Quit complaining about bad grammar. It makes you seem old. That was the tip I was going to offer you: that whining about the decline of the English language does not make for a youthful and hip image.
It’s also nothing new. Bad grammar has been annoying people as they get older for centuries. It really infuriated Jonathan Swift 300 years ago. So much so that the author of Gulliver’s Travels wrote an official complaint about it to the British government.
I do here in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain to your Lordship, as First Minister, that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.
– Jonathan Swift, “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” 1712
It’s not only old English-speakers who bemoan bad gammar. This seems to be a pastime among older speakers of many languages. Aging bad grammar-bashers typically blame their country’s youth.
Standards are constantly slipping. The German young people can’t write in full sentences. They write in this strange text-message kind of street slang. And the children of immigrants! The language they’re speaking isn’t German – it’s this kind of mish-mash language, a gobbledy-gook, a pidgin, basically. These teenagers today! They don’t know any grammar. They’ve never been taught punctuation! All they do is send each other these meaningless text messages, all written in bad grammar.
– an older German on the Berlin In English website
You see what I mean. Talking like that adds at least 10 years to your age. But just as I was about to offer a warning against such tirades against bad grammar, I discovered the best one ever.
Grammar Police, do yourself a favour and check out the wildly popular new music video, Word Crimes. Parody Clown Prince Al Yancovic rants against bad grammar to the tune of Blurred Lines.
A word about the song that Yancovic chose for this video mocking bad grammar. Blurred Lines is by singer Robin Thicke and Happy song producer Pharrell Williams. If you think you don’t know it, get a youth to hum it to you and you’ll recognize the tune. (Unless you never listen to radio and haven’t checked out new music since you replaced your Carole King and Doors LPs with CDs.)
Blurred Lines has been dubbed the most controversial song of the decade. So sexist it’s been described as “rapey”, the video was banned on YouTube.
Child-actress-turned-pop-star Miley Cyrus sung this slimy but sticky song with Thicke at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Aiming to shatter her Disney image, she wore a faux-naked costume and a giant foam finger was involved in the requisite twerking. Negative reactions from people of all ages made this the most tweeted about event in history. (See what you’re missing if you don’t follow #mileysmallass on Twitter.)
Despite all this – no, because of it – sales of Blurred Lines broke records for downloads and video views. You can see why the tune is perfect for parody.
The artist behind Word Crimes is Al Yancovic, who you may remember from the 1980s. That’s when Weird Al, as he’s fondly known, had his biggest hits with parodies of songs by Michael Jackson (Eat It) and Queen (Another One Rides the Bus). Satirists do not require permission from the original artists according to the “fair use” provision of US copyright law. But Weird Al always asks – and he says 98% say yes.
The 54-year-old Californian-born comedian, singer and erstwhile accordion player of Yugoslav descent is enjoying the first Billboard Number 1 of his career. His Mandatory Fun is the first comedy album to top the charts since the hits of Allan Sherman and Bob Newhart in the early 1960s. Weird Al is the oldest artist ever to reach No. 1 with a comedy album.
So if you fear, like Yancovic did until last week, that you peaked in the mid-80s, take heart. Al tweeted that he didn’t achieve his dream – he achieved something he never dreamed would ever happen.
If you’d told me 30 years ago this would happen, I never would’ve believed it. If you’d told me 2 WEEKS ago, I never would’ve believed it.
The irony in your career is that you’ve been around longer than some of the artist’s you’ve parodied.
That is the big irony of my life. Nobody wanted to sign me to a record deal in the early ‘80s because they didn’t think I’d have a career in it because what I do is considered novelty music. So, the fact that I’ve been around for so long has kind of bucked the trends.
– Al Yancovic interviewed in Toronto Sun
So go, Weird Al! Show this youth-obsessed culture what a 54-year-old guy can do!
