Word Crimes and Ass Hats

Weird Al Yankovic’s latest hit, Word Crimes, is the equivalent of saying “You are an ass hat.”

Some Cunning Linguist

Now, let’s step back a bit and analyse this.

Weird Al, best known for his parody songs, has a new album, Mandatory Fun. In promoting this album, Weird Al has released eight of the music videos online, including the song Word Crimes. This song is a parody of the 2013 single Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, although unlike the hoard of parodies about sex and rape culture prompted by the original song, Weird Al’s parody is on grammar misuse in English.

It starts out optimistically, addressing itself to those without knowledge of the grammarian’s version of English.

…maybe now you find
That people mock you online
Okay, now here’s the deal
I’ll try to educate ya

But soon descends into the purpose of the parody: comedic hyperbole, against the various pet peeves of grammarians.

You should know when
It’s “less” or it’s “fewer”
Like people who were
Never raised in a sewer

Of course, in the confines of a short song one could not explore complexities of grammar, and so the song understandably opts for a swift succession of rules. For instance, one of the favourite frustrations of Grammar Nazis is the use of the word literally to mean figuratively, the exact opposite of the original meaning. Actually, the historical usage of the word literally to mean figuratively dates back to the 1790s (following a common trend called semantic bleaching), and has only retrospectively been considered incorrect, but Weird Al’s response to this usage suggests that perhaps he is not interested in the etymology anyway.

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

This raises two issues that have been picked up on in other blogs. The first is prescriptivism, and has been railed against by the very people Weird Al calls in for assistance: linguists.

I hate these word crimes
You really need a
Full-time proofreader
You dumb mouthbreather
Well, you should hire
Some cunning linguist
To help you distinguish
What is proper English

I’ve previously written about the prescriptive/descriptive divide within dictionary culture, which can simply be summarised as: descriptive is an approach to grammar that records the existing language without imposing norms, and prescriptive is an approach that establishes norms of usage through rules about grammar. Take an example from within the song:

B C R U, are words not letters
You should never write words using numbers
Unless you’re 7
Or your name is Prince
I hate these word crimes

Prescriptivists call this incorrect usage. Now, there must be some legitimate language change over time, since otherwise we’d still be speaking Old English (and I know that I certainly find the Old English Beowulf hard to read). This is hinted at in the song with the use of the word “unless”, which basically says that words are acceptable in certain circumstances, even within a rule system. On the other hand, linguists record and describe changes within the language that occur naturally, rather than restricting or defining what is correct usage. (I discuss this further in my rant about squee and other words recently added to the Oxford Dictionary Online.) Other blogs have also already discussed this quite well. Dictionary.com, for instance, has a wonderfully considered response precisely concerning precriptive/descriptive approaches.

I agree with these analyses, but as a recovering Grammar Nazi myself, I won’t give Weird Al too much flak. (A few years ago I would have found the song quite amusing, especially since I’ve been a Weird Al fan for many years and admire a lot of his work. Tutoring undergraduates and high school children, and dating a linguist, have rather changed my outlook.) Instead, I examine the song from one of the basic premises of the Internet: Paul Graham’s brilliant essay on How to Disagree.

While not part of the original essay, the rather cutting insult that opened this rant, “You are an ass hat”, turns up as an example in the graphic illustration of his argument. The whole essay is worth reading, but in short, Graham argues that there is a hierarchy of disagreement, with the weakest, least convincing form of disagreement being name-calling, and the higher forms refuting the argument rather than the arguer. “[T]he greatest benefit of disagreeing well”, according to Graham, “is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier.”

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement

Graham’s hierarchy is, ultimately, perhaps overly optimistic. He wrote it back in 2008, and reading it now, one cannot help but feel that the attempt was somewhat futile.

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Back in 2008, Graham was probably blissfully unaware of the waves of trolling that would run rampant through the Internet, in spite of his intentions. Nevertheless, I would not consider Weird Al’s parodies to be trolling, and they can usefully be examined with the heirarchy. The arguments Word Crimes relies solely on are the three lowest forms of disagreement: name-calling, ad hominem and tone (or, in this case, grammar). Name-calling is quite obvious within the song, which includes a wide variety of insults. Ad hominem (“to the person”) disagreements attempt to invalidate the argument by invalidating the arguer. In this, Word Crimes says that improper grammar users are clowns from the sewer, which implies (in a somewhat unsubtle manner) that their form of English is necessarily inferior. Most of all, the song condemns tone, for the entire purpose of the song is to condemn how people speak, rather than what they are saying.

This could all be refuted on two fronts: that Weird Al’s song is intended as and interpreted as a parody.

Of course, it is a parody, of Thicke’s original song, and it is cleverly composed. If it is intended as and treated as a parody then it simply a (somewhat scathing) humorous song. This is how it is defended by Christopher Daly of The Better Editor, who argues that Weird Al is only occuping the persona of a Grammar Nazi. However, an interview with Weird Al by Grammarly, that school for Grammar Nazis, calls into question the strength of both these refutations. Grammarly treats the song explicitely as educational, and Weird Al responds in kind, adding,

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.

Indeed, Weird Al’s Youtube channel includes videos of him correcting printed signs with grammatical errors, and another interview with NPR includes him saying that “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.” Daly defends this statement, and we could give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that Weird Al does not support grammarians. Nevertheless, the song is interpreted as educational, by the seeming vast majority of the Internet.

Yet should it be considered educational? Surprisingly, even some proofreaders (who tend to be more prescriptive than linguists, since that’s their job) cringe at the excessive insults in Weird Al’s song. Lauren Squires guest blogging on Language Log also makes a similarly invaluable point: this song is not and should not be used as a teaching tool, because it encourages snobbery and discrimination, and pointedly does not teach grammar. One of my favourite responses to the video comes from the beautiful Mignon Fogerty, the woman behind Grammar Girl, who not only points out the flaws in Weird Al’s prescription, but concludes that, simply, insulting people is mean, whether they used grammar correctly or not.

Indeed, the song uses a variety of descriptions for these misusers of English, including “morons”, “mouthbreathers,” and “spastics”*, and just before Weird Al “gives up” on these people in the outro his last words are:

Go back to pre-school
Get out of the gene pool
Try your best to not drool

The song privileges white, educated native English speakers, and does so explicitly at the expense of others. It invites the listener to laugh at people who speak English that is not ‘proper’, and while in person we may restrain ourselves from bullying someone with a less privileged upbringing, the Internet has no such restraint. We are, conversely, actively encouraged to indulge in petty pedantry, and to pick on people’s online grammar if we have no stronger argument against them: precisely the reverse of what Graham had intended. Arguably, Weird Al’s song is an intellectually dishonest argument, relying on the weakest forms of disagreement to incite an – apparently – entirely justifiable vilification of speakers of dialect. And – though I am sorry to say it Paul Graham – no amount of blogging about prescriptivist grammar and just plain bullying is going to change that.

We say “You are an ass hat”, and then we laugh.

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*Weird Al has since apologised for the use of the term “spastics”, which has much stronger negative connotations in the United Kingdom than it does in the Unites States. See the analysis of this by Ben Zimmer at Language Log for more information.

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