Word Crimes.

I have, of course, been sent the link to Weird Al’s new “Word Crimes” video, a parody of last summer’s hit “Blurred Lines.” My response: “I enjoyed the parody but deplored the prescriptivism.” I didn’t have much more to say, and wasn’t planning to post about it, but I liked Lauren Squires’s guest post at the Log enough to link to it here and quote a couple of paragraphs (the “third” comes after discussions of Al’s use of “grammar” in a way that annoys linguists and the notion of “Proper English” as a tool of discrimination):

Third—and the motivation for this post—is that the view of “grammar” as “you must learn the rules or else be ostracized” just makes grammar no fun at all! Studying language—really digging into it, uncovering its remarkably complex yet orderly structure, investigating what makes it different across speakers and communities—is SUPER FUN! Giving people a list of rules of things to do in order to not be criticized is NOT FUN! I want my students to think language is FUN, and to have FUN thinking about language!

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I’ve seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn’t already know what a “preposition” was leave Weird Al’s video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don’t do things that way, you’re a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these “rules” are what they are.

She presents a list of 25 Questions for Teaching with “Word Crimes” that may be of interest. I would like to add an important point: yes, Weird Al is a parodist and not an educator or editorialist (sample comment by Kyle Gorman: “Weird Al is a parodist—there’s no way the character he is performing is his sincere self—who is no more ignorant of linguistics than society at large”), but that is a red herring here. It is clear from his statements in interviews (e.g., “When I came up with the idea for ‘Word Crimes’ I thought, ‘That’s great, because I’m pretty obsessed with grammar anyway.’ I’m always correcting peoples’ grammar”) that he stands behind the attitudes expressed in the video, though they are presumably exaggerated for comic effect. Also, “no more ignorant of linguistics than society at large” means “completely ignorant.” Maybe someday we can change that!

Comments

  1. Hi Language Hat!

    I have been following your blog for a couple months now, and absolutely love what you have to say. I, too, blogged about Word Crimes over on LanguageTran.com — and I think we agree about this video. I decided to focus a bit on how he does touch on some of the things that do secretly irritate some of us. However, the more I read posts such as yours (and Grammar Girl’s, too) that lament the meanness in this video, the more I wish I had written about that, too. To add my voice to the choir. I agree that it would be wonderful, one day, to live in a world where grammar was something most people approached with a sense of fun and curiosity. Thank you!

  2. J. W. Brewer says:

    But surely if we get to a point where aggravating prescriptivists playing the appeal-to-authority card are appealing to the authority of Weird Al rather than to that of Fowler or Strunk/White, the battle will be half won?

  3. It’s not a matter of playing the appeal-to-authority card, it’s a matter of reinforcing the general background noise. The effect of any particular contribution, whether it’s a Weird Al video or an outraged letter to the editor, is minuscule, but they all add up.

  4. You should of wrote “miniscule” pour épater le peeververein. I write it exclusively, as a matter of principle.

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    Why should learning about language be FUN for anyone other than a minority of people with an idiosyncratic interest in it? It is necessary for students to learn a certain minimum amount of math. It can be taught in ways that are more or less effective, but it’s not necessarily ever going to be a huge amount of FUN for most/many students, and math teachers are of course likely to be drawn from the subset of the population that actually finds math FUN, and thus be tempted to come up with a pedagogical that will make it FUN for everyone. This approach involves, I think, a high risk of failure as an empirical matter, and reflects the fairly arrogant mindset that everyone should be interested in the same stuff you are to the same degree you are, and if they aren’t it’s just because no one has introduced them to it in the right way.

  6. From a review of Coal Creek at Amazon by one Jennifer Cameron-Smith:

    ‘All our lives was changed forever in them few confused seconds of panic and none of it should have ever happened.’

    Bobby’s language reflects his lack of formal education. This made his voice seem more authentic to me, once I stopped focussing on grammar. Bobby may have comparatively limited words with which to convey his account of events and to describe place and feelings but he is not bound by the usual rules of language.

