What’s so bad about Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”?

So Weird Al Yankovic is back. To completely lift the words of my brilliant friend Stoo, “you remember Weird Al, right? He was last popular around the same time as nothing at all, ever”. On Tuesday night, I watched his second video-a-day offering (following Monday’s ‘Tacky’, a daft but vaguely entertaining ditty to the tune of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’). Called ‘Word Crimes’, it’s set to the tune of omnipresent twat-anthem Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, and is a lighthearted riff on the mistakes people make in written and spoken language. OR IS IT? (Clue: it isn’t.)

As soon as I read that blurb, I inwardly sighed. Then as I watched it, I outwardly sighed. A lot. I knew within hours it would be a viral hit with the ~liberal educated Internet crowd~ (of which I am one, I hasten to add), and was proved right when I opened Facebook this morning and several friends had shared it and sung its praises.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the wordplay is solid (rhyming “educate ya” and “nomenclature” definitely raised a smile) and god knows I’d rather listen to a less sexually predatory version of that song (“You would not use ‘it’s’ in this place” was slightly more palatable on the ears than “You the hottest bitch in this place”.) But it’s gross. It sums up everything that’s wrong with the current ~liberal educated Internet crowd’s~ habit of mobilising themselves as some kind of Language Army, taking down anybody who doesn’t conform to one particular type of English in order to cleanse the human race of morons and half-wits (read: to mutually pat each other on the back and bask in their collective superiority complex).

inb4 “Oh GOD you’re such a killjoy” – maybe I am. But this isn’t just some random video. This is going viral, will be watched by millions, and will inevitably be used for months to come by pedants to try and validate their weird obsession with making people feel bad about themselves.

English is the second most-spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin. It’s also the most-spoken second language in the world, and while totals are near-impossible to estimate, it’s probably reaching the point where almost a billion people speak some kind of English to some degree of fluency. A seventh of the population of Earth. That’s pretty cool (if you don’t think too much about the fact that it’s mostly because of colonialism/general douchebaggery that this is the state of affairs), and it’s pretty sweet that so many people can communicate with this one language. The language being spoken in so many places inevitably means it’s going to change. Language changes constantly; that’s just a fact of life, inevitable, and most definitely not negative. There’s a chance, owing to the vastness of its number of speakers, combined with the near-instant communication a huge number of us have access to and the dominance and reach of English language media, that these changes will be accelerated, and have been over the last few decades.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but society hasn’t collapsed in on itself just yet. As the English language has spread and changed; as we’ve introduced thousands of new words; as some of us have started using “was like” instead of “said” as a quotative; as people have occasionally spelt words with numbers in emails and text messages; as second person indirect pronoun “whom” has started to be used less often — the world has not spontaneously imploded or been sucked into the cavernous mouth of a hell-demon. Also, we can still communicate as effectively as ever.

And, funnily enough, hundreds of years ago when English lost its case inflection system, and the pronouns “thee” and “thou” (leaving “you” to act as both singular and plural second person signifier), and when the Great Vowel Shift caused (among other things) the word “night” to change from ‘nikt’ to ‘nayt’, we also didn’t spontaneously combust. In fact, we continued progressing to a society that now has stuff like 3D printed organs and peanut butter cup ice cream. Changes in language don’t mean that we as an English-speaking population will grind to a halt due to being unable to successfully communicate with each other. It just doesn’t. We adapt to the changes (even if that means a couple of instances of minor miscommunication, which are easily overcome) and then we carry on our merry way(s).

It’s natural to fear and reject the unfamiliar, I get that. But it’s only since the formalisation of arbitrary grammar rules and regulations that deviating from this perceived norm has resulted in pointing fingers and accusations of being “raised in a sewer”. Until the 17th Century (ish), without a formal way of printing language and very little in the way of transport, English was spoken differently in different places with no real bother. Then BAM, industrialisation. Trains! Roads! A conscious class system! At some point, those in the South East (London-based, mostly) decided that the way they spoke was the proper way. And, having the money and facilities open to them, decided to write books to that effect, books that ended up in schools and which still inform English language teaching to this day. Now, this isn’t in itself a completely terrible thing. Language teaching is good, it gives people a tool for communication, etc. etc.

BUT, these books stated that anything that deviated from this South Eastern standard was wrong. Now, it’s not like everyone outside of this area was bellowing at each other and/or shrugging their shoulders until this point, completely unable to communicate. No, they had lives and communities and workplaces and everyone got along merrily. As soon as these kind of books were published (and listened to), the language that people outside the SE of England spoke became wrong. Bad. Defective. Immediately. Through luck and social circumstance, one variety of English got picked to be the proper one, and from then on it became okay to mock, deride and ridicule anybody who deviated from that, despite the fact that their own varieties of English were equally adequate at communication. The upper classes, then (for it was these who wrote said books), had yet another way to disregard the thoughts and opinions of the lower classes, because if they couldn’t speak properly (i.e. adhering to the rules the rich folk made up), then they were barbaric and weren’t worth listening to anyway.

“But that happened hundreds of years ago, Hannah! That is sooooo 18th Century!” I know that, but the exact same kind of message is put out in these videos, and by grammar pedants like this little shit. 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.

“Whom” is used less often now because not using it doesn’t directly impair the understanding of a sentence. You know what the person means anyway. In fact, if you’re pointing out a ‘mistake’, you must understand them in the first place in order to do so. People who dangle participles or use the newer, extended emphatic meaning of “literally” or use single letters to occasionally replace words are not, as Al states, “incoherent”. They’re perfectly coherent, and their communicative purpose is unimpaired – you just don’t like it, and want to make them feel bad about it.