– Pop Mythology website
Are you wondering how Baby Boomer Al managed to beat out recording artists half his age? The answer is simple: he read the writing on the wall about the music industry. That the old model wasn’t working. Mainly because the youthful target market is not buying music in the ways they used to.
Entrepreneurial Al’s conclusion: “As it turns out, there is a thing called the Internet and stuff does go out there whether the suits like it or not.”
There’s some misinformation that’s been floating around the Internet (how unusual!) and I hoped it would dissipate quickly, but it only seems to be picking up steam. So before it gets much worse, please allow me to set the record straight.
I did a print interview recently where I talked about how I only had one more album left on my current record contract, and how after that I would be weighing my options. I talked about how at that point I might be more inclined to focus on digital distribution, since theoretically that would allow my releases to be more timely and topical. I talked about how quickly the industry is evolving, and how perhaps it might not even make sense to continue releasing conventional albums at that point. In fairness, my quotes in the article seemed pretty accurate.
But the headline screamed, “WEIRD AL SAYS HIS NEXT ALBUM WILL BE HIS LAST!” Well, um… no, I didn’t. That’s inaccurate, and extremely misleading, and has caused more than a few fans to freak out. But I guess “WEIRD AL IS CAREFULLY WEIGHING HIS OPTIONS AND ISN’T ENTIRELY SURE WHAT HE’S DOING AFTER HIS NEXT ALBUM!” isn’t quite as catchy, headline-wise. So again, to be clear… if you were led to believe that I’m planning on retiring anytime soon, I’m not (sorry, haters). I truly love what I do, and if I ever stop working, it won’t be of my own free will.
– Al’s Blog, 6 June 2013
Which brings us back to the cause so close to our aging hearts that Al rose to defend in his chart-topping musical rant: railing against bad grammar.
The incorrect use of the word “literally” is one of the Top Ten Grammar Peeves doing the rounds on the net in recent years. Other peeves that Yancovic sings about, hilariously, include confusing its and it’s, and the too-often heard throwaway line, “I could care less”.
What Al achieved – which we have not, with our geriatric-style moaning – is to make correct grammar hip. Word Crimes notched up nearly 12-million views in its first weeks so Al has clearly made a lot of youthful converts to our cause. The uncool guys are now the Word Criminals, of any age.
Maybe it’s the writer/English teacher in me, but I think Word Crimes is the shining moment of the (Mandatory Fun) album. Part of that is definitely Pharrell (Williams, the song’s producer), because even as a parody, “Blurred Lines” is catchy as hell. Still, Al’s lyrics are as sharp as ever here, and lines like “You should never/ Write words using numbers/ Unless you’re seven/Or your name is Prince” have kept me chuckling through multiple listens. And I’m so with him on homophones; I’ve been reading too many things lately that mix up “further” and “farther.”
– music reviewer Ben Kaye, Consequence of Sound website
Weird Al did make one wrong move. In a verse of Word Crimes he wrote:
Saw your blog post
It’s really fantastic
That was sarcastic
Then in search of a word to rhyme with “fantastic” and “sarcastic”, Fallible Al wrote:
‘Cause you write like a spastic
In response to a barrage of criticism for offending people with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy, Contrite Al tweeted an apology:
If you thought I didn’t know that “spastic” is considered a highly offensive slur by some people… you’re right, I didn’t. Deeply sorry.
10:07 PM – 19 Jul 2014
Good for him to apologize so forthrightly despite not really being “guilty” of anything. Once while traveling, I was discussing with some Brits the differences between our versions of English, and I mentioned “spaz” as an example, and even saying it in that context clearly offended them. To Americans, it’s essentially a meaningless word. My understanding is Brits still use a three-letter term for cigarettes that is highly offensive to Americans. I wouldn’t expect them to apologize to us every time they use it. A few more incidents like this over “spas” and perhaps it’ll drop out of American usage to, deemed too offensive by proxy.
