Thursday, July 31, 2014

Putting Weird Al's "Word Crimes" on trial

Weird Al Yankovic clearly struck a chord with the nation's English majors when he released his "Blurred Lines" parody video "Word Crimes" earlier this month. The deftly worded excoriation of people who use poor grammar and punctuation on the internet racked up nearly five million YouTube views in its first two days and was disseminated by high-profile sites from Pitchfork to the Washington Post. A lot of the song's leverage also came from self-proclaimed "grammar nerds" sharing it in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, often (in my experience, at least) accompanied by a comment about the poster's own frustration with dimbulbs who don't know when to add an apostrophe to "its."

Decrying the decline of spelling and grammar is a refrain as old as the internet, or at least the social components thereof. Online defense of the King's English is swift and frequently vicious. Any slight typo that slips into a publication is met with a flurry of "Don't you people employ a copy editor?" comments. A simple "there/their" mix-up is grounds for dismissing a poster's entire thesis, however cogent it may otherwise be. Even in a character-restrained environment like Twitter, using texting-inspired space-savers like "ur" or "thx" can be enough to earn a block from certain folks.

The disciples of "Word Crimes" no doubt see themselves as important gatekeepers, a bulwark against the dumbing down of our collective discourse. But are online displays of bad grammar really symptoms of creeping stupidity? Or is it just that everybody has a different skill set? Sure, there are plenty of lazy or willfully ignorant writers on the internet, but there are also scads of legitimate excuses for having poor grammar, including reading disorders, English as a secondary language, lack of access to quality writing instruction, or just plain not having a knack for words. 

Given the choice, a lot of those people probably wouldn't put their writing on public display, but in the social age that's often the only viable way for them to stay connected to their friends and family. It isn't necessarily that language skills have declined so drastically in recent years. It's just that we're seeing more language from people who used to have the option of keeping that particular shortcoming to themselves. I personally know a number of very intelligent but grammar-challenged people who are reluctant to post anything online for fear of the mockery that will inevitably come the first time they confuse their plural and possessive forms.

If Weird Al had made a video shaming folks who don't get trigonometry or who have a poor understanding of personal finance, would it have gone as smugly viral as "Word Crimes"? If so, an awful lot of grammar nerds would find themselves on the receiving end of the same condescension now being heaped on people who struggle with the rules of writing. I count myself among the fortunate folks who have a natural aptitude for the written word, but I'm the first to admit that I have grievous failings in plenty of other areas of scholarship and communication. That doesn't make me stupid, and the same goes for people who don't grasp the function of quotation marks.

I don't want to bag on Weird Al too hard here. "Word Crimes" seems generally good-natured and spotlights some of the sharpest wordplay of Mr. Yankovic's career. What's more concerning is how the song has validated and brought to the forefront a mean-spirited strain of privilege-dripping pedantry. Sure, there's some merit to the grammarians' hullabaloo - it's hard to think of a valid reason to use textspeak outside the confines of texting or Twitter, for instance - but for the most part it's an argument that places form above function. Heck, I've known storytellers who can bring a room to tears with a piece that barely resembles English on paper, and I've edited essays by award-winning authors who still begin every paragraph with a superfluous "So." I've also edited more than a few technically perfect pieces that wound up being too godawful dull to publish. If writing can be both imperfect and effective, what's the benefit in punishing every minor infraction?

Besides, do those of us who excel at writing really want everybody else climbing into the same boat? We're lucky enough to have a fairly rare skill that gives us an edge in many facets of life. Why not take pride in that rather than scorning those who don't? When I go out to a nice restaurant, the chef doesn't come to my table and belittle me for not being able to cook as well as he does, nor does he follow me home to mock my meager attempts at preparing my own dinner. There's a silent contract in place that I appreciate his artistry on its own terms and he respects that I'll do the best I can with what I've got. Nobody needs to accuse anybody of food crimes (which, come to think of it, sounds like it should be a Weird Al song title).

Let's all lay off the grammar-shaming and appreciate "Word Crimes" as Weird Al's cleverly written poke at an eminently pokable Robin Thicke song, not some sort of manifesto for folks who know their plurals from their possessives. Or better still we could skip ahead to "Foil." Mocking conspiracy theorists via a Lorde parody is the kind of shaming everybody can get behind.