And boy, does this song do that. “You’re a lost cause.” “You dumb mouth breather.” “Get out of the gene pool.” “That literally makes me want to smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.”

inb4 “It’s just a song, he’s using those phrases to make it rhyme and sound funny!” Oh believe me, you don’t have to delve far into the Internet to see identical comments being made by the self-proclaimed ‘grammar police’, and in conversations on the topic the sentiment remains very similar.

There’s a lot of reasons a person might not know that ‘whom’ is the indirect version of a second person interrogative pronoun. Maybe they’ve never heard it (because of how it’s dying out). Maybe they were never formally taught it, whether it was omitted from their English lessons, or they didn’t progress through the education system to the point where this is taught. Maybe they’re a second language speaker, and haven’t got to the level of fluency to easily use it. Maybe they’re dyslexic, or have another kind of language impairment. Telling any one of these people to “get out of the gene pool” is obscene. It’s demeaning and cruel, and purely to make them feel small and you feel big. Can you imagine being told that? Being hounded for not following a certain rule, even though the main function of your speech or writing (i.e. communication) was successful?

Just stop. Stop the grammar police. Stop hurling wildly hyperbolic insults at people for daring to deviate from a standard. Accept that language changes, and that it’s okay. Encourage people to learn language so we can all communicate more and easily, but don’t shit on them if their version of it is different to yours. It’s classist bullshit, and it’s so 2010.

Also, I should stress, this charming parody song includes the line “you write like a spastic”, and really, that is reason alone to throw it in the bin.

tl;dr – the English language is not a sacred thing we must uphold at all costs, and being nasty to people who deviate from a set of outdated and arbitrary rules makes you an asshole.

NB. For a less-sweary, better-articulated version of this response, you can do no better than Lauren Squires or Stan Carey, both of whom are excellent.

EDIT 23/07/13 – So some of the feedback I’ve had on this post has been amazing, and some not so positive – that’s cool, obviously, I barely agree with myself half the time so I don’t see why everyone else should! I just wanted to address a couple of points raised:

1. I spelt Weird Al’s surname incorrectly. My bad, genuinely sorry about that, have changed it now.

2. As a native speaker of British English, I reacted badly to Al’s use of the word “spastic” in the song, as over in the UK it’s a pretty horrid ableist slur. Having read up on it (thanks to an informative post here), I see the same word in US English has a far less offensive meaning, akin to ‘klutz’. I also see Al has sincerely apologised to British listeners who didn’t like it. Fair play, that one’s on me too.

2.5. 24/07/13 – Okay, I slept on this one, and a couple of comments have made me decide that, actually, my discomfort with the word still stands. Regardless of its innocuous status in US English, the word’s roots are still pretty ableist, and I think it should have been (and should be) avoided.

3. A few people have said that the song is a parody of prescriptivism and language policing itself, and that I have entirely missed the point. I’m afraid it doesn’t look like that’s the case – Al has spoken about the song, and confirms that he holds the beliefs it puts forward about ‘proper grammar’.

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.”

Alas.

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77 responses to “What’s so bad about Weird Al’s “Word Crimes”?

  1. “tl;dr – the English language is not a sacred thing we must uphold at all costs, and being nasty to people who deviate from a set of outdated and arbitrary rules makes you an asshole.”

    Actually, it makes you a dick. An asshole is a person with an entrenched sense of entitlement, who thinks agreed-upon social rules don’t apply to them. You’re talking about people enforcing social rules when it’s not, in your view, their place. See Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory http://amzn.com/0385535651.

    And, to save you the trouble, yes, this makes me a smart-ass. :)

  2. As someone who has been paid to correct people’s English, I’m kinda with you. If it’s just a case of an individual talking to their (Facebook) friends, I really don’t care if they get things wrong. I’m done with correcting people. It doesn’t make me feel any better about myself. I don’t get that smug superiority thing.

    I’m seeing a girl who uses the word ‘gena’ as a contraction of ‘going to’, where I use ‘gonna’. I think I commented on that, but only because I’d never seen it before. I certainly don’t feel the need to stop her from using it. It doesn’t turn me off.

    If it’s in a professional situation and it’s clear that someone has made a mistake (particular if it comes from my company, and particularly if it’s something that I could’ve caught), then yeah, I feel bad for the individual. But not the company. Because, as you say, they will survive this. Hell, they’ll probably thrive, even with this non-perfect English speaker in their ranks. As XKCD points out (http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php?title=1108) trying to change things has no real affect.

    • Thanks! I agree, there’s a place for using a standard form in professional context, but it’s the ‘making people feel bad about their language’ bit that’s gross. And thanks for linking that XKCD comic – it’s excellent!

      • I’d be interested to know what you think about Stella Artois’ “It’s called cidre, not cider” campaign. To me, this is the absolute worst example; a company (one whose main product is nicknamed ‘wife-beater’) trying to sound classy by telling an entire nation that they are spelling/pronouncing a drink wrong (when they aren’t). I’m still trying to figure out how that idea got approval.

    • It’s better to remain silent and thought a fool or text and remove all doubt

  3. Killjoy? Nah. Being smart, having a heart and getting excited are good things.

    I used to be super guilty of language maven asshole-ery. There’s hope for assholes!