    Why the fuck do people get so hung up about grammar that it gets in the way of anything and everything that they read. Luckily this reviewer was smart enough to wake up to herself, but the way that she started out with a negative before grudgingly admitting it was a positive is just bias. Wouldn’t it have been more intelligent to say ‘The fact that his language doesn’t adhere to school grammar made his voice seem more authentic to me’?

  7. Why should learning about language be FUN for anyone other than a minority of people with an idiosyncratic interest in it?

    Uh, because it’s easier to learn things if the teacher makes it fun rather than a chore? I would have thought this was blindingly obvious.

    Why the fuck do people get so hung up about grammar that it gets in the way of anything and everything that they read

    You’re singin’ my song!

  8. J. W. Brewer says:

    You are assuming that it can in fact be made FUN for everyone, regardless of their personality/temperament/interests, if only the right approach were taken. I see no reason why that should be true. (There’s also a separate question of whether self-conscious attempts by authority figures to make things fun for their sullen charges will backfire and make them even less fun than if no such attempt had been made.)

  9. No, I am assuming no such thing, I am merely saying it is something to strive for that the children should enjoy learning. You, on the other hand, seem to think it is something to be actively avoided. We clearly have different attitudes toward education.

  10. J. W. Brewer says:

    As the sage said, The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, and the forced jollity of the teacher who supposedly wants to make learning fun is a total buzzkill. It will be fun, for those for whom it is destined to be fun, if you leave well enough alone.

  11. Some years ago a new faculty member at MIT — a brilliant mathematician and also a really fun guy — reported that right after he gave his first lecture in some big course one of the students came up to him and said “I just want to let you know that we don’t like funny professors here”.

  12. Breffni says:

    I agree with JWB’s broad point that enthusiasts are generally mistaken when they think everyone could be brought to share their enthusiasm if it was only presented the right way. Regarding what works in teaching, I’m also with JWB if ‘fun’ = ‘(merely) entertaining’, but with Hat if ‘fun’ = ‘engaging’. Learning can’t happen at all without some degree of engagement, which in turn brings a proportional degree of pleasure, satisfaction, or at least ‘flow’ with it.

  13. I agree with JWB’s broad point that enthusiasts are generally mistaken when they think everyone could be brought to share their enthusiasm if it was only presented the right way.

    Well, I was talking about teachers, not enthusiasts. I have been lucky enough to know teachers who could get students to enjoy learning pretty much anything. I realize not everyone has been so lucky.

  14. I was dazzled by the video. Its graphics are outstanding. They’re a wonderful mix of text and images. The woman who did the visuals made terrific art. She should get a prize. There were also lyrics and music that I sort of followed.

  15. Andrew Dunbar says:

    What’s the greater irony?

    A music video advocating linguistic prescriptivism yet using “grammar” to mean “usage”?

    Or

    A language blog advocating linguistic descriptivism yet getting annoyed when a music video doesn’t stick with the prescribed sense of the word “grammar”?

    Or maybe I just missed the real irony. Like rain on your wedding day (-:

  16. Andrew,
    A music video advocating linguistic prescriptivism yet using “grammar” to mean “usage”?
    There is nothing ironic about that, quite the contrary: you see, the people who criticize other people’s language (henceforth: the peevers) cannot go right out and say that they want to be the ones to determine the rules, even if that is exactly what they want. And so whenever the peevers do what they do, they have to pretend they are doing so in defense of some higher principle, be it “clarity”, “good writing” or “grammar”. The truth is that they don’t care about any of that, certainly not enough to think about what clarity or good writing are or to learn about what grammar is. So this usage is quite typical of the peevers and fully shows them for what they really are which is – in terms of the George Carlin Scale of Stupid (TM) – both stupid and full of shit.

