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Two Things to Love About Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

Mighty pen Ann Handley

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?

Apostrophe problems

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.

 

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22 Responses to Two Things to Love About Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

  1. Jerod Morris says:

    It makes me a hero among a small subset of the population.

    Count me among this small subset.

    I’ve been a fan of Weird Al since back in high school. His content has always been WAY more clever than he’s been given credit for. I’m glad he’s getting so many plaudits for this song. It’s the quality his longtime fans have come to expect.

    On a related note: can’t wait to read Everybody Writes!

  2. If anyone has ever discounted the brilliance of Weird Al, they need to listen to this song and read this post. Ann, thanks for writing this post. It’s so dead on!

  3. I’m going to fiercely love up this post online today. So wonderful on so many level. Keep rockin’ it, Ann! (note: intentional use of apostrophe to indicate conversational parlance.)

  4. Gordon Diver says:

    I hope educators will take advantage of these content nuggets for our younger people, just like we had Schoolhouse Rock. Great post Ann.

    • Ann Handley says:

      That’s so funny that you mention Schoolhouse Rock, Gordon! I came *this close* to mentioning Word Crimes as being part of the next generation of Schoolhouse Rock! Great minds, and all that.

      • John Verba says:

        “Great minds, and all that.” is, of course, a sentence fragment, but as my favorite high school English teacher used to tell the kids who complained that I “broke the rules”…

        …”but he knows he’s doing it (and he’s doing it for a reason).”

        Al communicates well, in this song, with a certain subset of the population, as he notes. He communicates so well that one could argue that he polarizes people to sell songs, setting up a clear, “We’re right and they’re wrong (and mouth-breathers)” differentiation. Is that what we want? Well, that’s what some people want, and he gives it to them, and money is made. Other people may not be that bothered when someone doesn’t appear to know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” because they may be thinking… well… they might not even give it a second thought, come to think of it. It’s a very diverse population; if the writer’s ok with it, I’m not going to get too concerned, myself. All sorts of crazy things come out of all sorts of people’s mouths.

        In the end, those who passionately express that they really value boundaries, and staying within them, want to be seen as people who really value boundaries. When we respect that about them, we respect them. Someone else, who couldn’t care less about the same boundaries, might be passionate about something else, and over time we learn to look beyond our preferences to see what we would otherwise have missed, or we dismiss them for not meeting our stringent, but ultimately pretty commodity-level, standards.

        I guess it depends how comfortable we are being challenged to experience the different.

  5. As a fellow word nerd, I almost cheered out loud the first time I watched this little masterpiece from Weird Al.

    I’m so glad you shared this video, and I love your commentary. Good writing and proper use of grammar IS about more than just following rules. It shows a level of pride in your work and even, I’d suggest, a certain amount of respect for your reader. I’m not perfect (and I will screw up grammar and such now and again), but at least I’m always making my best effort to get it right!

    :)

    • Ann Handley says:

      Jamie: I couldn’t love this more:

      “It shows a level of pride in your work and even, I’d suggest, a certain amount of respect for your reader. I’m not perfect (and I will screw up grammar and such now and again), but at least I’m always making my best effort….”

      PS Did you notice the mighty sword you gave me in the header image…?!

  6. I love weird Al. Missed him.

    He had me at ‘irregardless’ and at ‘I could care less.’ Both of these have bothered me for years!

    This is why parody is such a public service.

    Nice post!
    Kathy

  7. Traci Browne says:

    I am a fan of solid grammar too, but I take issue with the grammar elite. Those who love nothing more than to point out other people’s errors. I’m with you, Jamie. I strive to do my best and think it is important (you guys argue about whether or not I should have used a comma there) to follow the rules, but I cannot remember all of them. As a writer, that is why I value editors so much.

    I prefer education over ridicule.

    That said, it was a great video.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Totally agree, Traci. That why in “Everybody Writes,” I talk about grammar second to writing. Not because it’s not important — it is. But more important is reader-centric, clear communication.

      • John Verba says:

        Oh… this is exactly what I said above, using a lot more words. :)

        (And I even checked earlier conversations before adding the smiley, lest I fail to maintain the appropriate level of gravitas to suit the pure writing traditionalists amongst us.)

  8. DJ Waldow says:

    I thought Weird Al was dead. #SSS. Where has he been the last … score*?

    *Score is 20 years, right? Gettysburg Address?

    On a more serious note, amazing post – as always, Ann. Just – FINALLY – preordered your book. Good call to action reminder in this post!

  9. “It makes me a hero among a small subset of the population.” — Sounds like Weird Al embraces the long tail of marketing!

  10. Pingback: #SocialSkim: What Gets Shared, Word Crimes, TSA on Instagram, Write Like a Spy, More! | Spotlight Marketing Solutions

  11. It looks like Weird Al’s popularity may be a bit wider than Tamara Keith suspects! He may not do so well at parties, but he’s got a No. 1-selling album!

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