that he knew better. But you have put a finger on something that has truly bothered me: people’s confusion between love of the language and linguistic intolerance. Whenever I tell people I’m an editor, they immediately try to impress me (or maybe it’s just trying to find common ground) with a recounting of their pet grammar peeve. And of course, we know that clarity of expression and beauty of presentation are what a good editor truly helps an author achieve. It’s depressing to hear these new acquaintances repeat their peeves; it’s as if I told Michelangelo, “I know what a drag it must be to be an artist. I hate it when my nail polish gets stuck in the bottle.”

  8. […] better-articulated version of this response, you can do no better than Lauren Squires or Stan Carey, both of whom are […]

  9. I thought the worst thing about the song was that it was boring, frankly…

  10. Thanks for including a mention of my Copyediting piece in this excellent roundup, Stan. I continue to be uncomfortable with the “crimes” title, the insults, the peeving — and the gleeful sharing of it by editors. But I also like John McWhorter’s response at the Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/23/the-problem-with-weird-al-s-word-crimes-video.html. In addition to his tube socks analogy, which I love, I very much appreciate his attempt to find a helpful, common ground response.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @PP… thanks for that McWhorter link re/ his measured, fairly balanced take on Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video.

      McWhorter, appears to essentially rejects, or is at least uncomfortable w/ Yankovic’s pejorative, decidedly “mean” tone, in his (Al’s) clearly admonishing those speakers out there that haul out the common prescriptivist shibboleths… the straight-jacketed rules of language usage that us none-peevers often begrudgingly tolerate, but hopefully, at the same time, don’t go out of our way to demean, or belittle the actual language usage ‘enforcer(s)’. (That time-worn adage about blaming the message, and not the messenger comes to mind.)

      I look at some of Weird Al’s most popular song-parody videos, such as his sendup of Michael Jackson’s monster hit, “Beat It”, i.e., Yankovic’s hilarious “Eat It”, where we can laugh, and be thoroughly entertained by his campy mimicking of the slick production values, and sizzling kinetic energy, and deft dance moves of the actual Jackson performance. Hmm… Weird Al does look pretty gross and scary in that fat-suit. But I digress.

      Yet, I don’t believe Weird Al’s over-riding intent w/ his “Eat It” video parody was to demean, or sully Jackson’s already solid reputation. Like all brilliant satirists, from Daumier and Nast, to today’s Ralph Steadman, each w/ their uniquely skewed, somewhat warped, off-center perspective on many aspects on their respective times, they force us to take an alternative view of things; and ofttimes that view can be deemed upsetting, unfair, or at best thought provoking.

      In his own way, w/ his “Word Crimes” offering, Weird Al has unwittingly (or wittingly?) set himself up as a bit of media provocateur. Clearly, he’s stirred up some heated, mostly thoughtful discussion, and debate within the greater language usage domain; and in my view, that can’t be a bad thing.

  11. nurn says:

    I agree with you, Stan – it’s cringey (and I speak as a reformed peever). I must say that I really loved the animation in the video, though!

  12. Stuart says:

    Strongly disagree. I shall refer to Henry Higgins comment/song in My Fair Lady, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” There needs to be a standard and the constant watering down and corruption of the language is making people sound stupid and unintelligent. Weird Al’s song is a breath of fresh air and I heartily welcome it!

  13. Edward says:

    It’s interesting that when an opposing(prescriptivist) viewpoint emerges into the limelight—thanks to the many language pundits who are opposed to Weird Al’s parodic instructions—all the politically-correct pundits come out of the woodwork en masse.

    Carey says, “Dangling participles aren’t so bad.” That’s true, sometimes, but sometimes they can completely confuse a reader. Many grammar mistakes aren’t “so bad”, but that doesn’t make them good.

    I’m always amused when descriptivists peruse the archives of classical literature to find an unorthodox usage by an esteemed author in order to validate its usage today. It seems that language only evolves when it serves their purpose, but not when it might serve a prescriptivist’s position.

    First, a usage two or five hundred years ago might have been grammatical then, but since language and meanings change (evolve) they might not be grammatical today.

    Second, the history of English grammar initiated over four hundred years ago and grammar rules were not as codified then.

    The conflation of privileged social status with education and literacy is completely misguided, for there were numerous great writers of the past, who had come from humble beginnings, but had no problem speaking Standard English. Many of those writers had only an elementary education, but they could write and speak better than the majority of highly educated writers and university graduates of today.

    There’s nothing elitist about trying to conserve and teach Standard English.

    The elitists (descriptivists) are those who constantly debunk those grammar rules, and advocate that there is no correct usage, that use determines what is correct.

    Ironically and hypocritically they meticulously adhere to those very same rules and usages that they so avidly debunk.

    • terrycollmann says:

      “Many of those writers had only an elementary education, but they could write and speak better than the majority of highly educated writers and university graduates of today. ”

      You’re making that up.

      “There’s nothing elitist about trying to conserve and teach Standard English”

      Nobody is saying there is.

      “The elitists (descriptivists) are those who constantly debunk those grammar rules, and advocate that there is no correct usage”

      No descriptivist does that, Every dialect has its own grammar, and its own ‘correct’ usage. Standard English is just anyther dialect, albeit a privileged one.

      • Christine Donaldson says:

        What makes you say that standard English is a ‘privileged dialect’? I speak standard English when I want to, can speak a number of other geographical variants, can use broad Glasgow dialect when I want to – and my life has certainly not been privileged. Why is one of my dialects a privileged one?

      • ISBG says:

        @ CD No, it’s not that kind of privelege. *The dialect* is priveleged insofar as it is accepted as the norm, the standard usage. Glasgow dialect is not accepted as the standard, although it does have wide usage. It’s not to do with wealth or being better, just with being used more in certain contexts.
        There’s a lot wrong with this article (as terrycollmann notes). The author has set up straw men and duly demolished them. However, If you’re trying to use the standard dialect in whatever context, you really should try to use it in accordance with its own rules: i.e. while one might say “Who to?” in a casual context, in a more formal context, “To whom?” should really be used, because of the formality of the context, if for no other reason, then because it makes you sound as if you know what you’re talking about.
        By the way, did anyone else pick up Weird Al’s split infinitive towards the end of the song (“to drool”, I think). Tut, tut.

  14. David Morris says:

    I have read most of blog posts you list responding to ‘Word Crimes’, and I can’t add anything substantive to any of those or to yours. My main problem is with the ‘grab-bag-ness’ of it (but he was writing to an existing template and had to fit his ideas into it). A few weeks ago, my sister sent me a link to an article titled ‘[some number] of awesome things about English’, which was a similar grab-bag.

    My biggest problem is this: I am an ESL teacher first and a linguist of any scriptivism second, if then – I don’t regard myself as a ‘linguist’. My students are paying me to teach them ‘English’, which means ‘textbooks for ESL students English’, and I’ve got to tell them what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. There are many times, however, when I say to them, ‘I understand what you said perfectly, but it’s not standard English’, or ‘Some people (mainly Americans/British/Indians/ESL students …) say that, but standard English is …’, or ‘In real life, you can say (just about anything) … but for this exercise, please practice saying …’.

    I believe that communication works best when the people doing it a) agree what the words mean, and b) are communicating with the best of intentions toward each other and to the purpose of the communication (eg, *not* setting out to judge the communication, the language or the person).

    You mention ‘could(n’t) care less). Fortunately no-one around me uses the ‘n’t-less’ version, so I don’t have to respond. You said that ‘language isn’t logical’. I would say ‘language isn’t *always* logical’, but here we have a choice between a phrase which can be understood from first principles, and a phrase which can’t. I would say ‘All else being equal, choose the logical phrase which means what it says and says what it means’. In any case, Google N-grams shows ‘could not care less’ outscoring ‘could care less’ by a margin of about 3.5 to 1. I would also say ‘go with the majority’.