    P.S.: I suspect humans have a “mental quirk” that, crazily enough, facilitates the moralization of speech/language conventions. Hence, the benighted ‘moral superiority’ complex. Sadly, I can’t elaborate on this “mental quirk” here. (It’s an elusive beast to me, but I think I’ve heard its calls.)

    • I was too! I think that might be part of why I feel so strongly about it – residual guilt at having been part of the asshole club in my past.

  4. Thank you so very much.

  5. It’s a bit of fun… Nobody’s making you listen. Spare your invective for someone who actually deserves it, and since you are being so precise about things, the man’s name is Yankovic… no “h”. and its pronounced Yanko-vick, not vitch. He is a really nice man who is just going about his business and not harming anyone. So he made a song you don’t like or agree with.. How about pouring similar scorn on people who are, through their music, teaching kids to disrespect women and glorify violence.. Sense of proportion would be nice

    • Firstly, I’ve corrected my spelling of his name in the post now – sorry about that, and thanks for pointing it out.

      As for your other comments – there has been swathes and swathes of journalistic comment on the foul, inappropriate and borderline dangerous ideals of Robin Thicke’s original ‘Blurred Lines’, and other misogynistic music. I agree with it all, and I think it’s monstrous. I couldn’t have put it better myself – so I didn’t. I’m not an expert on women’s issues, so I didn’t write about misogyny in music. I could have tried, but it would have been wanting.

      I am, however, a linguist. I know about some of this stuff, and I care about it. I haven’t said in this post that I consider this more important than addressing the normalisation of violence against women in music. I don’t consider it more important. But I do think the issue of language policing is important, and warranted some commentary. I think there is a little harm in this song, actually. And I know something about it, so I wrote it.

  6. Very well said. Like Moe I have also been guilty of this kind of thing in the past. The fact that I hail from the South East of England, and hence that it’s “my” version of English that people are messing with, might have something to do with that.

    Anyhow, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the parts of language that arguably do matter a bit more than others. I’m thinking of things that remove ambiguity, or where people end up saying things which aren’t what they meant.

    There are plenty of examples of words having changed meaning in the past and I suppose context helps a lot, but it can be difficult to draw the line between just saying something differently, and saying something different.

    • Thanks! I was definitely guilty of this in the past, too. I think I even used the phrase ‘Grammar Nazi’ in my past, which makes me shudder to think about. It’s easily done, but it’s nice to see we can all move on from it :)

      Helping people to communicate fully, without ambiguity, is brilliant – I’d like to make it easier on non-native speakers (for example), and pointing out that part of their language structure may/has led to them being misunderstood is a helpful thing to do. The line is blurry between style issues and issues of miscommunication obviously, but it’s the attitude that’s my main issue. If someone needs help communicating, by all means help them and use the rules that enable us to freely communicate, but just don’t make them feel terrible about themselves!

  7. Spastic in the US and spastic in the UK mean two different things, ye bloody Redcoat arsehole

  8. I haven’t heard this song yet, but whenever anyone talks about this kind of thing, I’m always put in mind of this piece by Stephen Fry:

    and reminded to let it go.

    (In fact, I’ve started to get more irritated that Scrabble games are less flexible with language than English actually is — it’s a perfectly reasonable construction in English, for instance, to take “en” or “be” and stick it in front of a noun to make a verb out of it, Scrabble.)

  9. Hey, Hannah, I don’t know you but I was directed to your misdirected post by Stan Carey, so you have him to blame for this.

    Here in the US, the word “spastic” simply means capricious, but with the obvious negative connotation of any name-calling. Any kid in school who couldn’t sit straight, he or she’d be a “spas.” Was it offensive? Let me tell you, I was one of the kids who absolutely could not sit straight. No, definitely not. It was uncomfortable always to be the object of any derision, but being called a spas was high on the list of possible appelatives. My fellow spasses and I came to cherish it. Now, I presume you are in the UK because of “bin” so perhaps spastic carries over there the same stigma as “retarded” does here. About ten years there was a campaign to remove the word retard from common usage. If Weird Al used the word “retarded” in the song, I would have been taken aback.

    But that raises two questions. First and foremost, at what point will all of our slurs be removed from casual discourse? Another example: I watch a lot of your “telly” and the word “cunt” appears as frequently as American “tv” uses “bitch.” I find both offensive, but cunt is as offensive as nigger and faggot, two words which are so offensive to hear that I immediately turn and walk away. So with all the cunts being spit about on the the English tube, I’ve had to condition my reaction. Over here, cunt and retard are probably on the same level as offensiveness, so if you are saying that spastic is that degree of vulgarity, then I am shocked but also intrigued by the differences in our usages.

    Which leads into the second question: Your entire article here argues for inclusivity of colloquial usage. And yet, you want to throw this song in the “bin” for a single word that doesn’t mean here what it means there? Isn’t that grossly hypocritical? Granted, calling someone a hypocrite is the WORST insult, and I want to make it clear I am not calling you a hypocrite. The notion put forth in this article, however, is clearly hypocritical. You argue for acceptance of all dialects, usages, etc, and that must include non-standard words, loanwords, and the like. What about a totally standard word that has a noncommunicable colloquial meaning?

    If it matters to you at all, Weird Al apologized when his British listeners responded to that word: https://twitter.com/alyankovic/status/490724534513700864

    So, there’s that. And I’m not through. But I can keep this next part concise: Weird Al’s bit has always been that he’s a nerd. If you didn’t prove in your lede that you were not only not a fan but totally disinterested in his career, I’d cite about a dozen examples right now.

