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?

Tuesday 22 July 2014 21:07
 'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of "They Came Together"
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of "They Came Together"

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.'

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.


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?

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.


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’

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