  15. David Morris says:

    By the way, no-one seems to have commented on the apposite-ness or otherwise of this song being created by a man with the surname ‘Yankovic’, whose parents or grandparents presumably are or were English as a second language speakers, and whose English may or may not have been perfect.

  16. ‘could care less’ is just WRONG!!

  17. abner325 says:

    Reblogged this on Writing bits and piece. and commented:
    Hillarious! I do so many of these all the time!

  18. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comments, all.

    fenambulist: ‘Mission Statement’ is much more enjoyable: management jargon makes a far better target. I’ve parodied it myself in the past, though less entertainingly than Weird Al.

    Patty: I’d love to not take the song seriously, but experience suggests it won’t always be used for the forces of good! Confusion between love of language and linguistic intolerance is rife, sadly enough.

    slipperywitch: That’s a more damning reaction than mine.

    Dawn: You’re welcome, and thanks for the link to John McWhorter’s article, which I also enjoyed. I’ve updated the post.

    Alex: He is a skilled provocateur for sure; unfortunately, some of what he provokes will be decidedly unpleasant.

    nurn: Yes, the video’s animation is great. A pity it’s likely to make his points more persuasive.

    Stuart: There is a standard (though it’s not monolithic): standard English. It’s taught in schools around the world. The “constant watering down and corruption of the language” you mention is what allows us to communicate in modern English as opposed to, say, Chaucerian style.

    Edward: Yes, danglers can confuse (and amuse) readers. I make that point in the linked post, if you take the trouble to read it. I know many descriptivists and not one of them believes there is no correct usage; this is a common straw-man argument. Nor is there anything ironic or hypocritical about using standard English while rejecting the destructive claim that it’s superior to non-standard dialects. I’m an editor: I enforce the standard every day. But I also know it needn’t and shouldn’t be imposed willy-nilly in unsuitable contexts.

    David: My brother teaches adult language learners and reports similar challenges. Sometimes a right/wrong answer is sought or expected, and the situation doesn’t always allow for grey areas and contextual complexity to be adequately conveyed. If a student wanted guidance on could[n't] care less, I would recommend the standard and more common form too, unless they had a preference for the other, in which case I would explain its status and let them decide for themselves.

    Natalie: No, it’s just non-standard.

  19. Thank you for your beautifully written (and grammatically correct) post. You always do your best to write well (except for that tweet!). Why would you not hold others to the same standard? Why is it acceptable to dismiss basic grammar and spelling and condone careless errors? Are you a language snob when you write? It would seem that you are because you honor the rules.

    You’re right, it is elitist to be judged by the way you speak/write and there is an assumption about your background (and your worth) when you open your mouth. You’re also right that language evolves and it’s fun and interesting to watch new words and expressions enter the lexicon. I love swear words (!) and hilarious expressions that are pure slang. I laugh about them, I heart them so hard and use them for effect. I adore language and I want it to be a living thing.

    However, I would argue that if you make an effort on a daily basis to do your very best to speak correctly, why would you not expect others to do the same, regardless of their circumstances? We are talking about basic grammar rules. There has to be a foundation from which we build, and it has to contain agreed upon elements and principles.

    When my children make an error, I correct them and sternly say that it makes them sound “common”. I know that is harsh and silly and a bit over the top, but it’s important to me. I know the way the world works, and there is no reward for committing any of the “word crimes” that Al Yankovic mentions. It’s not charming, it’s not trailblazing, it’s not edgy and it’s not admired. The audience that will hear “Word Crimes” has every advantage and every opportunity to learn to speak properly. Don’t let them off the hook.

    When I read an article about usage and common errors, I appreciate it. I WANT to know what is traditionally correct. I want to pass those rules on to my children and they can decide what to with them. I hope they decide to follow a few basic communication rules and honor our language. Some of the word crimes in the song don’t bother me (I would have chosen others that make my skin crawl – how’s that for a great expression – history please!), and I don’t agree with all of them, but I still like the song and the spirit behind it.

    I hope I didn’t make any errors in this comment, People never proofread anymore, do they? LOL. I am a paranoid writer.

    • Dan H says:

      However, I would argue that if you make an effort on a daily basis to do your very best to speak correctly, why would you not expect others to do the same, regardless of their circumstances?

      I can’t speak for Stan, but speaking personally I *don’t* make an effort on a daily basis to speak correctly. I just live in a society which arbitrarily labels my natural dialect as “correct”.

      Some people mistakenly believe that there are features of my natural dialect (which is standard, south-eastern British English) which are not correct – for example, some people think that it is wrong to say that something “will” happen in the future if you do not specifically *intend* for it to happen. Some people think that the word “which” cannot be used to introduce a restrictive relative clause. These people are wrong.

      People have this bizarre idea that the standard dialect is something which requires effort to maintain, and that speakers of it are therefore somehow morally superior because we make “the effort”. As if I could somehow shut my eyes and relax and suddenly find myself speaking broad Glaswegian or flawless Dallas Texan. This is exactly as absurd as suggesting that the only reason Chinese people speak Chinese is because they won’t make the effort to speak English.

      When my children make an error, I correct them and sternly say that it makes them sound “common”.

      So you not only encourage your children to be paranoid about their use of language (a quality you recognise in yourself, and seem to understand hinders your ability to communicate with confidence), but you also encourage them to look down on people who are “common”?

      Because being working class is the same as lacking moral worth?

      Because sounding like a person with a low income is inherently bad?

      You are of course right that there is no benefit to speaking any dialect of English other than the most prestigious. There’s no benefit to being a member of any group other than the most powerful. But it would be a tremendous mistake to assume that those of use who speak “correctly” do so because we have made a greater effort than those who sound “common”. We just stacked the deck in our favour a couple of centuries ago and have been reaping the rewards ever since.

  20. “I could care less” is wrong. You can’t excuse it by saying it’s a variant that people start using because they don’t know any better. I’ve heard people use “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”, but that doesn’t make it correct.

    “literally” used in a non-literal manner, even if it used in literature, is also wrong; incorrect usage doesn’t make something correct.

    The song mentions using letters for words, which is fine for texting, but not in actual writing, which is what the song is about. Would you look twice at a CV containing those?

    We have English teachers and grammar rules because there are right and wrong ways of writing and speaking. If we start excusing incorrect usages simply because they are used, then we might as well stop even looking at rules altogether.

    • Jfs says:

      The song mentions using letters for words …would you look at a CV containing those?

      I’ll just leave this right here …

      • I think you are trying to be clever, but misunderstanding the point. I used “CV” in the proper way: as an acronym for “Curricula Vitae”. I was not trying to say the words “see vee”. The video is talking about usage like “c u l8r” for “see you later”. I hope you understand the difference.

      • Jfs says:

        2 things. (Can’t reply to your reply because the website won’t allow it.)

        1. Curriculum Vitae – it’s a single story of a life, not multiple stories.
        2. It’s an abbreviation, not an acronym.

        I understand your point correctly; I just don’t agree with you. “using letters for words” is exactly what you did when using the abbreviation CV instead of spelling it out in full – you’re just being judgemental over which abbreviations are acceptable.

      • No. Abbreviations are things like “inst.”, “etc.”, “abbr.”. Acronyms are using the first letters of the primary words to represent a name or title. If I was trying to use abbreviations for CV, I would have written “curr. vit.” All of which is NOT the point made in the video. You still wouldn’t use things like “how r u” in any way outside of texting.

