Word Crimes

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For his new album Mandatory Fun, Weird Al Yankovic has crafted the ultimate peever's anthem: "Word Crimes," to the tune of last summer's big hit, "Blurred Lines."

It's a cleverly composed parody, despite the inevitable "cunning linguist" joke:

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

That line is already attracting discussion among linguists and lexicographers on Twitter.

It's an open question to what extent Weird Al is simply inhabiting a prescriptivist persona for the purposes of the song. But this clip, focused on the same less vs. fewer distinction he sings about in "Word Crimes," suggests he really is a peever of the first order.

On less vs. fewer, see these LL posts:

"If it was good enough for King Alfred the Great…" (ML, 11/15/06)
"10 English majors or less" (AZ, 8/10/08)
"More on less" (AZ, 8/31/08)
"Stupid less/fewer automatism at the WSJ" (GKP, 12/2/10)
"Less with plural count nouns in formal usage" (ML, 12/5/10)

And from Motivated Grammar, "'10 items or less' is just fine" (9/30/08).

Update: For a further examination of Yankovic's Rules of Usage, see this Slate piece by Forrest Wickman.

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52 Comments »

  1. AJ said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    FWIW, that clip was posted on April 1.

  2. ===Dan said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    "And, I thought that you'd gotten it through your skull
    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"

    So the narrator either is a criminally violent peever or is using "literally" as an intensifier. (Or maybe "really" is used as an intensifier but the wanting isn't real.)

  3. Zizoz said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Well, I would argue it's possible to want to hit someone with a crowbar while still recognizing that doing so would be wrong, and exercising self-control. And since wanting to hit someone with a crowbar but not doing so is not a crime, I don't think it qualifies someone as "criminally violent" either.

  4. E Gilman said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    I get a kick out of the "less/fewer" peevers. This so-called rule arose about the time of the American Revolution as the opinion of one Robert Baker that "fewer" was "more elegant" with countables (not a term he used).

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    Is the rather informal idiom "upside the/your/his/her head" itself immune from being the object of peevery?

  6. pj said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    Not to mention the split infinitive in 'try your best to not drool'. But there, peeving preference is arbitrary (and, as demonstrated often, many peevers frequently break their own rules without noticing).

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    A few minutes with google books strongly suggests that "upside your head" originated as an AAVE-ism, perhaps starting to spread into the broader AmEng community in a jocular/informal register by some time in the 1980's.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

    Thanks so much for this post, Ben! I love anything by Weird Al Yankovic, and this is one of his best. I hope that it really takes off, because it also covers a huge amount of linguistics for such a short and catchy compass (whether you agree with the prescriptivist slant or not). And you can even dance to it (I *literally* couldn't stay in my seat while I was watching the video).

    Weird Al even gets into diagramming, which we at Language Log have not neglected either:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3868

    See especially this comment:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3868#comment-182584

    I'm ashamed to say that I never saw or heard of Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines ft. T.I., Pharrell, so I'm providing this link for other benighted folk like myself.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyDUC1LUXSU&feature=kp

  9. Ethan Bradford said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

    In W. Al's NPR interview, he confesses " I'm always correcting peoples' grammar."

    http://www.npr.org/2014/07/12/329873481/weird-al-yankovic-on-parody-in-the-age-of-youtube

  10. Neal Whitman said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

    And spelling "espresso" with an X has nothing to do with syntax, either. But even so, Weird Al is at his best when he has both a popular song and an actual cultural thing to make fun of, which peevers certainly are. So I'm listening and pretending he's just "inhabiting a prescriptivist persona", as Ben puts it.

  11. Rebecca said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

    Annoying as language peeving is, I wonder if it is, in some sense, a "natural" part of language development. I mean, is it just one more part of the push and pull on language change that is always there? It feels to me like a totally separate thing, deriving from the fact that we have a written language, and traditions of editing and language instruction.

    But does peeving also exist in language communities that lack these? Do languages with no written form have language peevers? I could imagine it with strong oral traditions, too. Some young person not delivering the language of an epic poem "correctly" for example.

  12. KeithB said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

    I imagine that language peeving just takes another group (tribe) that has a different idiom than you do. "Don't use ain't like *those* people. *We* use aren't"

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

    @KeithB
    "I imagine that language peeving just takes another group (tribe) that has a different idiom than you do. "Don't use ain't like *those* people. *We* use aren't"

    As in "I aren't"? :)

  14. Jeff R. said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    So, objecting to the modern sense of "passive voice" as any agency-obscuring construction is just as much a baseless language peeve as any of there, right?

