Word Crimes? Whose Crimes?

Title image showing Word Crimes opening shot

‘Weird Al’ Yankovich’s recent Word Crimes video has had plenty of exposure on Youtube and other social media.

First Impressions

fewer_lessMy first reaction to the video was that it was entertaining and well produced. The music’s tight and the graphics are very well done. As a person who works closely with words, I grinned at the familiar language errors it highlights, such as confusion between it’s and its; the use of less instead of fewer; expresso spelled with an ‘x’ (rather than espresso!); and the use of quotation marks for emphasis, as in: ‘Fresh’ Bread Baked Daily.

In Retrospect

Then I made two mistakes. The first was not to watch the video through to the end. And the second was to assume that I had the measure of it – here was a catchy video that lightheartedly and harmlessly poked fun at common writing mistakes.

I’m grateful to Mignon Fogarty – better known as Grammar Girl – for prompting me to reconsider. Grammar Girl’s weekly podcast usually focuses on an aspect of grammar or usage that causes confusion and/or controversy. She offers explanation, examples and encouragement. But last week’s podcast contains Grammar Girl’s articulate and heartfelt response to Word Crimes. It’s worth listening to and you can get to it via her website: quickyanddirtytips.com.

Grammar Girl

Grammar Girl IconGrammar Girl’s main objection to Word Crimes is that it’s abusive of people who make writing errors. According to Weird Al, for example, if you’ve ever written its instead of it’s, or expresso instead of espresso,  you’re a ‘moron, a ‘dumb mouth-breather’ and ‘a lost cause’.

Naturally, I went straight back and watched the video again. More thoughtfully this time.

I too completely reject Word Crimes’ message: that people who don’t write well are morons. 

You might feel that a serious analysis of this playful parody is a bit over-the-top. But the problem I see is that the ‘fun’ is based on beliefs about language and about people that are at best unhelpful and at worst harmful. I think we need to challenge them.

Word Crimes & Language

The belief about language underlying Word Crimes is that there’s one correct way of writing English, that this must be used in all forms of writing, on all occasions, and that all other ways are incorrect. This is the so-called ‘grammar Nazi’ approach.

There’s another way of looking at grammar that describes how we actually use language, instead of prescribing how we should do so. This second sort of grammar acknowledges all the forms of written English that are in daily use in a wide range of contexts: blogs, theses, business letters, personal notes, informal emails, text messages, website copy, e-newsletters, magazine articles, press releases, and so on.

This approach recognises the variety in all aspects of English usage where – and this is the main point – it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to say which forms are ‘right’ and which are ‘wrong’. In fact, it’s much more useful to think about a certain way of writing depending on how appropriate it is in a specific context. Here’s a very simple example: When I’m texting friends, I write things like ‘c u l8r’ and ‘where r u?’, although I wouldn’t email a client in this way.

Cartoon illustrating language variety

Image source: http://www.uclouvain.be

Word Crimes raps that you should never ‘write words as numbers, unless you’re 7’, even though major style guides actually disagree on whether it’s correct to use words or numbers in sentences like this one: ‘The club has welcomed 29 / twenty-nine new members since January’.

Word Crimes is over-simplifying. This probably wouldn’t matter, except for what the video goes on to say about people who don’t write in the ‘correct’ way.

Word Crimes & People

Still from Word Crimes video: 'you write like a spastic'The belief about people underlying Word Crimes is that if you write the correct way, you’re a good person; and if you don’t, not only are you ‘a moron’, ‘a mouth-breather’ and ‘a lost cause’, but you ‘write like a spastic’, should ‘go back to preschool’, ‘get out of the gene pool’ and ‘try your best to not drool’.

gene_pool

I speak regularly with people who are embarrassed about their writing. They’re ashamed, they tell me, because they write sentences that are too long, or can’t write what they really mean, or can’t get all their ideas down on paper, or don’t have a good vocabulary, or can’t spell, or keep repeating themselves. It’s clear that they think they’re lacking in some way, and they’re an easy target for Weird Al.

mouth_breather

There are lots of reasons why people don’t write as effectively as they want to. It’s a crime to degrade them.

The Work I Don’t Do

If I agreed with what Word Crimes says about language and about people, here’s what my work would look like:

The Language: Every piece of writing that I edited or proofread would be compared to an ideal form of written English, and I would make changes accordingly. The work would be fairly predictable and repetitive.

The People: I would hold a quiet disdain for my clients, based on their need for help with their writing.

The Work I Do

On the other hand, this is actually what happens in my work:

The Language: My clients and I talk about the purpose of their writing, who their readers are, what they want to say and and how they want to ‘come across’.

This means I have very different conversations with, for example, a client writing a job application for a position in management, and a client writing a health-and-fitness blog for young professionals living in the city. For instance, there are expected norms for the presentation, language and content of a resume and a document addressing selection criteria. Blogs, on the other hand, tend to be less formal in both presentation and the language used, and many include images.

So when I’m reading a client’s draft, of course my proofreading and editing correct punctuation, spelling and grammar mistakes.  But most of my input as an editor is not about errors. Most of my time is spent on capturing layouttone, structure and word choice that’s appropriate in the context. For example, both there is and there’s are correct forms, but the former is more appropriate in a job application and the latter in a blog post. There’s more to effective writing than correct / incorrect.

The People: In almost all cases, I develop a warm, professional relationship with my clients based on a deep respect for their energy and creativity. I tend to work with right-brained, original and inspirational big-picture thinkers. It’s a pleasure for me to use my language skills to support their vision. It’s smart to outsource aspects of your professional life that you find difficult or unenjoyable. I’m grateful that so many people do.

~

How do you feel about Word Crimes? Harmless fun or unkind judgement? Or something else? I’d love to know.

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Comments

  1. What a fabulous article! Thanks for sharing Alison.
    I think it’s fascinating, over-due & a tad exciting to see so many people passionate about this very topic these days :)) Maybe the masses can make a difference…
    cheers Roni xx

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