      • Christine Donaldson says:

        Can’t reply in the right place for some reason but wanted to state my agreement with Erik’s points about CV and not using letter abbreviations outside of texting.

      • Dan H says:

        Acronyms are using the first letters of the primary words to represent a name or title.

        No, those are initialisms.

        An acronym is something you pronounce as if it was a word, like VISA or laser.

      • Jfs says:

        Anyway – all snarking about definitions aside; if Erik or I had applied for a job at the place I work 50 years ago and said ‘I enclose my CV’ we’d both probably have been turned down because of our use of that abbreviation / initialism. Today, it’s perfectly acceptable in business communications. Fashions in language change.

  21. David says:

    Brevity being the soul of wit, I hesitate to write too much, but I will ask this: why are you acting as if the song speaks with only one voice about the idea of “word crimes”? Surely, the songwriter is clever enough to realize that there is something misguided (if not inappropriate) about getting too worked up about another person’s lapses in grammar. Thus, the importance of the the song’s final statements — “Never mind, I give up” and “Really now, I give up.” These lines renounce, in essence, everything that has come before. Does this mean the song’s fictive “grammar policeman” has no interest in helping to shape usage? Probably not. But he is probably also well aware that language will continue on its merry way, churning out all kinds of surprising and “non-standard” uses, whatever hyperbolic forms of chastisement a given teacher or artist might invoke. That seems like a wise bit of insight into what it means to try to bend language to one’s will, an insight that exceeds your condemnation of the song.

  22. Dave Lambers. says:

    I agree with Patricia Nolan. Good grammar and spelling should be encouraged. Poor writing should be discouraged. It’s not mean-spirited to do so. I appreciate constructive criticism, in this and other areas.

  23. Dave Lambers. says:

    Oh, and you can try to excuse “could care less” all you want, but it conveys the opposite of what the speaker means, so it’s wrong.

  24. […] prescriptivism is politically loaded.  Stan Carey, in his blog Sentence First, examines the politics behind this kind of pedantry.  Grammar Nazis usually privilege a single, formal style of writing over common speech or […]

  25. Stan says:

    Patricia: You’re very welcome. Some clarification on language ‘rules’ may be in order, so I’ll recommend this page on what standard English is and isn’t. Many people I know are bi- or multi-dialectal, being proficient in the dialect of standard English and in a regional, native variety that probably has plenty of non-standard words and grammatical constructions. We code-switch effortlessly between varieties as the occasion requires.

    The trouble with the ‘traditional rules’ is that many of them are spurious. As Henry Hitchings writes in his excellent book The Language Wars, the history of prescriptions about English is in part:

    a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance.

    Erik: ‘incorrect usage doesn’t make something correct.’
    Actually, it often does. Mistakes are a significant driver of language change, whether you like it or not. They are resisted in edited prose, but many eventually become standard anyway. As for abbreviating words as single letters: you seem intent on arguing about this, but if you read my post you’ll see that I made more or less the same point you did.

    David: ‘Surely, the songwriter is clever enough to realize that there is something misguided (if not inappropriate) about getting too worked up about another person’s lapses in grammar.’
    Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t; I’m not in a position to assume either way. But the evidence suggests he does get worked up, or at least goes out of his way to ‘fix’ what he thinks is poor usage. He has recorded videos of himself ‘correcting’ a road sign and a shop sign, even though both ‘corrections’ were grammatically unnecessary.

    Dave: I agree that good grammar and spelling should be encouraged. I don’t think calling people who say could care less ‘morons’ will encourage them to change the grammar of their normal dialect. In speech the variant idiom does not convey the opposite of what the speaker means unless the listener is being deliberately obtuse.

    • Mark says:

      Stan: As Erik says, many people mistakenly say “for all intensive purposes”. I’m interested to hear whether – were more people to start saying it – you would accept it as valid, despite it being nonsense. Lots of people have been saying “skelington” instead of “skeleton” for decades, but I haven’t noticed anyone saying that’s not an error.

  26. Mistakes can drive language change, yes, but that can’t be used as an excuse for all misuses. If you do that, then you might as well toss aside all rules. Pointing to a case in which such a change is valid doesn’t make all changes valid. Using the wrong idiom is just that.. using the wrong idiom. If I say “five” when I mean “six”, that doesn’t mean people have to now accept that 5=6.

    • Stan says:

      ‘Mistakes can drive language change, yes, but that can’t be used as an excuse for all misuses’
      No one is doing that.
      ‘Pointing to a case in which such a change is valid doesn’t make all changes valid.’
      No one is doing that either.

  27. Edward says:

    Stan: “I know many descriptivists and not one of them believes there is no correct usage; this is a common straw-man argument.”

    Let’s be honest, descriptivists are most proficient at utilizing straw-man tactics: interjecting racism and elitism into arguments on language are the most common and typical examples.

    Descriptivists believe that there’s a correct usage, but seemingly they don’t believe there’s an incorrect usage. This dichotomous theory is disingenuous and driven by an idealistic viewpoint rather than a pragmatic one.

    “Nor is there anything ironic or hypocritical about using standard English while rejecting the destructive claim that it’s superior to non-standard dialects. I’m an editor: I enforce the standard every day. But I also know it needn’t and shouldn’t be imposed willy-nilly in unsuitable contexts.”

    Non-standard dialects are not the issues; the issue is using non-standard dialects in a formal setting. The issue is also not being able to code-switch from an informal dialect to Standard English.

    If Standard English is not “superior” to non-standard dialects then why do descriptivists practice it: Because they want to be UNDERSTOOD, and because the elitists that they vituperatively and fervently condemn are their compatriots, which make them just as guilty by association.

    • Stan says:

      ‘Descriptivists [...] don’t believe there’s an incorrect usage.’
      Reorder that line at random and I’ll call it incorrect, as will just about any descriptivist.

      ‘Non-standard dialects are not the issues; the issue is using non-standard dialects in a formal setting.’
      Nowhere does Weird Al make this distinction or allow for context. That’s the problem.

  28. Will says:

    I think y’all (and I mean all of y’) who are blogging about this video need to lighten up. It’s comedy. It’s a joke. Can you imagine if all the clothing designers who made the outfits in “Tacky” were screeding about disrespect for innovative design and bemoaning the psychological damage done to frat boys who can’t dress themselves. Get over it. Please.

    • Stan says:

      So comedy should be immune from social criticism? Please. The song has a strong political subtext that invites inspection. And I’m plenty lit up, but thanks anyway.

  29. terrycollmann says:

    If Standard English is not “superior” to non-standard dialects then why do descriptivists practice it’

    Because it’s the dialect used in public discourse, not because it’s “superior”. Only an elitist would try to claim that one dialect was superior to another, or that one dialect was more easily understood than all others. I could take you to plenty of places where people speak a variety of English, and your variety wouldn’t be understood at all.

    • Edward says:

      “I could take you to plenty of places where people speak a variety of English, and your variety wouldn’t be understood at all.”

      What you’re saying is that they wouldn’t understand Standard English and that would be a problem for them.

      If you prefer to eliminate the word “superior” we can substitute it with “better”, and if you’re opposed to better we can replace it with “correct” which is synonymous with appropriate, precise, proper, perfect etc. and that seems to take us back to superior.

      A dialect that has a challenging vocabulary that can produce long complex sentences with greater precision and on a wider range of subjects can be defined as being “superior.”

      If you categorize this as an elitist position that’s your prerogative, but you can’t redefine words based on an ideological mindset.

