Friday, July 18, 2014

Weird Al's Blurred "Word Crimes" Lines

I can’t not respond to Weird Al Yankovic’s new song “Word Crimes,” can I? So here goes.

First off, congratulations to Jarrett Heather for a beautiful and well-executed video. The song is a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Mr. Heather did a great job of using only certain elements of the original video — like those incessant hashtags and the balloon letters — without trying to force the entire Weird Al video to match up. This is a great production for his portfolio.

But now, the song itself.

Weird Al on Language and Usage

English: Weird Al Yankovic
Weird Al Yankovic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We have known for a while the Weird Al is a peever. Regardless of how you feel about peevery in general, it does reveal one thing about the man: He loves his language.

Plenty of logophiles, linguists, and editors will push back at what look like “rules” of language that he highlights in his video. They’ll talk about different registers and different dialects and language as a sign of privilege and all that.

And they will be right, to a degree.

It will all come back to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, which it always does, plus a healthy dose of “spelling isn’t grammar,” which is, of course, true.

But before you start working yourself into a tizzy overanalyzing the lyrics, keep these points in mind:

One. The phrase word crimes is intentional hyperbole. To people like Weird Al (and me), the errors in grammar, spelling, and usage that are highlighted in this song are crimes in the same way that ordering filet mignon well done, covering it with ketchup, and eating it with your hands is a crime.

Two. Throughout the song, all references are to written language. The imagery and lyrics both point back time and again to the written, not spoken, word — email, Twitter, composition books, emoji. Weird Al has deftly avoided the wholesale condemnation of spoken slang, so don't even go there.

Three. For the most part, Weird Al did a decent job of avoiding the biggest controversies of English usage. It’s hard to argue against these bits:

  • There’s a big difference between its and it’s.
  • There’s no x in espresso.
  • Learn your homophones.
  • Don’t use quotation marks for emphasis.
  • Doing good is different from doing well (again, in written forms).
  • Only morons spell moron “moran.” (Which is a reference to this guy →.)

Four. He doesn’t, as the most annoying peevers do, take a side in the Oxford comma debate:
But I don’t want your drama
If you really wanna
Leave out that Oxford comma
Five. Perhaps the best, most instructive line of the song is this: Use your spell checker.

But yes

There are some genuine, personal, arguable peeves in there:

  • The use of literally to mean figuratively (For the record, I agree with Weird Al about this one, but I also recognize that it’s a lost cause.)
  • Couldn’t care less vs. could care less
  • Who vs. whom (Again, I agree with Weird Al. But until such time as we all agree to just stop using whom altogether, it ought to be used properly. What he says about it in the song, though, isn’t very helpful.)
  • Using leetspeak and emoji.
  • Irony (No one ever wins an argument about what irony is or isn’t. Is that ironic?)

Whether you agree with his assessments or not, remember that Weird Al Yankovic isn’t an English teacher, a linguist, or an editor. He’s an artist and entertainer who loves his language. That’s something to be encouraged.

And I'll say it again

My only gripe about the song is the acceptance of personal attacks on people who make these errors. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Grammatical is not the same as Right, and ungrammatical is not the same as Wrong. People use language in different ways in different situations, and it will always be that way. I'm sure it would take no time at all to find a Weird Al lyric that breaks the very word crimes that he sings about in this song.

But again, it's parody. It's hyperbole. It's fun. Word Crimes isn't a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, so just enjoy it for what it is.