  15. ===Dan said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    @Zizoz,
    I didn't mean it literally.

  16. chris said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    I don't see any reason to believe that this song is any more proof of Weird Al's inclination to peevery than "I'll Sue Ya" is proof of his inclination to sue people. Etc. Clearly he knows how peevers operate and think — he has to, to parody them — but that doesn't necessarily mean he is one. (Sadly it dawns on me that the same thing is true for geeks, "All About the Pentiums" and "White and Nerdy" notwithstanding.)

  17. Don Sample said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

    Al doesn't seem to be too put out by the use of "less" rather than "fewer". His song "Midnight Star" opens with the line "I was waiting in the express lane with my twelve items or less."

  18. Jason Stokes said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

    @Jeff R.

    So, objecting to the modern sense of "passive voice" as any agency-obscuring construction is just as much a baseless language peeve as any of there, right?

    I've brought this up before. Let's just say the linguists at language log claim a special privilege to determine and prescribe the correct usage and denotation of words that originate in the technical terminology of linguistics. And this applies to experts across the board; people may call something "schizophrenic", but unless it conforms to the specific technical description of schizophrenia in the DSM, a psychiatrist will label it simply wrong, or at best poetic, not something blessed by usage; to a rifleman, a detachable magazine is not a "clip", no matter how many times people use it that way, etc.

  19. Dierk said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    @Jeff R. and Jason Stokes

    You do know what a definition is? See, 'passive voice' is a technical term with a specific meaning. It is used to describe certain language phenomena. Using it with another definition, i.e. for an agent-less clause, shows you don't know the definition, advice people on thing A, when you mean to tell them about thing B.

    It's as if you talk with people about cars but define 'car' as motor-less vehicle with two wheels for one person powering it by themselves.

    That is quite different from coming up with an arbitrary rule, presumably based on some language inherent logic*, then telling people they are wrong in breaking that rule. Especially when it turns out that the rule in question wasn't one until relatively recently.

    *Nope, sorry, no logic in language. Ask any philosopher who tried to create a logical language/system over the past 3000 years.

  20. Adam Roberts said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 2:00 am

    "To literally/ Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head" is a split infinitive.

  21. Marek said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 2:56 am

    Out of sheer curiosity, did any linguists actually contact the author about his (mis)use of the term 'linguist'? In these days of Twitter and what have you, it shouldn't be too hard, and I wonder what Weird Al's response might be.

  22. richardelguru said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 6:07 am

    In news not entirely unrelated to cunning linguist in
    Plano, TX we have a road called Coit—the famously Latinate Plano Road Namers were going to call it "Coitus", but they were interrupted.

  23. Matthew Edney said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    There's a further issue here, says my cultural-studies professor wife. (I too am largely ignorant of Robin Thicke.) Thicke's "Blurred Lines" not only was misogynistic, but Thicke refused to accept it as such, protesting that words don't matter (as in "sticks and stones …"). One could argue that in parodying Thicke, even from a peever's point of view, Weird Al is pushing back to make the point that language *does* matter, a point that even an historian like me with a descriptivist take on language must accept in principle (if not in the peevish details).

  24. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 7:20 am

    @Matthew Edney

    Excellent point!!

    I felt uncomfortable watching the Robin Thicke video, not just for the way the women were treated, if you know what I mean.

  25. Adam Funk said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 7:42 am

    @Matthew Edney, Victor Mair

    Almost anything, even if it is peeving, has to be better than the original. No Spines (about invertebrates), has been around for a couple of months, I think.

  26. BlueLoom said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 7:44 am

    @ J W Brewer

    I heard "upside the head" used by both std AmEng and AAVE speakers in central (quite rural) Missouri in the 1960s.

  27. tpr said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    Does he even sing "smack a crowbar upside your stupid head"? Those are the words that appear on the screen, but I hear "through" instead of "upside".

    It's at around 2m50s.