      • Jfs says:

        Actually, if you went somewhere where the people didn’t speak or understand Standard English, it’s a problem for you, not them. They’re doing just fine. :-)

  30. Joe Crescente says:

    Clearly Weird Al takes on the persona of every song he parodies. He must be a fat, Amish, couch-potatoed yoda with a polka face that rides the bus in real life. Just like he’s a peever here, making fun of you peevers))))

    • Stan says:

      Joe: In a recent interview, Weird Al said he’s always correcting people’s grammar. The song’s ‘narrator’ and its writer are not as distinct as you assume.

  31. […] Stan Carey posts a lengthy and well researched argument against the song in his blog here. […]

  32. Rebecca White says:

    I agree that I don’t like it’s meanspiritedness – if one is taking that at face value. But while there is some wiggle room on some of these things in popular usage, most of them are still not formally proper. I don’t want to read sloppy writing, and I don’t want to listen to amateurish speakers. People who communicate should care about what words mean.

  33. […] You don’t love language if you love to police it […]

  34. betoma says:

    I’m a professional proofreader/editor. I have clients in the business and academic world who produce drafts full of the type of errors Weird Al;s speaker complains about. My clients pay me to remove the errors in their drafts and produce something closer to perfect standard English. These are smart people who respect their readers, and know that “correct” writing makes them look more professional and reliable. I certainly don’t roll my eyes at their mistakes, but I do recognize that my expertise can benefit them.

    This author writes that “Could care less isn’t wrong… Whom is on the way out in most contexts. Dangling participles aren’t so bad.” Okay. What if you were writing a series of blog posts to promote your small business? Would you feel comfortable introducing a bunch of who/whom errors and dangling participles into those posts? Most people reading this would say no. (This blog post is itself written in perfect standard English!) So why insist that knowledge of language rules is irrelevant?

    • Stan says:

      Of course I would not feel comfortable introducing errors – nor would I introduce those errors in the first place.

      ‘ So why insist that knowledge of language rules is irrelevant?’
      Nowhere do I insist this. But I would say that knowledge of how some language rules change subtly in different registers is essential to being a good editor and proofreader. So is an awareness of which rules are superstitions, or applicable only in certain contexts. And the ability to read carefully.

    • Dan H says:

      What if you were writing a series of blog posts to promote your small business? Would you feel comfortable introducing a bunch of who/whom errors and dangling participles into those posts?

      Suppose, for a moment, that you have a small cleaning service called “Dirt Busters”.

      Suppose that the slogan of your company is “Who you gonna call? Dirt Busters!”

      Are you honestly telling me that rephrasing this slogan as “whom are you going to call” would improve it?

      • ISBG says:

        Certainly not! That’s the point of having different registers. You might reflect, in a more formal passage: “Whom are you going to call? Dirtbusters!”, but not in the catchphrase you are wanting potential customers to remember. Any advertiser will tell you that has to be more catchy.

      • Dan H says:

        That’s the thing though, I don’t think you’d even do that.

        Firstly, even in a more “formal” passage you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit the slogan again. You *always* reinforce your brand (that’s why you’ll never see Ant and Dec standing with Dec on the left).

        Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you’re advertising a cleaning service, not a proofreading service. For example, this is a quote from the website of a randomly selected London cleaning service:

        It can be difficult fitting the house cleaning into an already full schedule. That is where Cheap Cleaning Services’ fully vetted professional cleaners can help. We offer a full residential and commercial cleaning service in and around London, guaranteed to beat or match all other cleaning quotes.

        Now if I wanted to go through this with my “proper English” hat on I am pretty sure there are a few corrections I could make. I might suggest that the first sentence should read “it can be difficult to fit the house cleaning” or even more properly “it can be difficult to fit the act of cleaning your house” (after all, “cleaning” is a verb, one should never use a verb as a noun). The “That” in the second sentence is ambiguously referring and would be clearer were it to be rephrased as “This problem is one with which Cheap Cleaning Services’ fully vetted professional cleaners can help”.

        All of which would serve only to make the paragraph look excessively stuffy and formal. Which would probably *drive away* potential customers.

        If I saw the word “whom” on the website of a cleaning service, I would wonder what the hell kind of cleaners these people were. If I want to hire a cleaner, I don’t care if they can make appropriate use of the subjunctive, I care if they are going to be good at cleaning.

  35. Tess Pre says:

    After one view, I was able to count three cheap shots: spastic (totally unacceptable as an insult): mouth-breather (not much better than calling someone a retard): drool (ditto) I will give a pass to the use of the word “moron” (spelled moran in the video) but I really shouldn’t because it shares a common history with words like retarded as a word that was once a “diagnosis” becoming synonymous with stupidity. All these insults come from systematic and historical hatred towards people with intellectual disabilities, many of whom were/are denied access to literacy education not because they were/are incapable of learning to read but because someone decided/decides they were/are not worth teaching. I know perfectly well that your song is meant to target those who have chosen to ignore the education they have been privileged to receive. However, in amongst a great deal of extreme cleverness and humour, you also invoke images about those who have been systematically excluded from education in order to deliver your insults to those who you deem be too lazy to use what they were freely given.

  36. […] The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’ Stan Carey fa un sunto molto interessante delle reazioni scatenate dal video e dell’inconsistenza […]

  37. I agree with a lot of ths but how is saying “I could care less” correct?

  38. Who cares less? Someone who could care less or someone who couldn’t care less?

    • Dan H says:

      Clearly somebody who could care less cares less.

      Somebody who couldn’t care less can’t care less, and therefore cannot be the one who cares less.

  39. Yukiko says:

    You must be the person who corrects everyone’s spelling and grammar in comment sections. Nice to know you.

  40. Are you policing a humorous song about grammar policing?

  41. prior says:

    This is one of the best articles/posts I have read all year! The wise language discussion with social and humanity seasoning added in-

    “If you’re in a position of power and influence, why would you punch down?”
    5 stars mi amigo

  42. RichardSRussell says:

    Ambiguity is the thief of meaning, as George Orwell recognized in his essay on NewSpeak in 1984. If “war” MEANS “peace”, if “freedom” MEANS “slavery”, you have no way of expressing your preference for peace or freedom.

    Same deal here. It “literally” MEANS “figuratively”, how do you express “literally” when you really mean it? If “could care less” MEANS “could not care less”, how do you indicate (as Weird Al asks) that you only care a little bit?

    If, to cite a recent cartoon, your invitation mentions that your party will also have “the strippers, Joseph Stalin and John F. Kennedy”, we can all get a good chuckle out of the omission of the serial comma, but what if it occurs in “I leave all my worldly goods to my sons, Tom, Dick and Harry.” Do each get ⅓? Or does Tom get ½ while Dick and Harry share the other half? A court of competent jurisdiction ruled the latter. Punctuation matters. In response to a different invitation, a gay guy wrote that he’d “love to join you but didn’t want to leave his friend’s behind”.

    The most important function of language is to convey accurate meaning. Good diction and proper punctuation achieve that. Weird Al wants it to continue to do that. I agree with him (if not with his insults for those who, almost always inadvertently, get it wrong. And yes, I DO mean WRONG.)

    • Dan H says:

      Same deal here. It “literally” MEANS “figuratively”, how do you express “literally” when you really mean it? If “could care less” MEANS “could not care less”, how do you indicate (as Weird Al asks) that you only care a little bit?

      Fortunately, literally does not mean figuratively, it means literally.

      When people use it as an intensifier, they are not using it to mean “figuratively”, they are using it to mean “literally”. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t do the job it is being used to do. When somebody says “I literally couldn’t get out of bed” they don’t mean “I figuratively couldn’t get out of bed”. Their intent is *explicitly* to *exaggerate* their inability to get out of bed for rhetorical effect.

