A parody within a parody?

The latest prescriptive lesson on correct grammar doesn’t come from a usage guide or a grammar blog. It comes from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s latest album called “Mandatory Fun” in the form of a parody of Robin Thicke’s popular song “Blurred Lines”. It’s certainly an unconventional format for prescriptive advice on language, but undoubtedly an entertaining one.

Appropriately dubbed “Word Crimes”, the parody contains quite an extensive account of the most common usage pet peeves covering all sorts of problems from spelling and punctuation to vocabulary and style. Despite the richness of material covered, the presentation is “literally” effortless. The inappropriate use of literally or using quotation marks for emphasis are just two in the whole array of word crimes featured in the song. Others include old chestnuts, such as the who and whom confusion, the improper use of apostrophes, or more recent usage problems, such as the Netspeak forms b for be, or u for you.

Just as I’m writing this post, the video seems to be causing quite a stir on the Internet. It has already been recommended as good language teaching material. This indeed makes a lot of sense as the presentation of rules in the video resembles the negative approach to grammar teaching, a didactic technique focusing on grammar mistakes that has been around since the rise of normative grammars in the 18th century. Slate’s Forrest Wickman already examined some of Yankovic’s rules of usage and how they compare to actual usage and showed that despite Yankovic’s proscriptions against such ‘mistakes’, some of these usages seem to be here to stay.

The parody also gives an inventory of the attitudes most commonly associated with such language mistakes. The link with education, or the lack thereof, is probably the strongest one: “I’ll try to educate you/ Gonna familiarize you/ With the nomenclature/ You’ll learn the definitions/ Of nouns and prepositions/ Literacy’s your mission”, and so on. Others include the common emotional reactions some people have to these mistakes as well as the personal qualities associated with them: “I hate these word crimes/ Like “I could care less”/ That means you do care/ At least a little/ Don’t be a moron”.

There are two things I find quite striking about the parody. One is the knack with which “Weird Al” Yankovich has managed to make a subject such as grammar rules incredibly effective parody material, especially in the context of the primary target of his parody, Thicke’s song. The other is that it is precisely this parody aspect that makes me wonder whether his parody stops there. To my mind, and in the context of  Yankovic’s work, this can just as well be seen as a parody of prescriptivism and grammar nitpicking that can trigger us to question the legitimacy of some of these grammar rules. Whatever the intention, this video can certainly be used not only to teach grammar rules in a fun and entertaining way, but also to inspire students to be critical about those rules and especially the attitudes associated with them.

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Want to write like a spy?

It appears that even the CIA has a style guide. A secret one no less, one that got leaked moreover, according to The Guardian Online yesterday. The Guardian article tells us that the style guide includes well-known “old chestnuts”  like uninterested/disinterested, the dangling participle, and hopefully. And look at the title of the accompanying picture: “whats-a-split-infinitive–009.jpg“! What’s new?

'What's a split infinitive?' Chris Pine as CIA agent Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

The document can be downloaded and printed: thanks, Tony, for telling us that it is back online again. And thanks to John for telling us about it!

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The Fourth of July and 500 Mistakes of Daily Occurrence

Since it is the fourth of July today, I might perhaps draw on the possibility that many people will be Googling for “Independence Day” or indeed “the fourth of July” to invoke their help in identifying a reference.

Lots more pictures where this one came from: http://4thofjuly-pictures.com/

I’ve already referred on this blog to my research on one of the earliest (anonymous) American English usage guides called Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence (1856). Having just heard that my paper has been accepted for publication (thank you, Marina!) I was reminded of one the entries in the book:

134. “The Americans said they had no right to pay taxes.” [From a Fourth of July Oration.] They certainly had a right to pay them, if they wished. What the speaker meant was, they were under no obligation to pay, or, they were not bound to pay.

Apart from the fact that I’m not sure if I understand the point made here, I was wondering if anyone can help me identify the source, which I haven’t been able to find. Then again, it may just have been a spoken source (“oration”). Where should I look?

But: even if you are unable to help, American readers of the blog,

Happy Independence Day!

