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.
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.
I 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.
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.