    What you call the “liberal educated Internet crowd” is the exact thing he’s mocking, and that you missed that speaks to your predilection more than his talent.

    I don’t envision Weird Al standing with a blackboard on Ellis Island shouting grammar rules at immigrants. His parody is clearly aimed at the same crowd who made Blurred Lines popular. That’s part of the fun of his work, you have to imagine the audience of the original listening to the parody. He’s good at what he does and so he’s able to mock both sides at the same time. Nobody who’s writing and performing a hit R&B song cares about “to who” vs “to whom.” And yet to people who do care about grammar, it’s funny because he’s able to cram a ton of pedantry into a a rather short pop tune. The superiority complex you fear is exactly what he’s mocking by taking it full tilt.

    I will cite this one: White & Nerdy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9qYF9DZPdw

    He took “Ridin’ Dirty” and wrote a song about being good at Tetris, calculus, wearing pocket protectors, etc. and though he can brag about all of these accomplishments in a hyper-fast rap, his black neighbors and the local ‘gangstas’ won’t hang out with him. Dare I say it, there’s a great comment on race relations in this parody song, especially when you consider that the original song is about the way these rappers are profiled by police who are trying to catch them riding ‘dirty’ (with contraband).

    Even the original artist, Chamillionaire, loved that song: http://yankovic.org/blog/2006/09/13/high-praise-from-chamillionaire/

    Really goofy ideas, clever rhymes, nerdy perspective, and unexpected violent imagery. These have been the mainstays of Weird Al’s career.

    I forgive you for completing missing the joke because I used to watch clips of Alan Partridge and just.not.get.it. Until I realized Steve Coogan exists.

    Also, you spelled his name wrong.

    • Hey! Firstly, thanks for pointing out the US/UK English differences re: spastic. I honestly didn’t know about that, and because it’s so awful over here, I just recoiled and reacted. I’ve now added an addendum to the post explaining it all.

      Oddly, I would say that ‘cunt’ for some people over here mirrors that same difference – I throw the word around like it’s nothing, whereas some people react very badly to it. To me, ‘spastic’ and ‘retard’ are equally awful (probably because they’re overtly ableist), while ‘cunt’ is just a swear word (though I know it has issues of misogyny). It’s a strong swear word, and not one I would (for example) say in front of my mother, but just a swear word.

      As for your point re: hypocrisy — if I’d *known* that, in US English, ‘spastic’ wasn’t a direct ableist slur, and had gone on to suggest the song be discredited based entirely on that word, that would have made me hypocritical. But I honestly had no idea, so my points that the song on the one hand was policing people’s language just to make them feel bad and on the other was using ableist slurs weren’t contradictory. If he’d used the word ‘retarded’ in the place of ‘spastic’, I would have made the same point, and I imagine you wouldn’t have liked it either. I think it was my misunderstanding of ‘spastic’ that made the post seem hypocritical.

      Also, I’m not entirely sure the song is as self-aware as you think – Al has given interviews saying that he concurs with his the song’s ethos http://www.grammarly.com/blog/2014/exclusive-interview-weird-al/ and there’s no real aspect of him criticising pedants for their pedantry. He’s straight-up mocking people’s non-standard grammar usage because he thinks he’s right. I have actually followed his career, and am very familiar with White and Nerdy among others, and have found them amusing. But I don’t think I’ve missed the joke here – I just don’t think the joke is funny.

    • Well, I don’t happen to agree that calling someone a hypocrite is the “worst” insult. I grew up to believe precisely that, but now I know better.

      The word “hypocrite” got a bad rap from Jesus in the N.T. In modern times, however, being a hypocrite not only constitutes an informed response to the cognitive dissonance that slaps us in the face daily, but also represents a coping mechanism for dealing with a world that is quite harsh to those who hang out in the third standard deviation. One may well be a hypocrite in order to function in a society with norms that strongly contradict one’s own predilections.

  10. Pingback: The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’ | Sentence first

  11. But presumably the use of the word ‘spastic’ to refer to someone who is clumsy still comes from reference to spasicity, and therefore to a disability/medical condition? I can’t find an explanation for a completely different origin that the British word.

    • Thank you for saying this. As I posted my addendum yesterday I thought ‘I still just do not like the use of that word, it still feels ableist’, but I was a bit too chicken to make that stand after so many US English speakers had told me I overreacted. But your comment made me surer, and you’re right – the roots are still very much in ableism and it’s not cool to use it. The second addendum above now clarifies that :)

  12. It’s about proficiency. Some people can play guitar, others are virtuosos. Does that make them better? The answer, is a resounding yes. English is a language, with rules (albeit some stupid ones) that should be adhered to in order to use it correctly. Yes, language evolves, but if you cannot navigate the language according to the rules, then you are, to a degree, illiterate. By definition.
    I don’t see any need to make fun of people for it, though I do think that the argument that language evolves dismisses the laziness and general decline in education standards of our society.

