Word Crimes

I have long been a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic [1], and recently a coworker of mine who is a fellow grammarian commented on a hilarious song from his new album “Mandatory Fun” (which itself pokes fun of communism as well as the fact that this is the last record required for his major label contract, and is therefore a “mandatory” album [2]). This particular song, of course, is a parody of the song “Blurred Lines,” a song which has already received a fair amount of criticism for its performance on the 2014 Video Music Awards [3]. Of note, this song entirely sidesteps the questions of misogyny that have revolved around the song and instead deals with a subject much more pleasant—making fun of people who cannot properly speak the English language.

The intro and first verse of the song read as follows: “Everybody shut up, WOO! / Everyone listen up! / Hey, hey, hey, uh. / Hey, hey, hey. / Hey, hey, hey. / If you can’t write in the proper way / If you don’t know how to conjugate. / Maybe you flunked that class / And maybe now you find / That people mock you online.” The song opens with a discussion of the target of the humor of this particular song, namely those people who are made fun of because they are not articulate enough in English to know the proper way of phrasing what they want to say. Obviously, the intended target audience of the song are those people who enjoy humor about grammar and are probably at least a little bit fussy about it as well [4]. I have to say for myself that I learned how to conjugate English better once I started taking Spanish, as there were a lot more verb tenses in English than simply the past, present, and future, that I had been taught [5].

The first bridge and first chorus of the song read as follows: “Okay, now here’s the deal. / I’ll try to educate ya. / Gonna familiarize / You with the nomenclature. / You’ll learn the definitions / Of nouns and prepositions. / Literacy’s your mission. / And that’s why I think it’s a / Good time / To learn some grammar. / Now, did I stammer? / Work on that grammar. / You should know when / It’s “less” or it’s “fewer”, / Like people who were / Never raised in a sewer. / I hate these word crimes, / Like I could care less. / That means you do care / At least a little. / Don’t be a moron. / You’d better slow down, / And use the right pronoun. / Show the world you’re no clown. / Everybody wise up!”

Here, for example, we see again the fact that good grammar is connected with appearing intelligent in public discourse (which ought to be of interest to anyone who wishes to be thought of as intelligent and wishes their views and opinions to be taken seriously). This verse is given humorously, with a bit of slanginess, but the point is clear enough. Many people, of course, do not know the nomenclature (that is, the terminology) of grammar, or parts of speech, and the way that some people speak and write is a crime against good grammar. Of course, as English does not have any sort of official academy for our language (as opposed to other languages like French and English) that can enforce those rules of language in some fashion.

The second verse of the song reads: “Say you got an “I”,”T” / Followed by apostrophe, “s”. / Now what does that mean? / You would not use “it’s” in this case / As a possessive. / It’s a contraction. / What’s a contraction? / Well, it’s the shortening of a word, or a group of words / By the omission of a sound or letter.” Here we see a rather humorous example of one of the more egregious errors that people make in using the English language, and that is failing to take into account the difference between its and it’s. It’s a difficult matter, I know, to understand the difference between a language’s ways of showing ownership and its ways of shortening expressions, but a little thought would help a lot.

The second bridge and chorus read as follows: “Okay, now here’s some notes. / Syntax you’re always mangling: / No “x” in “espresso”, / Your participle’s danglin’. / But I don’t want your drama / If you really wanna / Leave out that Oxford comma. / Just keep in mind / That “be”, “see”, “are”, “you” / Are words, not letters. / Get it together. / Use your spellchecker. / You should never / Write words using numbers / Unless you’re seven, / Or your name is Prince. / I hate these word crimes. / You really need a / Full time proofreader / You dumb mouth-breather. / Well, you should hire / Some cunning linguist / To help you distinguish / What is proper English.”

This bridge and chorus follows the rest of the song in pointing out some more humorous and somewhat irritating errors in word (and letter) usage. Dangling participles and the use of letters in place of words and numbers in place of letters are common faults when people attempt to sound cute, even when they’re no longer seven. I tend to use the Oxford comma myself, as a way of clearing up the occasional ambiguity of my writing, but not everyone writes in such a way that would make it important to do so. Of course, this particular lyric itself also includes some mild innuendo, as cunning linguist is often used as a euphemism for the act of performing oral sex on a woman, not that I would have any reason to know that.