    A language blog advocating linguistic descriptivism yet getting annoyed when a music video doesn’t stick with the prescribed sense of the word “grammar”?
    Again, no irony here. First, advocating descriptivism does not mean advocating that anything goes, so for example we could talk about the importance of proper terminology in discussing certain issues. But more importantly, this is not about the video not sticking to the prescribed meaning of the word “grammar”, largely because, well, there is no such things as a blanketly prescribed meaning of the word “grammar” – even linguists use this term in a number of different ways. The issue here is that the video conflates several very different things (like orthography, usage or dialectal variation), thus once again showing how stupid and full of shit peevers are.

  17. Thank you, bulbul. Eloquent and to the point. (I get very, very tired of the tired and tiresome “Haw, haw, linguists think they’re so descriptive but they get all prescriptive about their own language!” meme, which is right up there with “Black people keep changing how they want to be called!” as a superficially attractive but deeply ignorant response to complicated situations that threaten to complicate one’s mental life.)

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    According to “Harvey’s English Grammar” (more formally, “A Practical Grammar of the English Language for the Use of Schools of Every Grade,” widely used in the U.S. in the later 19th century and I believe still available in reprint for people suspicious of more modern textbooks), the four subdivisions of “grammar” are “orthography [including some phonology],” “etymology [including some morphology],” “syntax,” and “prosody.” At a more exalted level, the first volume of Jesperson’s 7-volume opus on “Modern English Grammar” concerns “Sounds and Spelling.”

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    Similarly, “grammar” instructional or reference texts meant for Anglophone students of foreign languages (e.g. Wade’s “A Comprehensive Russian Grammar,” to take the first example I could find on a nearby bookshelf after I couldn’t remember where my Routledge Welsh grammar was) typically have at least short sections on pronunciation and orthography.

  20. Sure. As bulbul says, there is no one prescribed meaning of the word “grammar,” and even linguists don’t use it in only one way. But even if punctuation is mentioned in a book on the grammar of a language, it is not part of grammar in the strict sense of how a language is organized — the apostrophe in “it’s” is purely graphic and has nothing to do with the grammar of the English language.

  21. hat,
    “Haw, haw, linguists think they’re so descriptive but they get all prescriptive about their own language!”
    “If you’re so tolerant, how come you can’t tolerate my intolerance, huh?”

    J.W.,
    the division of grammar I grew up with is “phonology”, “morphology”, “syntax” and “lexicon”. Orthography is usually included in phonology, but mostly for teaching/reference purposes. Thing is, orthography is nearly always an arbitrary system filled with various types of obsolete and useless stuff (apostrophes in English, “y” in Czech and Slovak, hyphens and għ in Maltese and don’t get me started on non-Latin scripts) and as such, it has very little to do with the language a particular grammar is attempting to describe. Same goes for punctuation.

  22. Stefan Holm says:

    A late-comer maybe in the debate about fun in the educational system I have a confession to make: When my two sons were to enter elementary school some 25 years ago all people around them said: How very fun that will be for you and similar things.

    I told my sons: This isn’t fun at all. This means the end of your childhood freedom. From now on you will have to get up in the morning every day for the rest of your life until at least you reach the age of 65. But it’s necessary, I continued. The tediousness and sacrifices you may experience will turn into benefits and fun at the end of the day – for you and for the rest of society.

    The criticism and indignation I was met with in those days for saying such cruel things to innocent children, ‘my own flesh and blood’, was an easy burden to bear compared to the very good relation I today have with them: “Only you, dad, told us the truth”.

    Of course everything should be done to make studying as interesting as possible. My own experience from school is however (politically incorrect) that this is a matter of personality. Just like sex appeal, some have it, others have not. So was my teacher in French a ‘funny’ guy who tried to stimulate us with lustful stories from his annual summer holidays in Provence but we all left class without knowing very much about French.

    Our teacher in English and German on the other hand, started his very first lesson (we were 12 and had by then taken two years of English) by writing on the blackboard: To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles….