    • But is someone who is a virtuoso at the guitar any better than a person who is a virtuoso at the English language, or who is amazing at drawing, or gives really fantastic hugs? And for that matter is a person who plays virtuoso classical spanish guitar better than someone who plays mean jazz guitar or fantastic country guitar or really solid pop guitar? I feel like the point Hannah is making is that just because a person uses a form of English which doesn’t meet your specific standards, doesn’t mean they need to “get out of the gene pool”. I would also direct your and Hannah’s attention to this TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_lyiscott_3_ways_to_speak_english

      • YES. YES YES YES. The genre analogy and the TED Talk are perfect, thank you so much – people are incredible at their own form of English, and it’s only arbitrary power structures that decide their forms are deficient. It’s like insisting that classical music is better than all other kinds. And the analogy extends beyond that – if someone is trying to learn classical guitar, but struggles to obey all the rules of that discipline, belittling them in such a cruel way is a horrible thing to do.

    • To extend the guitar analogy, if I may, there is an art, a skill, and a precision to expressing oneself that is lost when we just bang on the instrument without regard to technique. We may still be communicating something, but not to as many people, and not as effectively.

      Also, clarity of communication is something of value. If I use a word thinking it means one thing, and you use it or hear it meaning another, we are not communicating. Similarly, if my lack of understanding of grammar causes you to misinterpret my meaning, we are not communicating. Sometimes you can infer someone’s meaning. You can say I understand you, even though that’s not what you said. But at some point, at some level, there will be a breakdown in communication. It’s not something so easily dismissed, I think, as elitists, or clasist, or whatever. It’s robotics elitist or classist simply because it requires study?

      That said, I’ve taught ESL abroad, and I’m pleased to no end to know that by and large they desire to get it right. They strive for eloquence and correct usage, much more so than many native speakers who blow off such things these days.

      • And how do you like my typos? :)

      • May I refer you to Ellen’s comment above? Your analogy suggests that there is only one way to play the guitar, but there isn’t – there’s styles, genres, and each are appropriate in different situations and enjoyed and appreciated by different people. People who don’t adhere to the rules listed in the videos as ‘word crimes’ aren’t just banging on the instrument without regard to technique – their technique is perfectly good, particularly to the ears of anybody else who speaks the same variety of English as them.

        Now, where the guitar analogy does make sense is with language learners; just as with music students, they might not know all the rules immediately and their lack of clarity with them will mean their speaking/playing might not match virtuoso standards. But we need to
        1) realise that some of the rules they’re not abiding by don’t need to be abided by in the first place, and not critique their technique just because it doesn’t match an arbitrary set of rules;
        2) realise that the rules are in place because *somebody put them there*, not because they’re god-given or inherently right, and acknowledge that rules are put in place because of a power structure. Context is everything;
        3) if somebody’s non-adherence to grammatical ‘rules’ *is* impeding communication, constructively and reassuringly advise them, explaining that different language is useful in different situations (we all style-shift, every single one of us), and NOT deride them or mock them in a patronising and superior manner.

        A virtuoso guitar teacher would/should never mock a pupil. Neither should we.

        (Also, guitar playing and language differ in that you can be just as eloquent by breaking the rules as by adhering to them. Language is a tool for manipulation, and non-standard usage can be incredibly powerful and engaging.)

    • The mistake you are making here is to assume that “virtuoso” English means “obeying a set of arbitrarily imposed rules.”

      A person who obeys false language rules (like who/whom, or that/which, or can/may) is a *less skilled* user of English than somebody who does not obey those rules.

      A virtuoso of English is a poet, a lyricist, a librettist or – indeed – a rapper. Somebody who goes around “correcting” supermarket signs isn’t a virtuoso, they’re a Bowdler.

      • Yes! Manipulation of language is as much as skill as adherence to the ‘correct’, arbitrary rules – speaking many varieties rather than just one. I really like the link to Bowdler, too. Thank you!

  13. Thanks for pointing out that “whom” isn’t being used as much any more. I hate that word. It’s pointless and priggish and pedantic, when “who” expresses the same thought just fine. I’d almost rather hear someone say “I seen” than hear someone say “to whom”, and I’d sooner have needles stuck in my eyes than hear anyone say “I seen.” And I hear it every damn day.
    Anyway, you’re correct–language adapts. I do hate the general dumbing down of it, though, that modern music, texting, and trying to sound “street” have helped to bring about.

    • Hm. Thanks for your comments on ‘whom’ – I agree that to police that is priggish and pedantic. But I’m of the opinion that to police things like ‘I seen’ and the so-called “dumbing down” of language is priggish and pedantic, too! I’m intrigued – how do you think modern music, texting and trying to sound “street” are doing this?

      For texting in particular, may I refer you to Kate’s earlier blog on the subject? https://solongasitswords.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/is-texting-ruining-our-language/