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Censoring the ‘G-word’

Within the political correctness (PC) movements, many words addressing discrimination ended up on the banned list throughout the years. However, the PC vocabulary has a number of opponents as well, who rightfully claim that the PC movement is occasionally used to hide actual discrimination and inequality, and, at other times, that it tends to go too far (you can easily find some entertaining PC dictionaries and word lists online).

The latest word to stir the PC controversy is ‘girl’, after BBC presenter Mark Beaumont used it to describe a 19-year-old judo champion, Cynthia Rahming, in a documentary on the Commonwealth Games. The champion herself stated that she was not offended by the word, but the BBC executives disagreed and decided to censor it. Two camps have been formed since, one supporting the BBC’s censorship decision, and the other referring to it as another PC battle that had gone too far.


HuffPost UK Blogger B.J. Epstein stresses the differences in using the word ‘girl’ and the male equivalent ‘boy’:

“I would never refer to colleagues as ‘boys’, nor would I call grown men ‘boys’, and yet people, especially men, continually do this to me and to other women.”

On the other side, the Tory MP Phlip Davies criticised the censorship decision by saying that:

“We are going to end up in a situation where nobody is going to dare say anything lest some politically correct zealot deems it offensive.”

This discussion is neither new nor brought up by this incident alone. In 2004, the Ofsted head, David Bell, gave a speech to mark the International Women’s Day, in which he stressed how language plays a significant role in discrimination,

“The use of the word ‘girl’ is often used as an insult, meaning ‘not up to it’ or ‘can’t hack it’ or ‘inadequate’. It is naïve to think that this has no effect on girls.”

American and British author, Bonnie Greer, gave a statement on this topic at the same time, saying that she found the phenomenon of calling grown up women ‘girls’ rather typical of the UK, and that it was among the most shocking things she had discovered after moving from the US in the 1980s.

To truly judge potential discrimination by using this seemingly neutral word, we need to go back to the context in which it was used. Mark Beaumont was taken aback after being floored by the judo champion, when he was heard saying “I am not sure I can live that down – being beaten by a 19-year-old girl.” In this case, I would agree with Guardian’s Naomi McAuliffe when she concludes that Beaumont was making a joke about feeling emasculated after a defeat by a young woman.

Surely he should not have felt too surprised or emasculated since he did take on one of the best black belts in the country – regardless of her gender and young age.

Let us know what your thoughts are on the usage of the word ‘girl’. Is it really more common in British English? And should it really be banned in certain contexts?

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What’s happening to punctuation?

Going up to London for the day yesterday, we took the train to London King’s Cross. Not surprisingly (we all know what’s been happening to the apostrophe) the announcement on the train didn’t show the apostrophe.

But if punctuation marks are lost, new ones show up in unexpected places. How about this:

having lunch in London

What does the full stop mean here? And do you have any other examples? And is it happening in other languages too?

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Advertising the Symposium in Cambridge

Burrell's walk

in the centre

in the centre

The English Faculty

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Next generation of prescriptivists?

“I am a pedant. There is no question about it. Everyone I know would agree, and I accept and embrace it. I have no problem with being called a nerd, or a geek, or any synonyms of these words.”

Albert Gifford

These are the words of Albert Gifford, a 15-year-old schoolboy from Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Despite his young age, Albert has the courage to take on big giants when it comes to grammar. Recently, he has managed to force the supermarket giant Tesco to change its Orange juice packaging over a grammar mistake. Apparently, Tesco’s orange juice is the “most tastiest”. Albert, however, won’t rest on his oars and has his eyes set on BMW. Read his comment in The Guardian to find out more about it.

Whether to correct or not to correct other people’s mistakes was discussed in a previous blog post by Robin Straaijer. Would you correct your family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances? Albert says the following in The Guardian:

” … I try to hold back the temptation to correct people. My friends and family get quickly irritated if I point out their mistakes, and I have tried to accept that people make errors in speech, as they often just blurt things out with little thought …”

What surprised me was Albert’s dedication and his reasoning for complaining to the media and commercial giants. According to him, large companies have a responsibility and need to set a good example.

As I am investigating attitudes towards usage problems in British English, I am always interested in finding out what people think about “poor” language use. Reading Albert’s account makes me wonder whether the phenomenon of language prescriptivism will ever cease to exist or whether it will be a constant companion. Is there a next generation of prescriptivists?

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