  28. B. said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    For the curious, here's the full list of WAPs (Weird Als' prescriptions), taken from the song lyrics:

    Observe less/fewer distinction
    "I could care less" meaning
    It’s / its distinction
    Espresso not spelled/pronounced expresso
    Don't use dangling participles
    Recommended to use the Oxford comma
    Don't spell (be,see,are,you) as (b,c,r,u)
    Don't write words using numbers for letters
    Use whom when appropriate
    Don't use quotation marks for emphasis
    Observe good/well distinction
    Meaning of "irony"
    Meaning of "literal"

  29. B. said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    Muphry's Law strikes again, that should be Al's above.

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 11:28 am

    @ Dierk: But "car" did mean a motor-less vehicle before motors were invented, didn't it?

    The point about linguists and "passive voice" is that one doesn't hear similar peeving from geologists about non-technical uses of "epicenter," from traffic engineers about "gridlock," from physicists about "quantum leap" or from astronomers about "light-year."

  31. Jeff R. said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 11:31 am

    Okay, that distinguishes it from some things. But not all. Specifically, I don't see any difference from defending "passive voice" than defending "literally". If anything, the latter is more important, because if one looks at the list of intensifiers in the English language, you see a graveyard of terms that used to mean what literally is supposed to mean ("very","truly","really", etc.) There is a powerful and pathological force among English speakers that is actively hostile to the existence of a word that unambiguously means what literally is supposed to mean, and 'literally' is literally figuratively our last trench here: if the forces of civilization lose this one, future linguists will able to accurately say that there is no word for 'literally' in the English language.

  32. Jeff R. said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    (And while 'passive voice' is just spreading to a closely related area, 'literally' is being used in a sense that is directly opposite its proper meaning.)

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    BlueLoom: thanks for the datapoint! Rural Missouri usage of that vintage may be insufficiently represented in the google books corpus.

  34. Breffni said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

    Coby: geologists would justifiably complain about 'epicentre', astronomers about 'light year', etc., if they were used with the popular meaning within technical discourse. And they'd be entitled to suspect that the author not merely had the terminology wrong, but didn't know what they were talking about. That's what's going on with most of the misuses of 'passive voice' that I've seen: Language Loggers and others suspect, I think rightly, that the peevers are not simply using terminology loosely, but are actually confused about grammar.

    On the non-problem of 'quantum leap', see comments by me and (the much better informed) Brett here.

    Jeff R.: originally 'literal' was itself metaphorical (since it meant 'having to do with letters'), so presumably there was a time when there wasn't a word for 'literally'. And though 'literally' is often used to intensify figurative expressions, I've never seen it used with its 'directly opposite' meaning of 'figuratively'. Can you give an example?

  35. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    The boundary between technical and non-technical discourse may sometimes be a bit fuzzy. I think the question is more like "is 'epicenter' used in more or less the right technical sense in popular journalistic writing that's actually about earthquakes?" If so, everything else is a metaphorical extension to another domain, and to complain that metaphors are "loose" or inaccurate is to miscomprehend the nature of metaphor.

    In other news, I just defended Mr. Yankovic's honor and consistency on facebook by pointing out that the use of quotation marks around "Weird Al" is a common journalistic style for nicknames and not in fact an instance of the quotation-marks-for-emphasis usage that is apparently deprecated in the song.

  36. Jeff R. said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    When one uses it with a metaphorical expression, it is being used in a case where the direct opposite of its meaning is the case. It may be functioning as an intensifier/dead word, but any attempt to extract meaning from it yields something opposite to reality.

    (Interesting question for a future entry if anyone knows: is this phenomenon limited to English, or do other languages also see words specifically denoting a non-figurative sense to something that is occasionally used in a figurative sense devolve into general intensifiers?)

  37. cM said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    Coby Lubliner:

    I'm a physicist, and in fact I am mildly annoyed by the (mis)use of "quantum leap" – as are most of my colleagues. I also regularly find myself explaining that "lightyear" is not a unit of time, often to innocent bystanders in museums.

    And I've heard all geologists and astronomers I know comexplain about "lightyears" and "epicenter" as well – and while I don't know any traffic engineers, I suspect some kind of displeasure to be common amongst those too.

    So the subject of the peeving one is aware of probably depends a lot on one's surroundings.

  38. Rube said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    Context is key in most everything. If someone talking about his kid's baseball game calls a fielder's choice "a hit", so what.

    If someone took the time to write an article about the importance of baseball in North American culture, but didn't know the difference between a fielder's choice and a base hit, I'd not think well of that person's expertise.