      • Soooo, you actually expect me to make sense, and to be able to back up my rash statements? Hmm. That’s a tall order, ha ha. I really like your statement, “I barely agree with myself half the time so I don’t see why everyone else should”, because I’m “all about that.” As for texting, yeah, using 2 for “to” or “too” doesn’t necessarily make us dumber, but maybe using “prolly” for “probably” does. As for my rash statement about modern music making us dumber, at language, I may have been missing the point a bit, or a lot. While it’s true that something like Nicki Minaj saying “Tell them bitches cross they t’s and dot they I’s” (from “Boss Ass Bitches”) may not advance the cause of proper use of the English language, really it’s more about the general lyrical content of much of modern music, more than the grammar or the spelling, that makes my ears want to bleed. Nearly anything by Lil Wayne, Eminem. or a host of other rappers is just plain dumb. Yeah, we get it–you could buy a whole floor of Macy’s goods, you rap better than anyone else, your ride is better than anyone else’s, the rims on your car, just by themselves, make you better than anyone else, your sexual prowess is better than anyone else’s, etc.
        Country music is no better. Look at the country top 40 from any time in the last decade or so. Almost everything is about driving on a dirt road with my buddies and my girl (who’s hotter in her cutoff jeans than any other country girl) and being more patriotic than the next guy and drinkin’ Jack or longneck beers and rockin’ the joint (most likely a bar in a barn) till dawn. Scotty McCreery’s “Feelin’ It” is a prime example of this. Or anything at all by Jason Aldean. A duo called Maddie and Tae even speak of this, saying they’re not the typical “Girl in a Country Song.”
        As far as “I seen” is concerned, you’re right. A person shouldn’t go around correcting people when they say this. That’s just not cool. And I don’t, although the next time my “best buddy”, a hyper-critical mechanical engineer with a degree (who finds something to criticize about my house or my vehicles every time he visits) says this, I’m tempted to call him a hillbilly. They do teach this in 3rd grade, after all (“I see, I saw, I have seen”). I think it should be talked about in school, every year in English class. Teachers should tell their students what I tell my 9-year old sweet little daughter (whose mom and stepdad both say “I seen”): “Never, ever, EVER, correct your parents if they say this, but YOU should try to say “I saw” instead of “I seen.” If enough teachers would do this, maybe it would be gradually phased out and I could die a peaceful death someday. I’m convinced that the last words I’ll hear in my life will be some doctor and nurse (both with years and years of post-high school education) saying to each other “I think he’s getting better; I seen his eyes flicker a little,” followed by, “Yeah, I seen it too.”
        Oh, and thanks so much for making me do hours of research on the ‘net trying to find dreadful song lyrics to back up my statements, just because I hate sounding like an idiot. ;)

  14. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  15. I don’t agree with your opinion on the song (I love it) and think you are taking it a wee too seriously, but I love your writing! I love Weird Al and think his songs are brilliant and under-appreciated. I *do* agree with your anti-grammar police stance, however. I never correct a person’s grammar, because I agree that’s just douchey. Language has evolved and I certainly don’t want to go back to speaking Olde English or whatever. But the Weird Al song makes me laugh because to me it’s poking fun of how people represent themselves on social media. Plus, as a writer I appreciate the occasional pedantic rant on grammar. But I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Interesting post!

    • It’s good to know that, even if my opinions aren’t agreed with fully, my daft writing style is still enough to engage people (and not put them off!) – thank you!

  16. I don’t think they are daring to deviate. They don’t have the knowledge which reflects our poor educational system and the ego stroking that has gone on for the last 20 years. Go America!
    Congrats on your Freshly Pressage! Great topic!

  17. This is a good, insightful article. I don’t think I agree with your point about “spastic” – I’m pretty sure next to nobody in the US knows the British meaning of the world, and it’s kind of unreasonable to expect an American like Weird Al to consider different meanings of the word in every English dialect around the world, much less to realize it might be offensive in a different dialect. But your point’s well taken in general. Good language and good writing should be natural, most of all. It can be both natural and grammatical, but there are different ways of talking and writing.

    Still, the misuse of its and it’s bugs the shit out of me. Sorry, but I’m not dropping this one.

    • The ‘spastic’ point is a tricky one – I understand it’s difficult to criticise someone for the usage if they had no idea, but ignorance is often a weak excuse. I think the word’s use more generally is what I have issues with.

      It’s the attitude that’s the issue, not the adherence to the ‘rule’ – if someone gets it wrong, it’s about not getting cross and cruel about it.

  18. Brilliantly put-forward argument, Hannah – I agree with you 110%! As a language student I naturally get twitchy about some of the more glaring grammatical errors, but that twitch pales in comparison to how irate prescriptive grammar police make me. One small criticism, though – I’m not quite sure that the standardisation of English (in Britain) is as classist as you’d expect, as it was more rooted in the Chancery than strictly the upper classes, but then again I suppose those in the Chancery were only there because of having access to the education that the poor were deprived of. Hmm.

    Anyway, great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Also, a second point (I had to wait to validate this one as I wasn’t 100% sure when I was at work) – English is actually the THIRD most-spoken language in the world. Spanish is the second :)

      • Hi! Thanks for your comment, and for your enthusiasm! I’m not well-schooled in the Chancery (that’s more Kate’s bag!) but that does make sense. Regardless, like you say, the privilege issue is still key, even if it’s not the upper classes.

        As for the languages – I believe Spanish is the 2nd most-spoken native language, but adding in all the non-native speakers (E2L and EFL, etc.) I think English just tips the scale – I should have been clearer about that in the post itself. That said, I just looked at about eight different sources and they don’t all agree!

        Thank you :)

  19. Ugh this is SO GOOD. I grew up reading comics and proper wordbooks pretty much from waking up until I went to bed. I know I have an excellent grasp on spelling, and I like to think my grammar is pretty good as well. When I actually want to write with my grown-up words I can be quite skilled at it, and I think it surprises some people when they first see me do it because I cultivate an appearance of having been taught English from 4chan and tumblr. I have never understood why people feel the need to lord it over someone whose grammar isn’t so great….I’m shit at most sports, but most people are nice enough not to rub my nose in it when I give it a go. I don’t see why I should be a douchebag just because someone isn’t as skilled as I am in other areas, or if they don’t see it as a priority to prove that they are.