      If you want there to be a word in English that it is grammatically impossible to use as part of an exaggeration, I’m afraid you’re out of luck, because that is not how languages work. It is as absurd to suggest that it is wrong to preface an exaggeration with “literally” as it is to suggest it would be grammatically incorrect to preface a lie with “honestly”.

      As for indicating relative levels of caring. If you want to say that you don’t care, then you say “I don’t care”. If you want to indicate some ill-defined but small level of caring, say “I couldn’t care less” or “I could care less”, both of which are idiomatic phrases that roughly carry the meaning “I care very little”.

  43. Stan says:

    Jfs: I knew the reference, yes, but some readers might not, so thank you for the useful link.

    Robert: Yes.

    prior: That’s very kind, thank you.

    Richard: Literally is not normally used to mean figuratively. If you read my post on non-literal literally you’ll see I address this. I have reservations about the looser usage, but I don’t think it’s often ambiguous. (Ambiguity, I would add, is more than just a thief of meaning: it can also be an amplifier of it, as in poetry.) And my post on the Oxford comma shows how that mark’s use doesn’t guarantee clarity, and can even reduce it.

    Erik: ‘You still wouldn’t use things like “how r u” in any way outside of texting.’

    Time for a verse.

    He says he loves U 2 X S,
    U R virtuous and Y’s,
    In X L N C U X L
    All others in his i’s.

    This is from C.C. Bombaugh’s poem ‘Essay to Miss Catharine Jay’, published in 1860. The whole poem (10 stanzas) follows this innovative pattern. Or take the much-maligned OMG, whose earliest citation is in a letter from John A. Fisher (commander of the British navy) to Winston Churchill in 1917. I don’t believe either of these people engaged in text messaging.

    • Oh, well, if someone used letters this way in a novelty poem in the 1860s, then, by all means, lets get rid of normal words and convert to this method! We all know that a few incorrect examples set a new standard! My bad! u r so l33+.

  44. PC Apologist says:

    I know I’m late to this party, but I do want to say a couple of things:

    To dismiss a debate issue:
    “Word Crimes” is actually quite soft on the Oxford comma (saying you can leave it out if you wanna)

    To rise above the debate:
    To me, “Word Crimes,” like most effective satire, points a finger at both the overt target (the disgusting Word Criminals) and back at the finger-pointer (so-called grammar nazis). Regardless of which of these groups I belong to, my sense of humor lets me say, “That’s totally what I’m like. Also, that’s totally what those other people are like.”

    Everybody has his sacred cow and clearly for Stan and others language pedantry is it. But even a cursory examination of Al’s work will show that like many satirists/comedians/wits over thousands of years, he has sent up a broad range of subjects — see Canadian Idiot, Jerry Springer, Fat, Trigger Happy, Velvet Elvis, Alimony, Another One Rides the Bus and on this very album, First World Problems. Taken individually, someone is going to take offense at how he has singled out a group for shame. Taken as a body of work, he clearly thinks each of us is ridiculous, ignorant, foolish, gullible, conceited and downright unloveable for some reason or another. The growing disrespect for language standards is just today’s example.

    To enter the debate:
    Stan, letting the snark over CV go for the moment, do you think hiring decisions based on an ability to present oneself using standard English (is discriminatory or socially toxic?

  45. PC Apologist says:

    ..and I can’t leave “could care less” on the table, either.

    Yes, could and couldn’t have absolutely opposite denotations, but a recent Jeopardy episode pointed out to me that there are lots of what we call contranyms in English — when the same word has two totally opposite meanings. Examples include cleave, sanction and weather. “Literally” has reached this status, with some dictionaries acknowledging it now. “Could care less” probably qualifies at this point, too.

    • RichardSRussell says:

      Trying to be the grammar police has been only fitfully successful. Clearly we lost on “hopeful”, and we seem to be in retreat on “literally”, but we managed to triumph over the use of “bad” to mean “good”, and I still have hopes that sufficient ridicule will stomp out the colloquial meaning of “could care less”.

      I will, however, grant that none of these “sins” rises to the level of “war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength”. No matter how much they partake of the same ambiguity-promotion, they aren’t explicitly designed to promote tyranny and oppression.

      • Dan H says:

        You didn’t triumph over the use of “bad” to mean “good” any more than you triumphed over the use of “the berries” or “swingin'” to mean good. Slang words for “good” and “bad” come and go all the time.

        Nor did you lose over “hopeful” or “literally”. You had already “lost” *hundreds of years ago*.

  46. RichardSRussell says:

    Speaking of ambiguity: “you” — singular or plural?

    I’ve long favored adoption of “y’all” as the plural, but that simply shifts the ambiguity to a different playing field. If “y’all” started to come into vogue but you ran across “you”, would that be an intentional 2nd-person singular by somebody who’s gone the “y’all” route, or would it still be a number-ambiguous usage by somebody who hasn’t made the switch?

    To resolve this, I’ve proposed (to thundering lack of interest) the introduction of a 3rd 1-letter word in English (to go with “I” and “O”), namely “U” (capitalized like “I”) to mean the 2nd-person singular and to be used by the same people who’ve adopted “y’all” for the plural. These folks would no longer be using “you” at all, so the ambiguity would be gone altogether.

  47. Stan says:

    PC Apologist: Thanks for your constructive comment. Language pedantry definitely isn’t a sacred cow for me, though I wear my (moderate) pedant’s hat when proofreading and editing. Your points about Weird Al’s satire are fair, and I’m all for us finding ourselves ridiculous and foolish; I just didn’t care to see people who struggle with language, etc., targeted so vituperatively.

    ‘Do you think hiring decisions based on an ability to present oneself using standard English is discriminatory or socially toxic?’
    Socially toxic, no. Discriminatory, yes, but necessarily so: the whole point of hiring certain people and not others is to discriminate between them, and competence in standard English is often a reasonable criterion (among others) by which to make that decision. For some jobs, of course, it matters little or not at all. Much of the trouble arises because the dialect’s prestige status leads people to believe it’s intrinsically superior.

    Richard: Attempts to engineer language change beyond one’s own usage are nigh on impossible, especially when it comes to function words such as pronouns. In Ireland we have ye (and other variants) for plural you in colloquial usage.

    • Dan H says:

      Socially toxic, no. Discriminatory, yes, but necessarily so

      I’m not sure it’s even *necessarily* discriminatory, a lot of the time. As you point out it overlaps massively with the misconception that a particular dialect is objectively superior or, worse, that speakers of a particular dialect are objectively superior to speakers of other dialects.

      Communication is obviously extremely important and in a lot of jobs communication in Standard English (which itself varies between English-speaking regions) is especially important, but a lot of people make judgements not merely about communication ability but character and intelligence based on a person’s dialect.

      It might also be worth pointing out that there are massive numbers of jobs (social work being the most obvious, but you can make a good case for teaching as well) where being able to speak a *non* standard dialect will be a significant boon to communication. But I’ve very seldom seen “must have a good understanding of MLE” on the job specs for teaching posts in London.

    • RichardSRussell says:

      I recognize that linguistic “engineering” is always going to run a distant 2nd to linguistic “just growed”, but it’s not invariably doomed to failure. “Ms.” did OK. Somebody had to be the first to come up with it. While it’s foolhardy for anyone to think he or she or the French Academy can CONTROL language, it’s certainly possible to INFLUENCE it, and I figure I may as well take my kicks at the can, too.

  48. […] leave it alone after this, but since I posted the above, I’ve also found this discussion of The Problem with Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”. And it seems to me that truly, the discussion is not complete without the dissenting voice(s). Definitely check out the comments […]

  49. Robert Simonson says:

    Afraid I agree with Weird Al. “Could care less” makes me cringe, not the people who correct it.

