Weird Al's Word Crimes: perfect or pedantic?

Two weeks ago, Robin Thicke fans and grammar-lovers united, probably for the first ever time, and contributed to the viral heights of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Word Crimes YouTube hit.

Released as part of his new album, Word Crimes lampoons Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video. Instead of crimes against music, viewers are treat to a string of crimes against grammar.

As well as dancing punctuation marks and hashtag overload, Yankovic targets some commonly misused words, including “literally”, “ironic” and the confusion between “fewer” and “less”.

The video has undoubtedly helped push grammar’s reputation further from the old-fashioned classroom to a more colourful present. But as well as entertaining, it has also been hailed as an ode to proper grammar (despite using the word “wanna”).

For these reasons, I should love Word Crimes. Perhaps I’m taking the video a bit too seriously – but there are a few problems I wanna talk about.

The video’s tone, and the grammar gripes mentioned within it, are synonymous with the familiar, malevolent blaze of grammar pedants who derive pleasure from shaming “abusers” of the English language. It implies that those who make common grammatical errors are less educated, and the pedants who abhor being plagued by these thoughtless inaccuracies are superior.

Someone who articulates this point much better than I could is Stephen Fry, in a video that shares Word Crimes’ hypnotic kinetic typography, but not its views. In the video, Fry says that these little things people point out – giving the “fewer” or “less” problem as an example – aren’t of importance.

He says he’s outgrown this “silly approach to language”, which is the same approach that Word Crimes encourages. He admits to having a natural pedantic urge, but fights against it just as he fights against gluttony and selfishness.

Of course, flouting all grammar rules isn’t the answer, and would lead to chaos. But disparaging people for incorrect grammar – especially publicly – only excludes them.

The video has attracted – and probably aroused – a lot of pedants. One article (obviously written with trembling excitement) points to an ‘error’ in Word Crimes, where Yankovic splits an infinitive in the line: ‘Try your best to not drool’. Said in this order it’s impossible to grasp what is being communicated.

A lot of the song’s lyrics are synonymous with what pedants say when they berate others, which often has undertones of poor education and upbringing: “You’re a lost cause, go back to preschool, get out of the gene pool, try your best to not drool.”

Yankovic is alleged to have said on American talk show The View, when asked if he wrote Word Crimes to educate his 11-year-old daughter, "No, my daughter is fairly literate. We raised her that way." 

When I make a grammatical error, it’s because I’ve overlooked, misunderstood or forgotten something in spite of my best efforts. It’s not because of my intelligence or upbringing. Being told, with obvious pleasure, that I’ve made a mistake makes me feel stupid, and annoyed that the person will unjustly feel better about themselves.

Sadly, it seems Yankovic isn’t parodying pedants: this is how he really feels. There’s previous evidence of his grammar awareness, such as in this video of him covering a “ten items or less” sign with “fewer”. And, on the release of Word Crimes, he said in an interview:

“It makes me think I’m not alone, I’m not the only grammar nerd out there. There’s a lot of other people who share my pain.”

The video also targets text talk, saying you shouldn’t write one letter in place of a word. But there’s evidence proving there’s no connection between poor grammar in texts and a child’s grasp of written grammar. What’s wrong with forgoing grammatical rules when texting a friend, as long as you can distinguish between this and situations where you need to write properly?

Word Crimes has got people talking about grammar. It doesn’t explain the reasons behind its dos and don’ts, but maybe it’s enough to compel some viewers to find out for themselves. And it contains 100% less misogyny than the video it parodies, which is a bonus.

But we need to upend how we talk about grammar. We need to stop criticising and complaining, and rid ourselves of the red-pen glory. It’s not about placing any less importance on correct grammar, but changing the way we communicate about it.

Along with Stephen Fry, many of us wince at grammatical errors. But the more tolerable among us disguise our instincts like a well-adjusted psychopath in order to remain undetected in public.

I can’t deny I wasn’t secretly pleased to see Word Crimes. I get it: telling someone they’ve put an apostrophe where it’s not needed feels like you’ve single-handedly aligned all the pieces of the world together.

Despite its faults, Word Crimes offers us comfort in knowing there are other grammar-lovers out there who are just normal people like you and I. Or is that you and me?
This piece was originally written for the wonderful Mind your language blog, but has been put here instead due to unforeseen circumstances!

1 comment:

  1. As a writer I wanted to love that video, but for me, message aside, it just wasn't that funny. Kind of an amusing under the breath chuckle a few times, but nothing gut-bustingly hilarious. Then again, I think that sums up my relationship with Weird Al as a whole, compared to the rest of the general population.