    I do agree with you that it’s an issue of classism…if you can understand the message does it really matter if someone isn’t across the exact rules of written communication as established in Ye Olden Times?

    • Thank you so much! One of my favourite things about tumblr/4chan talk (and internet speak in general) is that it has its own rules and they’re just as strict as the general English ones, and it can be just as expressive as Standard English (more waffle about that here https://solongasitswords.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/why-do-people-on-the-internet-write-so-poorly/).

      But YES, not being completely familiar with the rules of a sport/not playing it to professional standards doesn’t encourage people to be foul towards you, so why should it be that way for language? :)

      • That was some good waffle! The point about deliberately using different punctuation/grammar rules is interesting and not something I’ve thought about a lot, but very valid! Since I discovered doge, so many of my responses to things now are ‘very ____ much _____’ etc and it’s interesting how stuff like that gets incorporated into normal language usage :)

  20. I learned the other day that “spastic” is slang for those with illnesses like Cerebral Palsy. I liked what Weird Al did with Blurred Lines until that. I saw it as funny and lighthearted which I am sure was his intention. I don’t even know if he knows that spastic has been used in such a terrible way.

    • It is indeed, which is why I also took to it so badly. It’s understandable that someone wouldn’t know the root of the word, but it’s important that the ableist root is made known so the word isn’t used any more.

      • with your other post about swearing in mind, let me play devil’s advocate here: Do you think it’s important that the sexist root of “cunt” be made known so that the word isn’t used anymore? Or would “spastic” be okay like “cunt” if it were a swear word?

    • On twitter recently, he mentioned that he hadn’t know that, and apologized for it.

  21. “The upper classes, then (for it was these who wrote said books), had yet another way to disregard the thoughts and opinions of the lower classes, because if they couldn’t speak properly (i.e. adhering to the rules the rich folk made up), then they were barbaric and weren’t worth listening to anyway.”- This statement instantly made me think about the societal norms, which somebody decided to make, and we as a society follow. Those who don’t follow them end up being looked down upon. Doesn’t this, then come off as something that every system has?
    I might be taking this to a completely different level, but since ages, somebody has been making some rules, and others have been obeying them, for fear of chaos (and sometimes punishment). What then, is wrong to follow the ‘rules’ of English? Wouldn’t that bring uniformity? I’m not judging as to who has the better rules. All I’m trying to say is that if a majority thinks Way A is the better one, why the not guide those following Way B towards A? (Guide, not force it down their throats.)

    And of course, we will survive without correcting their grammar; of course, things are already good enough. But if we always think like that and not look beyond it, what will ‘perfection’ stand for? And I completely agree with you that people who weren’t born in an English-speaking nation should be cut some slack. I wasn’t born in an English-speaking nation but I am willing to, in fact I want to, correct myself if I’m making a mistake when I’m talking to someone. I’m willing to correct my grammar if its wrong. Let’s please not make this an excuse to not improve ourself. If I am speaking the language, I might as well speak it right.

    And about people deriving a sense of superiority out of correcting other people’s mistakes – sure, there are MANY of those out there. And I disapprove of them as much as you do. But not all belong to that category and so “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” sounded way too certain.

    I liked the way you put your opinion forward, though. Made me think quite a lot and on various different levels. Haha.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    • Hi! I think I would respond to your point about rules in general the same way I have about language rules – it’s important to realise that rules are put in place by people, people usually at the top of power structures. Context is key, and regulating/punishing people who were getting along just fine in their own way is often arbitrary and unfair.

      I’m not saying anarchy should rule, of course! Language differs in the fact that it’s an arbitrary thing to rule and restrict in the first place. I’m not really qualified to comment fully I suppose, but having rules and regulations in society is probably generally a good thing, unless they’re oppressing people.

      Language, on the other hand, rules itself. Languages develop their own patterns and rules which enable communication, and have done so for centuries. These don’t have to be written down to exist, and can differ depending on which kind of English you speak. Then for someone to say “no, THESE are the rules you should follow, everything else is wrong” when it just inherently *isn’t* – that’s my issue.

      Any sample of language that achieves its communicative aim is perfect, because it did what it was supposed to. There’s no such thing as language “perfection” – Standard language isn’t more perfect than any other kind.

      Thanks for your comment!

  22. he is back with a bang….all i keep hearing is his name all of a sudden

  23. yes, exactly how i feel about this weird al song! thanks for this post.

  24. great anti-colonialismdouchery analysis too.

  25. I’m with on this….I love the English language, and I majored in English lit in uni so I could OD on all the classics! I also used to be a grammar nazi. However over time I’ve relaxed my hyper – vigilance when I consider the very reasons you’ve put forth here, re: a person’s education or their second language abilities. I’ve even been known to use “unacceptable” language choices myself. It’s actually quite liberating 😊

    • Thank you! And you’re right – in my opinion, non-standard language choices can be as eloquent and inventive as standard ones, and can express more nuance.

  26. Good post stands against dickish censorship. Censordicks attack you in the comments. The people who get off on censoring the speech of others are on the same power/greedtrip virus that has infected everyone in our society.

    People want to control what you say, not because it improves them, but it denigrates others. The sense of control they feel when they are controlling you is a substitute for the lack of control they have in their daily lives. They have no control in their daily lives because they are constantly lying to themselves that they are perfect, and any admission of non-perfection terrifies them, so they can’t address any of their problems.

    True intelligence isn’t about correcting others to make you feel good about yourself, its about correcting yourself so you can do some good for others. And to all the sad narcisists out there with no ideas or originality – go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut.