  50. Mr. Orona says:

    Uh, how about another perspective. I am an English teacher. I am scorned for my idea that English is a constantly morphing form of communication, and all of the dialects based within serve that purpose. However, I must teach 10th graders to pass the Standardized test in my area of the country. Each student must show a proficiency in language and it’s many uses in writing, vocabulary and usage. I am ALL for the fact that English comes in many forms. My job dictates that I must teach the Standard American English dialect and it’s very stringent guidelines. I understand that many of you don’t see HS English as very important in the grand scheme of things, and I agree there are some very valid arguments as such. However, please take a step back from your ambiguous reality of ambiguity as truth within the language to realize that those 10th graders still need to pass a test based on parameters you don’t see as valid. So, in the end, are you helping or hurting the movement. Are you advancing or muddling the conversation. Allow these young kids to walk and run, before they dive and rock climb. Two cents.

  51. Bryon Satterfield says:

    I don’t buy it that arguments to standardize language necessarily put non-speakers in a lower class. Snobs exist, certainly. Precise language permits clear thinking, a certain advantage to an individual and to society. Weird Al name-calls grown-ups who choose grade-schooler’s language. It’s a little rough, granted. I take it as an attempt at humor, worth a laugh. Ultimately, the song’s bottom line is empowering and laudatory. He’s saying to his audience, “Improve your choice, you are capable of it!”

    • Dan H says:

      You’re kind of contradicting yourself here. On the one hand you’re arguing that attempts to standardize language do not necessarily put non-speakers of the standard dialect in a lower class, but then in the very next sentence you are arguing that “precise language permits clear thinking, a certain advantage to an individual and to society.”

      Now I might be misinterpreting you, but I *think* your argument is that it is good to teach people a standard dialect, because that will allow them to use language more precisely, which will allow them to think more clearly. So you *do* seem to be arguing that people who don’t speak the standard dialect are in a lower class than people who do.

      If so, you’re making an enormous unstated assumption, which is that “standard” dialects are necessarily more precise than non-standard dialects. This is demonstrably untrue. For example, many English dialects include a plural form of “you” (y’all, youse, yez all being attested in various places). This non-standard construction would surely allow for greater precision than the standard use of “you” to mean both you-singular and you-plural.

      I would agree that in order to discuss (and arguably to think about) any concept in great detail you do indeed need specialised language, but that is not standard English, it’s *jargon*. Most technical fields have their own specialised language, but this specialised language is no more part of standard English than cockney rhyming slang.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        I think the example you cite of “y’all” (2nd person plural only) being more precise than the standard-English “you” (ambiguously singular or plural) is precisely (ahem) what Bryon Satterfield had in mind when he touted precision of language. “Y’all” may be viewed by some as a denigratable sub-standard cornpone colloquialism, but I view it as a brilliant advance in linguistic precision and recommend its wider adoption. I believe that’s the meaning Bryon had in mind as well.

  52. Stan says:

    Dan H: Good point about the value of non-standard dialects for some jobs.

    Robert: And do you agree with the practice of calling people morons if I could care less is the normal idiom in their dialect?

    Mr. Orona: You may have misunderstood my post. I have nothing against teaching standard English to children and other language learners. In fact, I’m all for it. It’s an extremely useful dialect. Nowadays, luckily, teaching it no longer goes hand in hand with denigrating other varieties of English as much as it used to; we are making gradual progress in that regard.
    Incidentally, if you’re teaching children standard English then you might want to revise your use of its and it’s.

    Bryon: I don’t see how calling people morons, clowns, dumb mouthbreathers and spastics is “empowering and laudatory”.

    ISBG: ‘There’s a lot wrong with this article (as terrycollmann notes).’
    If you’d like to elaborate on what you think is wrong with my article, please do. You might want to re-read Terry’s comments, as it seems to me that he and I are in broad and consistent agreement. I’m pretty sure Weird Al’s phrase “to not drool” was deliberate, but it’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with splitting infinitives in English apart from the misleading terminology.

    • PC Apologist says:

      Since you mentioned “calling people morons” again, I still think you’re missing the forest for the trees. If you take the video along with the song as a whole, the moron line is married to the “moran” meme. This to me seems strongly to be as much a send-up of the word policeman as the Word Criminal, a la “let-he-who-is-without-sin…”

      • Stan says:

        I thought I’d been fairly clear that Weird Al’s intent is beside the point (since we’re talking about missing the forest for the trees). My post is concerned with how his song will be used by the grammar scolds and cranks who habitually deride and belittle anyone who might struggle with language or rely on a non-standard variety. Somehow I don’t think too many of them will be swayed by a hint of irony.

      • PC Apologist says:

        When you disregard the intent, you tread the same path as those who object to “Huckleberry Finn” and “Short People.”

    • ISBG says:

      Just briefly and in general terms, what’s wrong is the whole liberal tone of the article. I’m afraid that, as a fairly proscriptive linguist, I find that a line must be drawn somewhere. *This* is correct and *that* is not correct, as it were, as laid down by whomever laid these things down. Simply stating that “there’s nothing wrong with…” doesn’t actually make the usage correct in the higher registers. Of course, I realise that once you move oput of the higher registers, these rules cease to be applied, but let’s give our readers the best we can manage, not something as second-rate as a split infinitive.
      The rule about not splitting an infinitive, by the way, derives from older forms of English, where the infinitive and the root of the word were one word which couldn’t be split in any case (e.g. wendan, to go, where wend- is the root, with the “go” meaning, and -an is the infinitive ending; roughly “to”).

      • Stan says:

        ISBG: It’s not a question of moving out of the higher registers. Very few people communicate so formally in their daily dealings with other people. Those registers are not the norm, nor are they “the best we can manage” – they’re just suited to certain formal contexts. There’s nothing superior about them, and nothing second-rate about the split infinitive (even a cursory look at the history of its use would confirm this). And I think the rule about splitting infinitives owes more to conservative grammarians’ regard for Latin than to the syntax of older English.

        ‘as laid down by whomever laid these things down…’
        Fixating on the importance of sounding “proper” means you end up using hypercorrect whomever when whoever is grammatically the more appropriate pronoun. But I’m a liberal sort when it comes to language use, so I won’t take you to task for it.

      • ISBG says:

        Thank you for not hypercorrecting my grammar.

      • Dan H says:

        ‘as laid down by whomever laid these things down…’

        As Stan has already pointed out, “whoever” would actually be more correct here, but I’m rather more concerned by your strange belief that the rules of English were “laid down” by some specific, identifiable group of people. Who do you think these people are? Why do you think people should listen to them?

        The rules of language are like any other set of descriptive rules in a field of academic study. They are useful only insofar as they are an accurate reflection of the system they describe. The laws of physics, as laid down by Aristotle, said for centuries that heavy objects fell faster than light objects, that didn’t mean falling objects were falling in error.

  53. Edward says:

    fs says:
    July 28, 2014 at 8:18 pm
    “Actually, if you went somewhere where the people didn’t speak or understand Standard English, it’s a problem for you, not them. They’re doing just fine”. :-)

    Where would that be? Because if it’s in a country where English is the native language I wouldn’t be going there, and they wouldn’t be doing just fine.

  54. Chris says:

    One thing your criticism seems to ignore is that the satire works by parodying not only content but form. Weird Al, (or if we’re really taking him seriously I’m inclined to call him Albert Yankovich), is relying on a longstanding form in hip hop that relies on besting the genre by ridicule and insult. Ever watch MC’s battle? The point is to make the best insult–over anything, including riffing off opponents’ word choice, syntax, and “word crimes.” So your criticism seems to be going after that form. Or at least dissociates the form from the content of Albert’s lyrics.

