Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Weird Al" Yankovic The Prescriptive Grammarian

A few years back, I saw "Weird Al" Yankovic in concert.  It was great fun.  He still makes records as well.  His latest effort features a song called "Word Crimes", which has a very funny video (it should be embedded below).  In it, he ridicules various language usages which are regarded as erroneous by those who like to police the language, who will politely be called here prescriptive grammarians (since they like to prescribe how people should use language--they are often contrasted against linguists who tend to be more often descriptive grammarians and merely describing how people use language) and not, as I saw one commentator on the video call them, Grammar Nazis.  Admittedly, most people, including myself, have strong feelings about language and its use, but I tend to fall on the more permissive side of the debate.  For example, if I ask you how you are and you say "good", I won't tsk tsk you because you didn't say "well".  As long as the meaning has been understood by both parties, clearly the language usage was successful.  Other people, particularly other English teachers, are not so permissive and seem to derive much satisfaction from using language in a particular manner and correcting that of others whose usage is found wanting.  I suspect, like Thorstein Veblen argues, that this sort of language policing is related to social class issues and conspicuous consumption (if you haven't read The Theory Of The Leisure Class, then I recommend that you do so if you get an opportunity; for a century-old book, it still explains a lot about American life today).  Most prescriptive grammarians decry such an accusation of snobbery; they usually claim they instead are defending standards of clear communication (ask them who set the standards then and their argument usually collapses, though they seldom will admit it).  At least, "Weird Al" can hide his prescriptive grammarianness behind the mask of art; when I complain about someone not knowing the difference between "it's" and "its", I'm just being a jerk.  I am with him on the "I could care less" issues and a few others.  More people should think about language.*

*Note to prescriptive grammarians.  Punctuation marks such as commas and periods are located outside the quotation marks because I prefer the British standard on this convention and not because I don't know what I'm doing.  You will just have to focus on my other linguistic deficiencies instead.

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