Word Crimes

I wanted to do a post on “Word Crimes,” Weird Al’s new prescriptivist anthem based on the song “Blurred Lines.” I then realized that no matter what I said about it, I would not have been as thorough and as eloquent as Ohio State English professor and linguist Lauren Squires. I have copied the text of this post from her guest post on Language Log.

While “grammar nerds” are psyched about Weird Al’s new “Word Crimes” video, many linguists are shaking their heads and feeling a little hopeless about what the public enthusiasm about it represents: a society where largely trivial, largely arbitrary standards of linguistic correctness are heavily privileged, and people feel justified in degrading and attacking those who don’t do things the “correct” way. What’s behind linguists’ reactions are at least three factors.

First, while Weird Al talks about “grammar,” most of his prescriptions do not pertain to what linguists consider the “grammar” of English, and this reflects a widespread divide between the use of the term “grammar” in everyday language and “grammar” by linguists. This divide frustrates linguists, because it makes them feel like everyone misunderstands the very substance and nature of their field of study.

Second, a little rumination on Weird Al’s violent reactions against “bad grammar” raises deep and longstanding questions of social equity regarding class, education, race, age, ethnicity, gender, and how these relate to languages, dialects, and social registers. There is ample research on these issues (which any sociolinguist could point you to), but the upshot is that the notion of “Proper English” typically serves to prop up the already-privileged speakers whose native language variety it is (sort of) based on. This puts speakers whose native language variety does not approximate “Proper English” at an immediate disadvantage in society, the same way that privileging Whiteness puts those who are not White at an immediate disadvantage in society. It is not the linguistic differences themselves that do this (just as it is not the racial/ethnic difference themselves that determine privilege), but the *attitudes* about them. This is why many linguists are having a hard time laughing with Word Crimes: to do so feels like complicity in an ongoing project of linguistic discrimination that intersects with class, race, and other kinds 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.

There are certainly valuable linguistic lessons that can be taken from Word Crimes, but not without a teacher encouraging students to think beyond the video itself, to ask questions about the rules Weird Al wants us to abide by. In this spirit, I worked up an off-the-top-of-my-head list of questions for teachers considering using this video in the classroom. I teach college English linguistics classes, so that’s the audience I’m familiar with, but I think these questions could be useful for teachers at any level to think through for themselves and maybe modify for earlier grades, different subjects, etc. Some are questions about language/grammar, while some are discussion questions to spark class conversation about some really important issues. Whether you like these questions or not, I hope that if you do use this video in teaching, you work up your own list of questions, rather than letting the video stand on its own. Have fun!

25 Questions for Teaching with “Word Crimes”

  1. What is the difference between “spelling” and “grammar”?
  2. What is the role of words in grammar?
  3. What is the function of dictionaries in society?
  4. Who makes dictionaries? Why? How do dictionary makers decide what a word means?
  5. What is the difference between “language,” “English,” and “literacy”? How does “literacy” relate to spelling and/or grammar?
  6. Weird Al points out that nouns can be divided into mass nouns (which are typically modified with “less”) and count nouns (which are typically modified with “fewer”). Can you think of other sub-categories of nouns (that is, nouns that behave in different ways from other nouns)?
  7. When someone says “I could care less,” do you interpret it as Weird Al says (that they DO care), or do you understand their intention? If you understand their intention, why would it matter which way they say it? Can you think of other examples when what someone says may be ambiguous, but their meaning is clear from context?
  8. Who decides what is “the right way” to say things?
  9. Why do you/we trust some people, but not others, to decide what is “right”?
  10. Weird Al discusses the difference between “it’s” and “its.” He says people need to use “the right pronoun” in deciding when to use one or the other. Are “it’s” and “its” actually different pronouns, or the same pronouns with different functions? (not as easy as it may seem!)
  11. What is the difference between a “possessive” and a “contraction”? Give more examples of each.
  12. What is a “participle,” and what would it mean for a participle to be “dangling”? Why do writers sometimes want to avoid “dangling participles”?
  13. What is an “Oxford comma”? Some professional editors use the Oxford comma, and others do not. Come up with an argument to support each rule.
  14. Weird Al claims that “B” “C” “R” and “U” are “words not letters.” Do you agree? Can you make an argument that these ARE, indeed, words?
  15. Weird Al says you should NEVER write words using numbers (like “WORD5”). But people DO write words using numbers, sometimes (otherwise Weird Al wouldn’t need to tell them not to!). When do you think people might choose to spell words this way? Are there times when it might be appropriate to do so? Are there times when it would be completely inappropriate to do so? Does the spelling affect how the words convey their meaning?
  16. Weird Al says it’s ok to write words using numbers if you’re 7 years old (or if your name is Prince…you probably don’t get that joke). What do you think is behind his acceptance of spelling this way for children? Do you think 7-year-olds spell this way?
  17. Weird Al mentions “Proper English.” What do you think he means by this term? What does this term mean to you? How do you think you learned the meaning of “Proper English”? Do you think you speak “Proper English” all the time? When do you or don’t you?
  18. Do you use the word “whom”? (advanced: Do a search using an online corpus for “to who” versus “to whom” and see what you find. Is “to whom” in as widespread usage? If not, should we be worried? Why or why not?)
  19. Weird Al makes sentence diagrams! Try to diagram this simple sentence using Weird Al’s system (which are Reed-Kellogg diagrams): “Weird Al hates bad grammar.” What do you think the purpose of sentence diagramming is?
  20. What IS the difference between “good” and “well”? Would you say “I’m doing good” or “I’m doing well”? Why?
  21. Weird Al doesn’t like people “misusing” the terms “literally” and “irony.” Can you think of words that you and your friends use to mean something different than what other people might mean by them?
  22. Weird Al singles out emails and blog posts as places where particular bad grammar resides. What do you think is behind this? Do you think YOUR emails, blog posts, or Facebook posts contain different grammar than your school papers, texts, or spoken conversations?
  23. What do you think the function of emoji are is in online communication? Do you or your friends use them? Where do they usually go in a message (beginning, middle, end)? How does their position relate to their function?
  24. Weird Al seems to think that preschool is where proper grammar education begins. Do you remember learning about grammar in preschool? What are your first memories of learning about grammar? Do you feel satisfied with the amount of formal grammar instruction you have had in school? Why or why not?
  25. Weird Al says some pretty mean things about people who don’t use “proper English.” Where do you think his negative attitudes about such people come from? Do you think he’s justified in his beliefs? Why or why not?
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