Last week something unusual happened: “Weird Al” Yankovic, the 54-year-old parody singer, captured Billboard’s number one slot with the release of a new album, Mandatory Fun. It’s hard to overstate how weird (sorry) this is. Yankovic’s first hits came in the 1980s with send-ups like “Eat It” (instead of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”). It was great, and Weird Al kept at it, creating a niche for himself in the music biz over the next 30 years. Which is remarkable in its own right, much less in the genre of ephemeral comedy. Only a handful of singers have charted on Billboard’s Top 40 in four straight decades: Among them are Michael Jackson, Madonna, and . . . Weird Al.
The improbable hit single on Weird Al’s improbable hit album is “Word Crimes,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s global megahit “Blurred Lines.” Instead of being a sub rosa celebration of the hook-up culture, Weird Al’s song lampoons the grammar and spelling oddities of millennial Twitter culture, taking aim at some prevalent abuses of the English language. For instance:
Okay, now here are 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
For another instance:
You finished second grade
I hope you can tell
If you’re doing good or doing well
You better figure out the difference
Irony is not coincidence
And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull
About 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
It’s not Noël Coward, but there is a genuine frisson at seeing someone in the popular culture stand up for standards so elementary that they used to be taken as given. Which is probably why some professional educators went into high dudgeon.
At the University of Pennsylvania’s language blog, Lauren Squires, an assistant professor of English at Ohio State, posted a Very Concerned response to “Word Crimes.” As a professional linguist, Squires found “Word Crimes” to be, well, she can tell you herself:
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.
You can guess where this is heading: If you believe that there’s a meaningful distinction between “its” and “it’s,” then you had better check your privilege:
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.
How degraded has the academy become? We now have professors of English going to war against a pop musician, not just any musician—no, against the only one defending the integrity of the English language.