    Good post.

  27. I fully concur with DRS’ comment, except to point out that “TMZ” is a more apt song than “White and Nerdy” at demonstrating Weird Al’s talent for lampooning both sides of a debate at the same time. “Don’t Download This Song” is another, considering it was released as a downloadable song long before the CD came out.

  28. Reblogged this on rainteach and commented:
    What’s YOUR take on “Word Crimes” by Weird Al?

  29. Personally speaking, I loved this parody because I found it amusing and entertaining. However, I don’t agree with a lot of things said (or rather, sung) in it, because seriously, what does it matter how people communicate through Facebook chat or how they post statuses and send out tweets? Majority of what Weird Al was singing only really matters in official emails, essays, or academic writing. Who cares how someone types when sending out instant messages? It’s casual conversation that’s meant to get messages across quickly and easily. Sure, there are some people who type out English as properly as possible while chatting with friends online (and I happen to be one of them), but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do so. It’s all a matter of preference. This insufferable need to correct other people all the time needs to be curbed.

    Good post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Exactly! Thank you. We all use different registers of speech and writing at different times, and each has their own communicative benefits that suit them :)

  30. I’m actually just tuning back into this from a while ago, and I’ve got to say, I’m an American who has always lived in the US and has not even been particularly anglophiliac (unlike many of my contemporaries), and I’ve never understood “spastic” to be anything OTHER than a reference to someone with cerebral palsy (or a similar problem that exhibited neuro-muscular spasms).

    I mean, I know that in the US we often used it to describe people who couldn’t sit still, but, uh…that’s because it was a reference to…to people who are literally unable to sit still.

  31. girlslikescience

    I agree in the limit that we are talking about the informal written and spoken English in casual use. However, sometimes you still need to be able to clean it up and know the rules for formal written English, which evolves less quickly.

  32. Weird Al applies strict rhyming to all of his parodies. He often uses identical length sentences and identical sounding syllables with the original. This explains some of his own transgressions when referring to “grammar” or “spastic” (fyi: spastic is not derogatory in US English, it’s primarily a UK thing). I think that associating Weird Al as a grammar nazi because of the song “Word Crimes” or the fact that he enjoyed writing it would be the equivalent of claiming that he is an avid conspiracy theorist because he claims to wear an aluminum foil hat in the song “Foil”. It would be completely missing the point of Weird Al as a person and his works as a comedic entertainer in its entirety.

  33. You rail against the Grammar Police, yet you suddenly turn proscriptivist and tell us that we shouldn’t use “spastic” because it’s “ableist.” Doesn’t it occur to you that the word is — dare I say it — evolving? Your objection seems pretty lame to me.

  34. This article is very pretentious. It’s “Weird Al.”

  35. I would argue that we have seen more technological progress in the last thousand years than in the thousand years preceding it as a direct result of the codification and distribution of precise language. In day to day use your neighbor will understand your dialect; What happens when you seek to communicate with someone who is unfamiliar with your dialect about a topic of importance? What if that person learned your language from someone with a drastically different dialect? I am not particularly skilled with grammar, but I recognize its value and importance. What about the shift of language is a positive thing? Why can’t we try to reduce this shift and allow our descendants to comprehend and value the writings we leave behind? In a world where writings have so much more potential for immortality, how can you not see the value?

    • Hi, thanks for your comment! I’m breaking it down below for ease of response.

      “I would argue that we have seen more technological progress in the last thousand years than in the thousand years preceding it as a direct result of the codification and distribution of precise language.” I’m not quite sure what you mean by this – there is as much language diversity today than there ever had been (more, in fact) and I’d say that it’s our ability to translate between these languages with ease (as well as more obvious, practical things like increased transport and the internet, etc.) that has led to such technological advancement.

      “In day to day use your neighbor will understand your dialect; What happens when you seek to communicate with someone who is unfamiliar with your dialect about a topic of importance? What if that person learned your language from someone with a drastically different dialect?” Okay, for example, I spell neighbour with a ‘u’, and you don’t, presumably because you speak the dialect of English known as American English. I understand you through a combination of instinct, similarity between dialects (they’re dialects of the same language, after all!) and the ability to research the difference. Those are all the tools we need! We’re not blocked from communicating because we speak a bit differently – we have the resources, so we can communicate AND support diversity at the same time.

      “Why can’t we try to reduce this shift and allow our descendants to comprehend and value the writings we leave behind? In a world where writings have so much more potential for immortality, how can you not see the value?” It’s a bit of a cliche to bring up Shakespeare, but we understand his works, and they’re likely to continue being immortal for the next 450 years, despite being in a form of English no longer colloquially spoken. We understand Egyptian Hieroglyphics through the Rosetta Stone, we have dictionaries and research recording dialectal variation now – once again, we don’t need to halt language change to ensure we’ll be understood in the future. We’re smart enough to work that out!

  36. Very interesting. I was about to write about the first part of your writing when I decided to check you out. Shoots that in the foot. But….. I really liked what you said and how you said it. You have a gift.

  37. This long a tirade getting upset at people who try to restrict the words of others, and then you start dropping “Ableist”
    I hope you see the contradiction there.

    • I’m afraid I don’t see a contradiction at all. Cruelly mocking people who don’t use standard English is a douchey thing to do. Using language that belittles the disabled/their cause(s) is a douchey thing to do. Seems perfectly cogent to me.

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