    Wow! We were considered capable of understanding things, just we gave it some effort. But that approach to learning came to an end very soon. Since then it has all been a question of making it ‘fun’ and the Swedish educational system has been provided with an eternal amount of new pedagogic instructions to make education just “fun” according to what some (including me) call “latest psychology news from the American east coast”. And Sweden has been sinking like a stone in the international comparisons of student’s knowledges.

    Things are of course not that easy as described here by me. Society as a whole has changed dramatically but somewhere I believe that the distinction between benefit and pleasure has to be maintained, just as the ability to postpone a reward. The rocket speed development in the Realm of the Middle should teach us something.

  23. Jeremy Wheeler says:

    I agree with J W Brewer. Making learning fun is extremely dangerous. Teachers should make their lessons as dull as possible to ensure that no child is accidentally exposed to enjoyment of the subject.

  24. Jeremy Wheeler says:

    If video clips are allowed, this shows the dangers of enthusiastic teaching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdImwODtfl8

  25. Rodger C says:

    “Teachers should make their lessons as dull as possible to ensure that no child is accidentally exposed to enjoyment of the subject.”

    This was close to A. S. Neill’s actual view. When I read Summerhill as an undergrad I was puzzled by his insistence that it’s an imposition on children to try to get them interested in a new topic. I later learned that he was a notoriously dull teacher of his own actual subject (high-school math).

  26. J. W. Brewer says:

    Just to share a pleasant anecdote concerning child-initiated curiosity about matters linguistic: yesterday afternoon my 10-year-old was testing out a new hammock in our back yard when she asked (apparently after some internal musing) if “hammock” was a word English had borrowed from another language. I said yes, I thought so, and she was interested enough to stay tuned for the details (from Spanish, which borrowed it from Taino, which I explained to her as “what the Indians spoke on Puerto Rico before the first Europeans came” which seemed as much detail as necessary).* Due to modern technology it was possible to obtain a reliable answer from the back yard via smart phone, rather than trek back inside for a demonstration of how to consult the hard-copy OED or AHD.

    *OK, OK, it was also spoken on other islands and it’s probably more likely the Spaniards picked up the particular word on Hispaniola, but she’s been to Puerto Rico.

  27. Looking in Etymonline for hammock (which does a full text search) came up with this gem s.v. chestnut:

    Slang sense of “venerable joke or story” is from 1885, explained 1888 by Joseph Jefferson (see “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine,” January 1888) as probably abstracted from the 1816 melodrama “The Broken Sword” by William Dimond where an oft-repeated story involving a chestnut tree figures in an exchange between the characters “Captain Zavior” and “Pablo”:

    Zav. Let me see–ay! it is exactly six years since that peace being restored to Spain, and my ship paid off, my kind brother offered me a snug hammock in the dwelling of my forefathers. I mounted a mule at Barcelona and trotted away for my native mountains. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when, suddenly, from the thick boughs of a cork-tree—

    Pab. [Jumping up.] A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut!

    Zav. Bah, you booby! I say, a cork!

    Pab. And I swear, a chesnut. Captain, this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.

    Jefferson traced the connection through William Warren, “the veteran comedian of Boston” who often played Pablo in the melodrama.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    From now on you will have to get up in the morning every day for the rest of your life until at least you reach the age of 65.

    Or… maybe 25 in my case. :-)

    The rocket speed development in the Realm of the Middle should teach us something.

    South Korea is way up there in the PISA tests. But so is Finland.

  29. very fun

    Stefan: Fun as an adjective, by the way, is a very recent development in English, and very fun and more fun are the objects of substantial peeving. Hat still uses it only as a noun; I’m an intermediate case.

  30. Stefan Holm says:

    ’Fun’ being disputed as an adjective was honestly new to me. Shifting between English and Swedish I use no spell or grammar check and absolutely no autocorrection. Once I had the English version of the latter activated when writing in Swedish – just to find every instance of the very common preposition i (= in) changed into I. Annoying, to put it mildly.

    Whether or not a grammar check had reacted upon very fun I don’t know. Hopefully my postings get a more ‘human touch’ without it.

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