  39. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    It's definitely the case that experts object to the misapplied and misunderstood popular appropriations of technical terms specific to their field. In this, Pullum and other linguists with passive voice/verb are not alone.

    What bothers me about it, though, is that it does strike me as special pleading when there've been examples of defenses here of other such popular appropriations of technical terms and, anyway, there's nothing special about technical language. If, as a descriptivist, you don't believe that there's any authority that can restrict meaning and usage generally, then the popular appropriation of originally-limited technical terms is no different from how any other usage originates, spreads, and evolves. Not qualitatively.

    What ultimately matters, as always, is utility. Do people understand each other?

    So, as several preceding people have mentioned, this does matter, and objections are justified, when misunderstandings are likely. Technical terms evolve when they're in popular usage and that's okay. But at the boundaries, where it's unclear whether a usage is intended to be technical and also, particularly, when it's explicitly technical and can be understood to carry with it a claim of technical competence, there's good cause to object to the misuse of a technical term within the context of its technical meaning.

    In practice I find that I'll accept some usages of "passive" when applied to sentences that aren't grammatically passive, but not others, depending upon how strongly (or not) the writer seems to be signaling that they're talking about grammar, as opposed to rhetoric. I think the term is fine in popular usage when the discussion is about rhetorical usages, just as long as the writer doesn't seem to signal, or think, that they're specifically referring to verbs when the verbs aren't passive.

    And the only reason I think I can be justified in actually objecting when they are misusing the term to apply specifically to verbs is not simply because I'm feeling peevish, but because the use of technical terms in a technical context signals technical competency. If it's a misuse within that context, then it's a sort of falsehood and/or it furthers falsehoods. But when most people casually talk about passive sentences or the epicenter of Brooklyn hipsterism, they're not signaling technical competency (about grammar or geology) and their audience is not inferring it.

  40. Nathan said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    In Weird Al's "Close But No Cigar", the narrator dumps several amazing girlfriends for trivial flaws, one of which is the misuse of "infer".

  41. Robin said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    I rather like that at around 1:40, the on-screen text reads, "Now here are some notes," but Al articulates it as the common but non-standard/prescriptive contracted singular agreement: "Now here's some notes."

  42. bfwebster said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 7:57 pm

    The real questions: was Yankovic mocking those who make these *mistakes or those who peeve about them?

  43. bfwebster said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

    Uh, "question is". My new wireless keyboard is prone to dropping keystrokes.

  44. chris said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    Specifically, I don't see any difference from defending "passive voice" than defending "literally". If anything, the latter is more important, because if one looks at the list of intensifiers in the English language, you see a graveyard of terms that used to mean what literally is supposed to mean ("very","truly","really", etc.)

    ISTM that proves that it isn't important at all to defend "literally" from semantic shift (if "defend" is even the right verb — if semantic shifts are as natural as that, maybe the act of stopping them should be described with a verb more like "imprison").

    Not only are you setting yourself up as a (nonliteral) linguistic King Canute, but if that graveyard is full of indispensable words, what's one more or less? The treadmill will keep running and a new one will be invented, until it is altered and replaced in turn.

    By the same argument, any use of "passive voice" outside of an actual academic setting (and journalism is definitely outside) should perhaps be, at most, grounds for a curmudgeonly footnote that that isn't *literally* passive voice.

  45. Dierk said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 1:36 am

    @Coby Lubliner

    'Car' never meant a bicycle.

    And yes, experts from fields other than linguistics do complain about misuse of terms even in rather minor cases. For instance, most Germans will say 'Schraubenzieher'* when referring to a screwdriver. And many experts will correct them to 'Schraubendreher**, as you can't pull screws, only turn them'.

    I remember vividly the astronomers pulling apart George Lucas for using 'parsecs' wrongly. A use in an adventure film set in a fantasy world, in which large vessels could travel faster than light speed and, more importantly, could break the light speed barrier!

    All of that doesn't matter much as we are talking about criticism based not only upon linguistic notions but style criticism that masks as linguistic expertise. People are writing that some linguistic concept is broken by a specific use of some word, phrase or construction – even if the concept doesn't exist, the word or phrase is an idiom or neologism [hence free of many historical constraints] or the construction in question isn't actually used.

