Entertainment

07.23.14

The Problem With Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’ Video

The celebrated parodist has a point, but much of what we’ve decided are hard-and-fast grammatical rules have more to due with style than clarity.

Weird Al Yankovic’s typo-mocking “Word Crimes” video has predictably been shared quite a bit among linguists. Many might find it less predictable that our typical reaction is to shake our heads. Linguists are not grammar police but the opposite. To us, casual speech is what is interesting, not the “Sunday best” kind that people are taught is “better.”

Linguists have been trying forever to get the public to stop looking down on casual speech, including the words and expressions often condemned as “mistakes.” It’s not that we don’t understand that you need standard English too, but we cherish the idea that people can speak that way in public and the casual way with their intimates.

The Word Crimes video, skewering people who neglect the “Sunday best” grammar as degenerates, is one of an endless stream of indications that linguists are fighting a losing battle. When I myself pitch in from the linguist’s corner on such matters, I get to savor reams of indignant correspondence, including frequent declarations that I should not be teaching at a university.

And it’s time linguists admitted that part of the problem is with us. When a songwriter is clever enough to remind America to distinguish less from fewer “like people who were / never raised in a sewer,” it won’t do for linguists to say one more time that people should be able to talk however they want to—especially since that’s not really what even we mean ourselves.

Video screenshot

First, though, just a bit of our usual message, because it’s important. The idea that less must be used with mass nouns (less water, corn, sex) and fewer with count nouns (buttons, dogs, waiters) is not a cosmic truth like 2+2=4. For most of English’s history no one thought of that as a rule at all. King Alfred wrote things like mid læs worda, “with less words.” Too antique to seem relevant? Alexander Pope in the early 1700s was writing things like “He loses in less than eight days.”

Notice there is no harm to clarity when you use less with count nouns. This is about mere aesthetics. In fact, it was only in 1770 that an obscure grammarian sort named Robert Baker mused that he liked it better when people used less with count nouns and fewer with count nouns. From there people distorted Bob Baker’s mumbly preference into a hidebound rule. And yet, how many of us really think the sign saying “15 items or less” is sewerly?

So, as funny as Yankovic’s line and graphics about the less/fewer business are, linguists stress that the rule isn’t one properly at all. Hence our comfort with the idea of people saying something like “less books” in their ordinary lives. And that is where we lose most people.

In fact, it was only in 1770 that an obscure grammarian sort named Robert Baker mused that he liked it better when people used less with count nouns and fewer with count nouns.

It isn’t hard to see that a rule like that is as arbitrary as shelving your books in size order. But most people still can’t stomach the idea of someone going around saying “less books” in formal situations. And really, neither can most linguists, in terms of life as it actually is! We just aren’t in the habit of stressing the point.

Part of that is because of sociopolitics: Speaking truth to power is a tacit mission among most linguists who communicate with the public. Another part of it is rhetorical preference: We are more interested in getting across the part about the rules’ arbitrariness—as well as dredging up quotes from the ancients—than in agreeing with everybody that people should pay attention in school.

That approach isn’t working, so here’s my attempt to try something else. In the real world that language is spoken in, Weird Al—let’s face it—is on to something. The tone is not ideal—but then that’s true of America as a whole lately. And come on, he’s a comic.

It comes down to this: A command of standard English rules benefits a life trajectory even if the rules are arbitrary. That you’ll have a hard time getting a job is old news. More to the point, if you can’t handle standard English, even if you have a job you might not get a date.

I’ve seen someone be disappointed that responders on a dating site were much less educated than she would have preferred. The problem, sadly, was that her writing was so full of the kinds of things Weird Al warns us against that one was justified in assuming that she herself had only gotten so far in school. I’ve also seen a man get dumped by a woman who was rankled by, among other things, his grammatical “errors.” Is any of this fair? No—but it’s real.

Also, even if you have a job, often observing those little rules can help determine whether you’ll ever get promoted beyond it. I’ve seen an example: A vice principal gave an address, confidently describing “Mr. Denton, which is the American history teacher and Mrs. Macavoy, which is the reading assistant.” A local Dad joked sotto voce to his wife “And afterwards there will be a reception who will be in the auditorium!” And that lady is still a vice principal. It’s real.

As was the woman who sharply rebuked me—then utterly unknown to anyone outside of my actual acquaintance—in 1996 for my own “bad grammar” when I was exploring writing my first book in a chat group. I’m afraid I slipped up and did a “less books,” alas. She won’t change.

Standard English matters. Now, as a linguist I will continue to press the point that what you have been taught are “errors” are actually better thought as MATTERS OF fashion. Fashion doesn’t “make sense,” but we flout it at our peril and none but a few eccentrics neglect it entirely.

With shorts, a man is expected to wear ankle socks rather than pulled up tube socks. But we wouldn’t expect the man who doesn’t know this to have been raised in a sewer, and few of us would even look askance at him wearing the tube socks at home or with a tolerant spouse.

But when he’s out and about, he needs some ankle socks. In the same way, those of us who are interested in coming off as effectively as possible in the real world need standard English. Few object to spell check; I highly recommend using new software that does the same thing for grammar—it’s getting better every year.

Weird Al, you’re being too mean about, basically, tube socks. However, I know what you mean, and I respect that you said it.