Weird Al Yankovic’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, showcases his knowledge of grammar with the song “Word Crimes,” a parody of last summer’s controversial hit “Blurred Lines.” Among his peeves, Weird Al discusses the use of literally, whom, casual text speak, and apostrophes. Linguists view Weird Al’s new song as a teaching moment, though perhaps not of the variety that language enthusiasts might expect.
On Language Log, Ben Zimmer stresses that Weird Al’s song is an example of prescriptivism. Dictionary.com describes prescriptive grammar as “an approach to grammar that is concerned with establishing norms of correct and incorrect usage and formulating rules based on these norms to be followed by users of the language.” When Weird Al comedically corrects grammar and spelling, he, like your favorite middle school English teacher, is practicing prescriptivism.
Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, is defined as “an approach to grammar concerned with reporting the usage of language speakers without reference to proposed norms of correctness or advocacy of rules based on such norms.” Most of the people who write dictionary definitions and study linguistics these days fall into the descriptivist camp, and they tend to be a lot more progressive in terms of language change than people might imagine. They observe how language is actually being used, without trying to enforce any rules. At the same time, dictionary editors often offer guidance as to how words might come across if you use them in the form of labels, usage notes, or other supplementary materials (like this blog). That is to say, Dictionary.com generally takes a descriptive approach with some prescriptive elements.
As linguist Gretchen McCulloch observed on The Toast, “if kids didn’t talk a bit differently each generation we’d still be speaking Pre-Proto-Indo-European.” With that in mind, next time you hear one of Weird Al’s many language peeves in the wild, sit back and reflect upon the wonder of the ever-evolving English language.
Which of the “word crimes” featured in Weird Al’s song most annoy you? We’d love to hear where you fall on the prescriptivist to descriptivist spectrum.