    Complaining about authors covering up the agent of an action is one thing, and it may even be a sensible complain [in many instances it isn't]. Complaining about a construction that isn't used as the culprit is, for want of a better word, stupid.

    *literally screwpuller
    **literally screwturner

  46. Randy A MacDonald said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

    Split infinitives are no such thing. The verb is just a compound word: I boldly go, I stride. To (boldly go)…

  47. Garrett said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    Good to see folks are calling out the unsubtle linguistic attitudes of "Word Crimes." But at the risk of taking a parody song too seriously, I'd go a step further and Weird Al's view of language is a historically pernicious one–disrespectful toward differences of disability and dialect. For the record, though, I'm generally a big Weird Al fan. He usually picks his targets more intelligently. http://seminartable.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/hey-weird-al/

  48. Erica said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 4:20 am

    @B

    Not sure the singing person is making a recommendation on the Oxford comma. More like he's saying it's too trivial even for a peever.

    Now I don;t want your drama

    If you wanna

    Leave out that Oxford comma.

  49. Greg Bowen said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    @bfwebster

    I think the answer to your question is: Yes.

  50. Rubrick said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    I'm neutral on the topic of whether Al's an actual peever or merely assuming the role of one, but I'm a little disappointed in his use of "spastics" and "mouth breather".

  51. Dan H said,

    July 23, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    @Jeff R

    When one uses it with a metaphorical expression, it is being used in a case where the direct opposite of its meaning is the case. It may be functioning as an intensifier/dead word, but any attempt to extract meaning from it yields something opposite to reality.

    That's the thing though, you fairly explicitly aren't.

    If people used "literally" to mean "figuratively" then people would say things like "oh no, I didn't mean you to take what I said at face value, I was only speaking literally". They don't.

    People use literally to intensify figurative statements precisely because they are using it in its *correct* sense. If people used literally to mean figuratively then saying "this is literally the worst film I have ever seen" would be a form of understatement exactly equivalent to saying "this is figuratively the worst film I have ever seen". It fairly clearly isn't.

    I'd also point out that you can't really extract meaning from the word "literally" anyway. All the word means is that the words following it mean what they mean. Which they … umm … do anyway.

    @Keith M. Ellis

    What bothers me about it, though, is that it does strike me as special pleading when there've been examples of defenses here of other such popular appropriations of technical terms and, anyway, there's nothing special about technical language.

    I'd disagree. Or rather I would disagree mildly.

    There *is* something special about technical language *when it is being used in a technical context*.

    As a physicist, I don't care how people use the word "quantum" in everyday speech, as long as they aren't trying to make *actual claims about quantum mechanics*. If somebody says "this is a quantum leap in sheep farming" that's absolutely fine, but if somebody tries to say that quantum mechanics proves that telepathy is possible I expect them to be using their technical physical terminology correctly, because they are making a technical claim about physics.

    When people talk about "the passive voice" they are almost always doing it in a context which makes specific and explicit claims about language and about writing. In this context, using the correct, technical language is important because they are talking about a specific, technical discipline.

  52. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    From Sasha Frere-Jones, "Weirdly Popular: The enduring appeal of 'Weird Al' Yankovic," New Yorker (8/11/14):

    The video for “Word Crimes,” which has been viewed more than twelve million times on YouTube, is a good example of another appealing aspect of Yankovic’s work: a soft and goofy sweetness. The original song, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” was a huge hit in 2013, despite the suspicion that the music was a shameless rip-off of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” (Litigation is ongoing.) Thicke’s lyrics centered on his deciding for an unnamed woman that “I know you want it,” which, if not criminally coercive, sounded extremely creepy. Yankovic’s video turned the video for Thicke’s song, a display of barely clad models, into an animated lesson on avoiding grammatical crudeness. Brackets and exclamation points dance as Yankovic defines contractions and counsels against using “c” to mean “see.” But Yankovic never comes off as a scold. Every aspect of his art is enthusiastic and cheerful, a throwback to an earlier era of comedy and pop culture, when lightness had validity. Now every fairy-tale princess and superhero has to be drenched in blood, watching a city collapse in a fake orgasm of C.G.I. overload. Standup comedians these days are more likely to plumb the depths of their emotional dysfunction than they are to wear trick costumes or do imitations. Yankovic is comforting in the way of Bugs Bunny, or early Steve Martin.

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