Monthly Archives: August 2014

Word Crimes & Hip Hop Battles

I confess that my personal challenge to post a linguistically interesting video every week has failed, but I thought I would end on a high note.

Despite the fact that I am not in the “grammar correction” biz, I do think that Weird Al’s recent song “Word Crimes” (based on “Blurred Lines”) makes some legitimate points on clear communication. My personal challenge is to find a way to introduce into the classroom.

Update: Read Language Log

As I suspected, I am not the only linguist who has noticed the song, and there is a thoughtful post by Ben Zimmer on Linguist List about how it could perpetuate linguistic prejudice.

FWIW – I don’t necessarily know if Weird Al means for this song to be a serious tutorial on grammar like Grammar Girl. While I’m sure he is expressing some actual language usage peeves, it’s worth noting that the same album features “Foil” (based on “Royals”) in which he advocates foil as protection from both bacteria and covert government control. In fact, he has one line about “And maybe now you find that people mock you online” that acknowledges the annoyance towards commenters who proof, but do not read or provide other constructive advice.

I do agree with Zimmer that this should NOT be used to teach “grammar” (as does Weird Al probably), but I do think it introduces some of the issues that come up in the sociolinguistics of prescriptive grammar. Zimmer has a list of questions a linguist could ask students.

Bad Grammar vs. Bad Writing

One that linguists can ask themselves though is how they could distinguish “bad grammar” from “bad writing”. While some of the diagrams in Weird Al’s songs are ridiculous, I can’t argue with the fact that some expressions like “I could care less” are overused and no longer make literal sense. This is bad writing, regardless of grammar. In fact, many books on writing do warn writers not to become trapped in jargon (good prescriptive grammar, bad writing).

What I think is missing is the idea that a colloquial language speaker CAN be a good writer (or at least use effective rhetorical techniques). For instance, many people worry about the AAVE “verbal skills deficit”, when it is partly a problem of mastering a second dialect. However AAVE speakers can clearly demonstrate verbal proficiency in hip hop lyrics and hip hop battles (spontaneous hip-hop lyric creation) as recreated in the movie 8 Mile.

I would like to see a day when dialect proficiency is really appreciated for what it is (good writing) and that Standard English is another option instead of the ONLY option.