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Weird Al's "Word Crimes" Video

Never mind, I give up.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
September 16, 2015
Episode #425

 

Where do I begin? Weird Al Yankovic has a new video out called “Word Crimes” (based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”) that makes me wish I could stop being Grammar Girl for a week or two. ;

 

 

You’re all going to love this video because it’s catchy, and well done, and charming in many so many ways. It’s frickin’ adorable, and I wish I could love it with you, but I can’t. 

Go watch it, love it, share it with your friends, but—and I know I sound incredibly earnest here—think about the screwed up message.  

My problems with it start around the one-minute mark. He beats the old (and ever popular) peeve that I could care less means you could care a little.

Then he calls people morons.

Followed by a nice little lesson about it’s and its and acknowledgement that the Oxford comma is a style choice. 

Then it’s back to the prescriptivism about not using letters as words: 

BCRU, are words not letters …

You should never write words using numbers

Unless you’re 7

Or your name is Prince

I hate these word crimes.

This is why I don’t want to be Grammar Girl today; it makes me no fun. I can’t just laugh at the great Prince joke. Instead, my mind says, “But. But. Immediately after saying ‘never,’ he acknowledged the concept of register—that different things are acceptable in different situations—like using U for you and using numbers in words—but nobody’s going to get that part. They’re just going to join the rant about how much they hate it.”

Then he calls people dumb mouth breathers.

He heads back into safe territory with good advice about not using quotation marks for emphasis, the difference between doing good and doing well, and the concept that irony is not coincidence.

But just as I’m thinking “Maybe I could love this,” he heads back into negative territory, beating on how he wants to kill people who use literally to mean “figuratively,” and generally insulting people. This is where he completely loses me:

You write like a spastic.

I hate these word crimes.

..

Get out of the gene pool.

Try your best to not drool.

I could easily overlook the lack of subtlety in his grammar lessons. I don’t expect a music video to get into the details, but what I see is that he’s 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. 

I posted a shorter version of this article on my site a few days ago, and a lot people commented that I’m missing the point: that it’s parody. They say he’s parodying grammar Nazis, but here’s why I don’t think so.

In an NPR interview with Tamara Keith, he said, "When I came up with the idea for 'Word Crimes,' I thought, ‘That's great because I'm always correcting people's grammar; it's kind of a big deal with me. In fact, I've done some funny videos for YouTube where I'm correcting road signs and making the grammar better on the highway and in the supermarket.’”

So although it’s true that he could still be parodying militant grammar correctors even if he is one himself, I have a hard time believing this is a parody in the same way that his next video is in which he’s making fun of conspiracy theorists.

The other difference, is that I doubt the conspiracy theorists are are watching the video and thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly it! That’s how I feel!” but I’m seeing thousands of people saying that about the “Word Crimes” video. A huge segment of people aren’t viewing it as parody; they appear to be viewing it as their new grammar snob anthem. They’re identifying with feeling superior by calling other people stupid. 

Perhaps the most troubling thing for me is seeing teachers who say they are going to use this in class because kids will find it funny and it will make them care about grammar. The entire ending of the video is putting down people who have trouble writing. The video says it’s OK to call people who can’t spell morons, droolers, spastics, and mouth breathers. Really, you’re going to use an educational tool that tells your struggling kids that they’re stupid? It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that’s OK.

It’s also hard for me to separate my feelings about this video from my feelings about his 2010 grammar videos that reinforce simplistic ideas, such as one in which he goes off about signs that read drive slow being wrong. The problem is that slow can be used as something called a flat adverb. The sign isn’t wrong, but drive slow is one of those things that people who don’t bother looking things up love to rant about. Those videos were extremely popular, so I imagine at least a few people told him that he got it wrong, but his comments from the NPR video suggest to me that he didn’t take the time to listen to those people and figure it out—that he still thinks he was making those signs better. If, as he says, “correcting people’s grammar is kind of a big deal” for him, then with the kind of power he has, I expect him to get things right.

The bottom line is that I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way. 

You would all like me better if I laughed along with you and said, "Check out this awesome video," but I can't. I just can't do it.

My approach to grammar is two-pronged. I aim to be fun and friendly. If I have to choose between the two, I’ll choose friendly. I’m not going to be the kid on the playground who torments the clumsy kid with a dodgeball because everyone else thinks it’s funny.

When I talk about language errors in songs, like between you and I instead of between you and me, I talk about how we need to give musicians a pass—poetic license— but that teachers must especially hate these songs because they reinforce the opposite of what they are trying to teach. That’s how I feel today. I understand why those of you who don’t deal with language every day the way I do, and don’t see people every day insulting other people about their errors, think this is funny and love the video; but I hope you can understand that for me, it makes my job harder because it makes people think it’s OK to be mean to people about their language errors—to put them down and call them stupid—and that is the opposite of what I try to teach.

Finally, I want to thank all the people on my Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ pages. We’ve been talking about this for a couple of days, and I’ve read all your comments even if I didn’t respond to every one, and it’s been an especially interesting conversation and many of you made me happy that I’m Grammar Girl again.

Dawn Stahl over at copyediting.com also had an interesting post about the video from a copy editor’s perspective. She talked about how even though she laughed and enjoyed it too, the insults made her cringe, and she thinks that copy editors who share the video with comments such as “This!” and “Listen up, mouth breathers!” are just adding to people’s anxiety about writing and interacting with copy editors. 

Apparently, Whoopi Goldberg said on The View that Weird Al would be the perfect person to reboot the Schoolhouse Rock videos, and I agree. Weird Al is usually fantastic, and he has a huge audience. He’d be the perfect person to do it—if he loses the insults.

More Related Posts on Other Sites

Hey, Weird Al: Congratulations on Not Having a Language Disorder! (The Seminar Table)
Word Crimes (Language Log)
The Problem with Weird Al's "Word Crimes" (Stan Carey)
Weird Al Interview with Grammarly "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."
 

Source: The "Never mind, I give up" image is a screenshot from the Weird Al video.

Correction: This article original referred to Robin Thicke and Alan Thicke

Note: The text you currently see on the page replaced a shorter, original version of this post.

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