The third verse of the song reads as follows: “One thing I ask of you, / Time to learn your homophones is past due. / Learn to diagram a sentence too. / Always say “to whom”; / Don’t ever say “to who”. / And listen up when I tell you this. / I hope you never use quotation marks for emphasis. / You finished second grade. / I hope you can tell / If you’re doing good or doing well / About better figure out the difference. / Irony is not coincidence. / And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull / What’s figurative and what’s literal. / Oh but, just now, you said / You literally couldn’t get out of bed. / That really makes me want to literally / Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.”

The third verse of the song continues the theme of examining more grammar problems. Homophones, for example, are words that have the same sound but different meaning. This was discussed earlier with it’s and its, but examples of this problem in English abound. One of the more irritating examples of this problem is their, they’re, and there, the first of which is the third person plural possessive, the second a contraction of “they are” and the third usually an adverb (although occasionally it can be a pronoun as well). The use of quotation marks for emphasis is something I can do on occasion, usually when I am being sarcastic, but something I try to avoid as it can sound a bit condescending at times. Naturally, this song manages to contain a fair amount of condescension as well as sarcasm. There are a few other obvious targets that this verse manages to touch upon, including the rampant misuse of irony for circumstances that are merely coincidental (there was, after all, an entire popular song in the mid-90’s based on this very particular error). Likewise, people often tend to mistake doing good (that is, doing a meritorious deed) as opposed to doing well (having success in an endeavor). Additionally, the misuse of literal for sayings that are clearly figurative deserves a literal slap in the head, at least sometimes.

The third chorus and outro of the song read: “I read your e-mail. / It’s quite apparent / Your grammar’s errant. / You’re incoherent. / Saw your blog post. / It’s really fantastic. / That was sarcastic (Oh, psych!) / ‘Cause you write like a spastic. / I hate these Word Crimes. / Your prose is dopey, / Think you should only / Write in emoji. / Oh, you’re a lost cause. / Go back to pre-school. / Get out of the gene pool. / Try your best to not drool. / Never mind I give up. / Really now I give up. / Hey, hey, hey. / Hey, hey, hey/ Go Away!” Having finished a whirlwind tour of bad grammar, this song closes in a mood of sarcasm and insult humor as well as an abrupt closing, as I do on occasion in my own writing.

Despite the fact that this song has a lot of lyrics to explain, I would like to comment very briefly on a couple of elements of the song itself. This particular song has a very intriguing blend of short sentences (many of them only one line long) with much longer sentences that even include sentences that continue between the bridge and chorus after both the first and second verse. Likewise, this song is a mixture of simple language taken from childhood insults as well as formal speech and even a definition of contraction. This blend of approaches in terms of sentence length as well as word usage appears to give the song an internal contrast between high art (a lecture on English grammar) and the low art of insulting people who do not speak properly. It is a delicate balance, and one that is achieved very satisfactorily.

Additionally, this song has a somewhat complicated bookended by an intro and outro. The song’s form is as follows: Intro + Verse 1 + Bridge 1 + Chorus 1 + Verse 2 + Bridge 2 + Chorus 2 + Verse 3 + Chorus 3 + Outro. This is a very wordy and complicated way to go about a song, but when one is trying to deal with bad grammar, there is much that can be said, and not nearly enough space or time to say it. “Weird Al” does a good job here in combining serious discussion as well as humor. Not everyone can combine instruction with lighthearted silliness as well as he can. There is a reason, after all, why I am a fan.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-weird-al-yankovic/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/they-see-me-waddlin-they-hatin/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/comedy-is-a-choice/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandatory_Fun

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/blurred-lines/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/that-which-has-not-been-seen-does-not-have-to-be-unseen/

[4] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/good-punctuation-saves-lives/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/trivial-concerns/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/book-review-bastard-tongues/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/eats-shoots-and-leaves/

[5] For example, Spanish taught me about the perfect tense, which we use in English in the past, present, and future temporal dimensions (had done, have done, and will have done). Likewise, English uses the conditional (“if you please” and “would you like”, usually said politely, as one would speak to a waiter or waitress or on a personal invitation). These are tenses that are not usually thought of as tenses for most students who only study English.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Word Crimes

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Stories Of Famous Songs, Volume One | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. I saw the video and was amazed with his sharp precision. The phrasing and delivery, I felt, was flawless. “Weird Al” is like fine wine, indeed.

  3. Pingback: Fragmented Book Reviews: Part Two | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Once I Was Seven Years Old | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: It’s Going To Be A While Before I Want To Hear That Song Again | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  8. Pingback: Book Review: Weird Al: The Book | Edge Induced Cohesion

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