    Also, I just want to point out that there have been many who have regularly committed egregious word crimes and have gone on to do great things and assume positions of great responsibility. Yoda, for instance. Or Cookie Monster, who went on to host Monsterpiece Theater for several years in spite of repeatedly saying “Me want Cookies.”

  55. […] The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’ – Old news, I know, but I really liked what this post had to say about language prescriptivism being a bunch of privileged BS. […]

  56. Dieverdog says:

    I loved the video and a lot of the things he mentions in it I have noticed people doing and have been bothered by to some degree. I seldom slam people for it, but I don’t think Weird Al is necessarily saying that HE believes all the things he touts in the video… he is using a platform and he seems to me to be simultaneously poking fun at the poor writers on the web as much as those who mock them. I wouldn’t say that he believes that all the errors or rules that he mentions in the video should be avoided or followed… but that many of them are simply common pet peeves that people rant about so he worked them in. I found it hilarious, catchy, clever and the graphic design was simply stunning. And of course people like you are picking away at it…. not ironic or poetic justice, but certainly expected.

    • Stan says:

      You miss the point, Dieverdog, despite my updating the post a few days ago to emphasise it. What Weird Al intends or believes is of little relevance here – obviously, since he’s a parodist adopting a persona. What I’m more concerned about is how his song will foster discrimination and abuse based on language use. The fact that he seems to be a genuine grammar grouch (and apparently in misguided ways) doesn’t help. There’s very little poking fun at the people doing the mocking.

  57. Edward says:

    Dan H:
    “but I’m rather more concerned by your strange belief that the rules of English were “laid down” by some specific, identifiable group of people. Who do you think these people are? Why do you think people should listen to them?”

    Grammar rules were “laid down” by a certain group of people; a group of people that you would undoubtedly label elitist.

    Without initiating tautological discourse I must assume that everyone on this forum is familiar with the history of grammar and how and why it started.

    You have every right to flout those rules as others have the right to follow them. Although, actually you quite stringently hold fast to the rules, for you want to be heard. After all, who would people listen to, someone who speaks with a dialect, or someone who speaks with clarity and precision?

    You can label Standard English as a dialect and define it as equal to other dialects, but you’re only fooling the people who are vulnerable to such a canard.

    As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. points out in “Cultural Literacy” medieval Europe was a patchwork of mutually unintelligible and rapidly evolving dialects. “If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying.”

    “Could care less”, “who versus whom, split infinitives etc. are not the problems. Language forums constantly debate these shibboleths without seeing the forest for the trees.

  58. It must be emphasised as strongly as possible that the formulation which holds that “prescriptivism” and “descriptivism” represent two ideological poles is entirely erroneous. In fact, everyone performs both “descriptive” and “prescriptive” acts.

    A descriptive act consists of the observation of the actual practices of the members of a language community. Every honest observer does this.

    But we must never overlook the fact that the observer himself/herself is also a part of the language community in question. So, with respect to any given language change, the individual will act either to further this change or to arrest it. Each speaker is, by virtue of his/her practices, setting an example for others; this, in effect, makes out a prescriptive act.

    Furthermore, in the rush to denounce so-called “prescriptivism”, many people forget that language is a kind of behaviour.

    All language conventions are arbitrary, just as are all other behavioural conventions. The arbitrary nature of these conventions, however, does not mean that they are meaningless. And it is on this point that the reflexive condemnation of “prescriptivism” goes badly off the rails.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with dangling participles, with constructions such as “less things”, or even with statements such as “him and me went to the restaurant” or “give it to he and I”. These are wrong only by convention.

    Likewise, there is nothing inherently wrong with scratching one’s rear end — indeed, the urge to do so is perfectly natural. But scratching one’s bottom in public is considered extremely rude (despite its naturalness) by dint of prevailing behavioural convention.

    Similarly, the failure to keep participles aligned with their logical subjects is considered an error by well-educated people, as are the use of “less” with a a countable noun, and the failure to keep the cases of pronouns straight.

    In all these instances, the preferred behaviour has no inherent superiority over the deprecated behaviour; the preferred behaviour serves merely as an indicator that the person has been educated to a certain standard, and thus knows how to act in public.

    Let us realise that it is possible to find oneself in the company of close friends with whom one shares such intimacy that the act of bum-scratching would be happily accepted. But that still wouldn’t make this act an appropriate act for doing in public.

    And it is possible to be in a linguistic environment where the rules of a dialect other than Standard English are the norm. Still, that wouldn’t make the use of that other dialect appropriate outside that particular environment.

    We also must understand that the insistence on Standard English in public settings is not in any way tantamount to a condemnation of other dialects (which is a straw man that is frequently erected by people who seek to attack “prescriptivism”). The goal of edcuation in the norms of Standard English is actually to produce people who are bi-dialectal.

    All dialects are inherently equal; someone speaking in a dialect other than Standard English should not be judged to be intellectually deficient merely on this basis. But someone who has failed to master Standard English alongside that other dialect is justifiably deemed educationally deficient.

    It has already been mentioned that behavioural conventions — linguistic and otherwise — are arbitrary. It should also be noted that they change over time.

    Linguistic example: 50 or 75 years ago, the word “impact”, when used as a verb, was considered a barbarism; today such usage is unremarkable.

    Non-linguistic example: 50 to 75 years ago, a hat was a part of a man’s dress ensemble; today it is not.

    So there may come a time when all of the language practices listed above (dangling participles, “less” with countable nouns, the use of subject pronouns and object pronouns in the opposite cases), which are now errors by the norms of Standard English, will someday become part of that dialect. And it is possible that bum-scratching might one day be deemed perfectly polite.

    However, that time is definitely not now. As of this particular historical moment, all of these behaviours are to be avoided in public, lest one be seen (justifiably) as ill-mannered and boorish.

    • Stan says:

      Ferdinand: We are broadly in agreement. I agree that descriptivism vs. prescriptivism is a false dichotomy. As an editor I enforce prescriptive norms (though not prescriptivist superstitions) every day at work. But as a (non-practising) biologist I am a descriptivist at heart. It is not difficult to reconcile the two in a sensible and informed fashion.

      You say the use of less with countable nouns is currently an error in standard English, but that’s not true. If it were an error, it would not appear in books by Jessica Mitford, T.H. White, Susan Sontag, E.P. Thompson, David Crystal, C.L. Wrenn, Hermann Melville, etc. etc. (I keep a file.)

      • lectorconstans says:

        If those noted writers made less errors, we would be better off. Actually, though, I could care fewer.

      • Stan says:

        So you think you’re right but all those authors were wrong? I see. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has good coverage of less vs. fewer, if you’re interested.

  59. Edward says:

    Stan:

    “Much of the trouble arises because the dialect’s prestige status leads people to believe it’s intrinsically superior.”

    “Those registers are not the norm, nor are they “the best we can manage” – they’re just suited to certain formal contexts.”

    Standard English is not superior, nor is it better, but it possesses “prestige status”.
    .
    “Superior” as defined: 1. Higher than another in rank, station, or authority: a superior officer.

    “Prestigious” as defined: having a high reputation; honored; esteemed; illustrious; noble.

    “Status” as defined: the position of an individual in relation to another or others, especially in regard to social or professional standing. High position or rank in society.

    If we conflate the defined words above, it would seem that “Standard English” could categorically be defined as being better:(of superior quality or excellence 1. Greater in excellence or higher in quality.
    2. More useful, suitable, or desirable: found a better way to go; a suit with a better fit than that one.
    3. More highly skilled or adept:)

    but only in the realm of reality, not in the realm of linguistics.

