What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

The satirical songwriter ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic is back and, in the latest of his videos to go viral, he’s rewritten Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ as an ode to good grammar called ‘Word Crimes’. But what do The Independent’s experts make of it – and what do they think that he’s missed out?

Guy Keleny, errors & omissions columnist for The Independent

Weird Al is a bit too weird for me. From the tone of his performance, it is difficult to say whether he is making fun of pedantry or expressing genuine outrage at the misuse of English.

What leads me to believe the latter is that everything the lyrics say is perfectly right – and some of it chimes exactly with my own most cherished prejudices. I raised a small cheer, for instance, at his attack on “I literally couldn’t get out of bed”.

It’s difficult to imagine that this video will actually do much good, there being little logic to its presentation. (Note, by the way, in the foregoing sentence, the difference between “it’s” and “its” – another bullseye for Weird Al.) It gives the viewer a random mixture of points about grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation, with no explanation of why they matter. It all boils down to “Put that comma in the right place, you plonker!”

Still, it makes a jolly noise, and if a single one of Weird Al’s fans is persuaded not to use “literally” for emphasis, the world will be a better place.

Word crimes: 'I literally couldn’t get out of bed.' Word crimes: 'I literally couldn’t get out of bed.' John Rentoul, chief political  commentator of The Independent on Sunday, creator of the ‘banned list’

Here is a stickler to give us pedants a bad name. Bossy, rude and dogmatic. There is nothing wrong with using letters for words (CU l8er) if you are texting friends. “Doing good” is just a different idiom from “doing well”: it is not the traditional form, but it is not wrong. And trying to preserve “whom” has a sort of heroism about it, but it should be used not as a way of belittling people who say “to who”.

Traditional grammar is useful because it can make people think you are cleverer than you are, but that doesn’t mean people who don’t know or don’t care are stupid. I know “word crime” is used here lightly as a crime against good taste, and I am happy to have people reminded that there is no “x” in espresso or the difference between “its” and “it’s”. But there are dangers with linguistic fundamentalism.

One is that you are liable to come a proper cropper (see, I can rap, too). A coincidence could be irony, although Weird Al says not: its original meaning was something that the audience knew that gave a character’s words in a play a double meaning. A coincidence could be the gods playing with us, if only we knew.

The worst, though, is that you become so hung up on playing with words that you forget what they mean and you end up looking for a third rhyme for fantastic and sarcastic and you end up with: “’Cause you write like a spastic.”

Talk about hoisting yourself with your own elastic.

That really is a word crime.

'Expresso'? 'Expresso'? David Ryan, chief sub-editor of The Independent on Sunday

Al Yankovic tilts at clichés but he should go farther. They are lazy and hardly ever accurate. Of all those things from pop stars to chocolate biscuits dubbed “iconic”, how many actually are?

And what of such words as “crisis”, “disaster”, “tragic”, “legendary”, “unique”? Clichéd phrases can spread like, well, er, wildfire. But the elephant is “literally” in the detail, or is that the Devil in the room? Especially annoying is being “in the firing line”, which means the opposite of being under fire or in the line of fire. The recent World Cup saw one cliché escape the reservation then morph into the opposite of its meaning. Commentators, mostly on ITV, were urging teams to give it their all and “leave nothing out on the pitch” but they would be more likely to win if they left everything out on the pitch and nothing back in the dressing room (see Brazil 1 Germany 7).

When it comes to spelling, anyone can err.  The danger comes when you’re so sure you know that you don’t check. But that fault is compounded when you parade your ignorance by incorporating signage. Who could trust  an estate agent or a hotelier to be professional if they drop the odd “c” or “m” out of  “accommodation”?

Generally, though, I get embarrassed when I read that people are “harrassed” and want to “sieze” someone by the “throte”.

Here’s another: why is it that in an African context, more and more animals are losing their plurals? I think the virus started with elephant(s) but has spread to giraffe, lion, zebra, crocodile, etc. Now I’ve started, why do people, especially travel writers, think a sentence is more interesting if you “cut and shunt” it and put the arse end on the front, thus: “Standing on a natural promontory, where it was built in 1864 to oversee sea lanes despite exposure to the elements, the hotel boasts a marvellous view.” And whoever heard of a building “boasting” about anything?

Is Weird Al making fun of pedantry or expressing genuine outrage at the misuse of English? Is Weird Al making fun of pedantry or expressing genuine outrage at the misuse of English? Simon O’Hagan, comment editor of The Independent

I’m afraid that my approach to tackling  grammatical gaffes wouldn’t have any of the charm of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes”. Rather, I’d set up Possessive Its Boot Camp, and a typical day would go like this:

7am: Alarm. Three-mile run. Cold shower. Breakfast.

8am till 10am: Instruction in the possessive its. It’s very simple. The group just has to get its act together.

10am till 12pm: The appliance of the apostrophe. What’s the problem?

Assault course.

Lunch.

2pm till 4pm: Your vs You’re. You’re all invited!

4pm till 6pm: Quantity Street: a large amount of people required for this one. Or even a large number of people.

6pm till 8pm: The Eager Sanction: where “eagerly awaited” puts an end to “eagerly anticipated”.

Three-mile run. Cold shower. Dinner.

10pm till 12am: The Which-ing Hour. Learn your “which” from your “that”.

Lights out. Which means your light’s out. And it’s all over till the rooster clears its throat.

Coming soon: ‘Possessive Its Boot Camp  – The Movie’

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us