There are two things to love about poor-grammar-shaming Word Crimes, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s spoof of Robin Thicke’s rapey Blurred Lines.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s here:
Here’s the back story: To promote the release of his 14th album, Mandatory Fun, Al is releasing eight videos over eight days. Monday was a Happy parody called Tacky. Yesterday, Al delivered Word Crimes.
The way that Weird Al has completely embraced social media and our online sharing culture in his album’s marketing is brilliant, but that’s a post for someone else to write. Let’s talk about what’s to love about the song itself.
Yesterday, the Internet fiercely loved up Word Crimes, lauding it as a kind of anthem for grammar nerds. Al promotes proper punctuation and spelling (it’s versus its) and correct language (good versus well), and he skewers people who use numbers instead of letters (not so gr8!)
It’s tempting to view the song as the national anthem for word nerds or grammar police. Grammarians, editors and copyeditors often don’t get the respect or the consideration they deserve.
Exhibit A: Look at this photo I snapped Sunday in Baltimore: Why didn’t the Oceanaire Seafood Room think to run this quote by someone with a working knowledge of grammar before it paid an artist to paint it above the bar?
But to think of the song through that narrow word-nerd lens sells it short. It’s bigger than that (which the first reason to love Word Crimes): It’s a rallying cry for us all to care more about the words we use online. On our websites, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and the rest. And, note to Oceanaire: On the walls.
‘Word Crimes’: A Rallying Cry for a Content Marketing Age
Our words are our emissaries. In our online social world, they can make us look smart or they can make us look stupid.
Our writing can make us seem fun, or warm, or competent, or trustworthy.
But it can also make us seem humdrum or discombobulated or flat-out boring.
Solid grammar and good writing aren’t just a nice to have, they’re a must-have. I write about this in my new book, Everybody Writes, coming this fall. It’s a kind of Elements of Style for a content marketing age, which holds that words are indeed mightier than the sword, especially in our content marketing age.
(Or perhaps: Good writing is the power tool we should be able to wield expertly, just as every respectable building contractor can use the Skilsaw he keeps in his truck!)
As Word Crimes says:
If you can’t write in the proper way
If you don’t know how to conjugate
(Maybe you flunked that class)
And maybe now you find
That people mock you online
There’s nothing mystical about good grammar or good writing—it’s nothing reserved for a chosen few. The truth is this: Writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn. Weird Al and I—and (I hope!) you!—are the kind of people who give a damn. Weird Al newly reminds us that writing well matters.
Which leads me to the second thing to love about ‘Word Crimes.’
Weird Al himself is obsessed with grammar. Which makes him a legit ringleader for a new rallying cry.
In an interview I caught on NPR Saturday, reporter Tamara Keith asked Weird Al about his future plans. She put it like this: “Do you think you’re just going to do this forever?”
Weird Al responded: “This interview? I don’t think so…”
He was teasing Tamara about her vague usage of “this” to refer to… what? His career? Saturday morning? Talking to Tamara?
It was a funny moment, one that anyone who has ever spent time around an editor will recognize. And it’s one that I recognized, having spent a lot of my career editing the words of others, and too much time trying to parse out what “this” or “that” is referring to, exactly.
Elsewhere, Tamara asked Weird Al about his grammar obsession and his tendency to correct the language of others.
“That must make you popular at parties,” she commented.
“It makes me a hero among a small subset of the population,” he said.
But then again, thanks to Weird Al and you and me… maybe that subset just got a wee bit larger.