– comment on Language Log blog
My New Old Self is delighted about Al’s late-career blooming. And happy that his live shows reportedly draw what he calls “a multigenerational audience, a family bonding experience”.
So forget my tip about not slating bad grammar in public, now that Grammatic Al has made it trendy. What you should remember is that Al’s always a step ahead of you. To wit, he has reportedly inserted a split infinitive in his video. Grammar Police, see if you can spot Al’s premeditated Word Crime.
Why was writing a song about grammar important to you in Mandatory Fun? Is Word Crimes the most educational track you’ve ever made?
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. “Word Crimes” is definitely ONE of my more educational songs, but I’ve had a few (including a song called “Pancreas” which supposedly has helped more than one struggling biology student pass a final exam).
Of the grammar errors mentioned in Word Crimes, which is your biggest pet peeve? Are there others that did not make the cut?
It’s hard to pick, but I will say… the literally/figuratively thing LITERALLY drives me crazy. Other than that, I have the least amount of patience with people that still haven’t figured out the difference between “your” and “you’re.” It’s always such sweet irony when someone tweets at me: “Your an idiot!”
Is there a grammar rule you don’t mind bending/breaking?
I’m not a stickler about ending a sentence with a preposition. I probably wouldn’t do it if I were writing an essay, but I think it’s fine when used in casual conversation.
Is there such thing as a “grammar myth?” For example, in the video you mention the split infinitive.
That’s another one that doesn’t bother me too much. In fact, I purposely left a split infinitive at the end of my song (“Try your best to not drool”) to be ironic, and also to see how many online grammar pedants it would annoy.
– Interview with Yancovic on Grammarly Blog
Lyrics of Word Crimes by Al Yancovic
Everybody shut up
Everyone listen up
Hey, hey, hey… hey, hey, hey… hey, hey, hey
If you can’t write in the proper way
If you don’t know how to conjugate
Maybe you flunked that class, and maybe now you find
That people mock you online
Everybody wise up
Okay, now here’s the deal…
I’ll try to educate ya
Gonna familiarize you with the nomenclature
You’ll learn the definitions of nouns and prepositions
Literacy’s your mission
And that’s why I think it’s a good time
To learn some grammar
Now, did I stammer?
Work on that grammar
You should know when It’s “less” or it’s “fewer”
Like people who were never raised in a sewer
I hate these word crimes
Like “I could care less”
That means you do care, at least a little
Don’t be a moron
You better slow down and use the right pronoun
Show the world you’re no clown
Say you’ve got an I-T followed by apostrophe S
Now, what does that mean?
You would not use “it’s” in this case as a possessive (no, no, no)
It’s a contraction (yeah, yeah, yeah)
What’s a contraction?
Well it’s the shortening of a word or group of words by omission of a sound or letter
Okay, now here’s some notes
Syntax you’re always mangling
No “x” in espresso
Your participle’s dangling
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, use your spell checker
You should never
Write words using numbers
Unless you’re seven, or your name is Prince
I hate these word crimes
You really need a full-time proofreader
You dumb mouth-breather
Well, you should hire Some cunning linguist
To help you distinguish what is proper English
One thing I ask of you
Time to learn your homophones is past due
Learn to diagram a sentence too
Always say “to whom”; don’t ever say “to who”
And listen up when I tell you this
I hope you never use quotation marks for emphasis
You finished second grade,
I hope you can tell If you’re doing good or doing well
Better figure out the difference
Irony is not coincidence
And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull
‘Bout 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 wanna literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head
I read your e-mail
It’s quite apparent your grammar’s errant
Saw your blog post
It’s really fantastic
That was sarcastic…
’cause you write like a spastic
I hate these word crimes
Your prose is dopey
Think you should only write in emoji
Oh, you’re a lost cause
Go back to pre-school,
get out of the gene pool
Try your best to not drool
Never mind, I give up
Really now, I give up
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
I think people are becoming less concern about language structure.