So, Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” is being passed among writers, editors, and Defenders of the English Language like ear plugs at a Yoko Ono performance.
Me? I’m happy that people are talking about language but for entirely selfish reasons. I’m not about to dissect a comedy video as if it were a work by Dostoyevsky—even if Weird Al himself acknowledges there’s a good dose of truth in the silliness—but I will talk about language, grammar, spelling, and prejudice.
As a human being, living and interacting with other human beings who talk and write at or near me, I side with the Weird Als of the world. Clear, concise communication makes life easier in so many ways. As a writer and reader of fiction, however, I am far more in the Stephen Fry camp. Language used creatively is funalicious.
When people complain about word crimes, what they so often miss is intention.
“I’ll see you later” tells me that you plan on seeing me (literally or figuratively) at some point in the near future.
“L8” tells me the same thing but also conveys the message that I am part of your tribe. We know and trust each other well enough that we can comfortably shed our formal grammar skin and walk around with our participles dangling. Oooh, feels so nice in the cool breeze!
The intention of the first sentence is pure communication. The intention of the second sentence is both communication and social bonding. We pick up on these intentions subconsciously but they inform how we feel about the people around us.
Before our private communications became public, tribal language served an important purpose: to include or exclude.
Remember this linguistic subculture from the 80’s?
Gag me with a verb!
But times have changed and the informal exchanges that only happened face-to-face, or via telephone or paper letter, now play out online where everyone can see them. What was once strictly tribal language has become, simply, language. Hordes of people use written slang such as L8, B4, whatevs, defo, totes, and, of course, LOL, in place of their linguistically correct counterparts, regardless of who they are communicating with or where the words are posted.
The lines have blurred. Pun intended, Robin Thicke.
Combine tribal language with poor spelling and a general lack of grammar comprehension (when to use their, there, and they’re, springs to mind), and what you have is an internet experience that is fingernails on a chalkboard x 1000 to anyone who works with the English language. Some days I have to walk away from Facebook lest I start pelting random strangers with dictionaries.
What keeps me from melting down and running into the street screaming, “IT’S SPELLED D-E-F-I-N-I-T-E-L-Y NOT D-E-F-I-A-N-T-L-Y!” is a)my patience b)my sense of humour c) gin d) more gin and e) my belief that imperfect written communication is better than no written communication at all.
In other words, A for effort everyone.
This view did not come easily and I still need frequent self-reminders to drop my grammar snobbery when I’m out in the non-word nerd world. But what bothers me more than misused apostrophes is when a friend apologizes to me for their poor spelling or grammar.
“Don’t.” I want to tell them. “Don’t ever apologize to me for my twatness. And don’t ever censor yourself or stop communicating with me because you’re afraid I’ll judge you. I love you more than commas. Period.”
I’ve also embarrassed myself a few times. Most notably, a couple of years back, when I jumped into an online RPG (role playing game and not the sexy kind, pervert), for a little while. It was a vampire story and lots of fun, even though I was/am vampired-out. Most of my interactions were with Josh and another friend, Roy, but there were some scenes involving multiple characters written by people I had never met. One of these writers, to my eyes, was borderline illiterate. Not something I expected, or particularly enjoyed, in a written storytelling game.
Ham-brained idiot that I can be, I shared my observation with Josh, who very kindly and gently informed me that the player in question was dyslexic. Josh did not say, “IT’S JUST A GAME, MORON!”, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. So, here’s this guy just trying to have fun with all his friends, making up a story about vampires and werewolves (and a bar fight over bendy vs straight straws, which remains one of my favourite scenes of all time), and along I come in my shiny jack boots and peaked cap announcing that he should be dragged away and hung by the toenails until he can properly conjugate verbs.
Excuse me while I slink off to a dark corner and hide.
Yes, the Weird Al video is funny to those of us in the tribe but, like so much else in life, the rules are not black and white. My hackles still rise when I see someone being lazy with language, and I’m probably not going to stop posting grammar and spelling jokes on social media, but judging someone by their use of language is no different than judging them by the clothes they wear, the car they drive, or their postal code. Some of the brightest people I know wouldn’t have the faintest idea what a gerund is or when to use “that” vs “which”. If I make them feel bad for that, well, then I’m the asshole in that story.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for better language skills. What’s the down side of being a better communicator? But don’t let the Grammar Police stop you from getting your word on, either. The worst word crime is bullying people into silence.
As for the rest of us linguistic sticks in the mud, lighten up, have fun, and to quote the late, and wonderful, Jay Lake…
…be kind. It costs you nothing and makes the world around you a better place.
Until next time, I hope this finds you happy, healthy, and lovin’ life!