    However, if we follow the philosophical position of relativism, then all languages are equal; therefore, nothing to worry about. Because a better position in life is relative, and besides, we don’t need to read or understand Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, Joyce, Tolstoy et al. but we wish we could understand Crystal, Pinker, Chomsky, Nunberg et al.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

    • Stan says:

      The idea of correctness in language use is problematic. Some constructions are obviously, categorically incorrect in all grammars (that I know of), e.g., *Dog the today met park a in I. But many people wrongly assume that informal and non-standard varieties of English are incorrect or less correct than formal standard English no matter what the context. This is a damaging and very prevalent belief; I’ve seen it have prolonged and negative effects on people – in the realm of reality, to use your phrase. Correctness, contrary to popular assumption, is not absolute but changes with context.

      • RichardSRussell says:

        Dog the today met park a in I

        Nonsense in English, which is heavily dependent on a word’s position in the sentence to convey its meaning.

        However, in Latin, a word’s role is determined by its ending much more than its position. For example, you can tell which noun an adjective is intended to modify because they share the same case, even when they’re not immediately adjacent to each other. Same with subject-verb agreement. So the above sentence, rendered in proper Latin declensions and conjugations (which I will not even attempt, lo this half-century after last having done so in high school) would be intelligible and (pertinently here) grammatical.

      • lectorconstans says:

        Yes, inflected languages. But even in English, knowing the meanings of the words, and what some researchers call “scripts” (all the surrounding information about the words and places), we can eventually work out that during the time interval “today”, at a place (“park”, with all its attributes and activities), a human (“I”) and a small, four-legged animal of the family Canis), met (“came into close proximity”). If two humans were involved, a different interpretation of “met” would hold. One of the few ambiguities in the scrambled sentence would be to which object the indefinite article applied.

        It used to be the case that “clothes make the man” (you could tell a lot about a man by the way he dressed). That’s still fairly true today – but not always. Steve Jobs – and a lot of highly-placed corporate officers – dressed very casual. On the other hand, it takes only a few seconds to determine the character of a young man who ties his belt below the butt.

      • Stan says:

        Richard: Yes, we’re talking about English. If it helps keep things vaguely on-topic, replace my earlier, deliberately ungrammatical example with *Dog the todays meet park an in I’ve, where more than just word order is deranged.

  60. SIXG says:

    Wait, wait, I’m ‘punching down’ and being classist and possibly racist too for preferring to adhere to the rules of grammar that do exist? I’m ‘punching down’ for knowing where English came from and seeing it as a progression but in the meantime can we please have some form of standard as after all language is about communication, and ghettoisation is as much about deliberate separatism for those not in the social group as it is a (lack of) education or poverty issue?

    And before the assumptions roll in, I’m black Irish, non cis, born into poverty and disabled. But I LEARNED. I learned that there are many styles and dialect of English from Old English to now, and that while it IS evolving, there has to be some underlying constant else its primary purpose as a language is negated.

    There’s not many people I can (or would even want to) punch down AT for goodness’ sake!

    But when ‘they’ don’t have to internally translate what I write because I write in standard (and speak it for the most part) but I have to when they write, I’m not sure how that is meeting half way at all, and meeting half way is the ideal for all interactions. If they don’t know stuff, that’s fine, why wouldn’t it be, we all start with nothing, but if my query as to what they might mean because my translation skills are simply not up to the disparity and that query (not dismissal, not critique, just GENUINE confusion) is met with (as the parlance goes) the butthurt waahmbulance then sorry but I’m done.

    • Stan says:

      ‘I’m ‘punching down’ [...] for preferring to adhere to the rules of grammar that do exist?’
      Er, no, it’s ‘punching down’ if someone is abusing people in less privileged positions for their language use. It has nothing to do with that person’s own linguistic register. Please try to address points I made, not points you’re imagining I made. I’ll also stress, again, that every dialect has “rules of grammar that do exist”.

      ‘while it IS evolving, there has to be some underlying constant’
      Well, no, there doesn’t have to be. English did all right for centuries without a common standard, though I am glad one now exists. More to the point, though, this line I’ve quoted is something of a contradiction. Standard English, far from being (or needing to be) constant, is changing all the time. It changes more slowly but no less categorically than the language of which it’s a part. Standard English is neither uniform nor stable, but it is relatively so, hence its great practical utility.

  61. Edward says:

    Stan:

    “English did all right for centuries without a common standard…”

    This might be true for the educated (elite) group, but if people from one village could not understand the people from another village then there’s a problem.

    Standard English changes in accordance with its generation; nevertheless, it remains “relatively” stable without the ambiguity that dialects might create.

    “…it’s ‘punching down’ if someone is abusing people in less privileged positions for their language use.”

    That is a straw-man argument and it’s a broad-brush statement if you’re including all prescriptivists and “only” prescriptivists.

    Furthermore, elitism is endemic in all branches of learning, but not as overt as it is in language. Obviously this stands to reason for we automatically judge people by how they speak, whether we do it unconsciously or deliberately the judgment call is omnipresent.

    Regardless, the debate is about language not about ethic and morals. Moreover, I find it a little disingenuous to shift from elitism to abusive behavior; there is no direct association.

    • Stan says:

      ‘That is a straw-man argument…’
      Nope. But nice try.

      ‘it’s a broad-brush statement if you’re including all prescriptivists and “only” prescriptivists.’
      I’m not. But there’s your straw man.

      ‘the debate is about language not about ethic[s]‘
      It’s about both.

      ‘disingenuous to shift from elitism to abusive behavior’
      I raised the topic of abusive behaviour in the post, over a week ago. I’ve made no reference to elitism – that’s mostly been you.

      I think we’re done here.

  62. RichardSRussell says:

    Speaking of “Word Crimes”, I just got an ad at the bottom of an e-mail message advising me to “Follow this 1 weird tip to speak fluent any language” (except, perhaps, English).

  63. Neil says:

    “Weird Al seems like a good sort”

    Why say things you obviously don’t mean, Stan?

  64. londonstatto says:

    “For example. Could care less isn’t wrong – it’s an idiomatic variant.”

    It means you could care (at least a little).

    “Whom is on the way out in most contexts.”

    But “to who” sounds wrong, just as much as “whom” in any other context except immediately following a preposition sounds wrong.

    “The Oxford comma is just a style preference.”

    Yes, and he doesn’t reject it.

    “Abbreviating words as single letters is fine in texting or very informal writing.”

    If you’re seven. (Or your name is Prince)

    “Less for fewer isn’t wrong.”

    Oh, come on.

    “Non-literal literally isn’t either (and has been used even in classic literature for literally centuries).”

    Its misuse has devalued the word.

    • Stan says:

      londonstatto, thanks for reading and engaging. A few quick points:

      ‘It means you could care (at least a little).’
      No, it doesn’t. That’s a hyper-literal misreading of an idiom.

      ‘But “to who” sounds wrong, just as much as “whom” in any other context except immediately following a preposition sounds wrong.’
      Try reading the post about whom that I linked to. It addresses this.

      ‘If you’re seven. (Or your name is Prince)’
      I get single-letter abbreviations in texts from people of all ages and walks of life, including my grandmother. I don’t tend to use them myself, but there’s nothing wrong with the custom.

      ‘Oh, come on.’
      You’re not making a case here, but anyway. Less has been used with count nouns for over a thousand years. As I said in an earlier comment (and you can be forgiven for not reading them all), if the usage were wrong it would not be found in books by Jessica Mitford, T.H. White, Susan Sontag, David Crystal, C.L. Wrenn, Hermann Melville, and many, many others. Try reading the post about this that I linked to, or look it up in e.g. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Evidence has a way of contradicting assumptions.

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