Word Pardons


Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something else going on in the delight people seem to take in Weird Al’s ditty.

I think of this as a coin with two sides. One is the chronic experience of the English teacher on the airplane who, on confessing her profession, immediately faces a pair of raised palms and a line like “Oh! English! I’d better watch my grammar!” The other is the rolled eyes at a social lunch when the menu misspells the French or misuses a contraction; or as the server departs on a note of “Just ask Karen and I if you need anything.” This latter often escalates into a litany of what bugs everyone most, whether it’s Can I help who’s next or begs the question for raises the question or overusing totally. Unlike litanies of complaint about, say, the health-care system, such rounds of sharing over “word crimes” seem to put the participants in a pretty good mood.

Grammar is just a buzzword applied to this double-sided coin. Weird Al mentions it only in passing, after talking—probably parodically, as several commenters have noted—about writing in the “proper way,” knowing “how to conjugate,” flunking “that class,” needing to learn “the nomenclature,” and making a mission of “literacy.” (Let’s bear in mind that the rhyme scheme probably dictates most of these word choices.) But most viewers know what he’s talking about—the so-called errors that the fellow on the airplane is worried about and that the lunch party cites to one-up one another.

I’d like to submit that for most people, this isn’t about prescriptivism. It’s about finding, establishing, and constantly renegotiating one’s comfort zone. If the table’s set with the knife to the right of the spoon, many of us will shift it back. Most of us will re-orient a slice of pie so that we eat it from the tip toward the crust. In my house, we eat the salad after the main course, which guests often find disconcerting or just plain wrong. Language customs are even more central to our way of being than dining customs, so is there any wonder that we look for some assurance that how we’re going about things still makes sense?

In reading Lauren Squires’s post, for instance, I found myself twice wanting to correct her use of different than to different from. The reason to do so is infinitesimally slight, having to do with an old argument about exclusion versus comparison, and for all practical purposes, the phrases are now interchangeable. Still, that’s my personal, sort of embarrassing preference. The guy on the plane worries that his quirky preferences will be deemed unacceptable to a supposed authority on the subject. The gang at lunch is relieved to be able to air their preferences and have them validated. That these exchanges are not really prescriptivist is evident, I think, in the frequent rejoinders of “Oh, I do that all the time!” that you hear when one or another word crime is aired in a safe setting.

Weird Al’s video has become a safe setting for thousands of viewers. It’s not a teaching tool or a stance. It’s a catch-all, a grab bag of nonstandard bits and pieces that people both use and find themselves uncomfortable with.

As a coda, I’ll note that several people have asked me about the Reed-Kellogg diagrams in the video. There are three of them. The first fails to note that the phrase to diagram a sentence is the object of the verb learn, not part of the verb, and it puts sentence in the position of an adverb rather than the direct object of the verb diagram. The second sentence diagram does a fairly good job except that when is styled as a preposition rather than an adverbial conjunction. The third diagram, of the sentence “Better figure out the difference,” is the most interesting. The sentence itself is nonstandard, with both You and had missing; and even then, the shortcomings of the Reed-Kellogg system require the diagrammer to substitute another wording, like should figure out, to map out a diagram. Within those constraints, the third sentence works except that there’s no need for a tree. But people seem to like trees, in these diagrams; they think trees gussy them up, I guess.


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