Recently, parody song artist Weird Al Yankovic stirred up the English language community with the release of his video “Word Crimes”. In it, he points out several mistakes that people commonly make when using English, including the misuse of “it’s”, the Oxford comma, and the spelling of words using numbers. If you haven’t already seen it, you can watch it here:
I thought the song and video were cleverly done and did highlight many of the errors native English speakers make. What I didn’t expect is the backlash from some English “experts” who needed to point out in their blogs how his complaints were actually incorrect. That is, they were defending what were deemed “word crimes”.
Stan Carey posts a lengthy and well researched argument against the song in his blog here.
Perhaps the most heated complaint they make is with the idiom “I couldn’t care less”. The meaning of the idiom is simple; you have a complete lack of caring about a subject. The amount of caring you have is so little that you couldn’t not care any more (make sense of that phrase!). Some people mistakenly use “I could care less” instead, in the same situations, to which Weird Al points out “that means you do care, at least a little”, thus making its usage wrong. But to some English language bloggers, this usage is excused, using one or more of the following arguments:
1) Idioms don’t have to be logical. When it is pointed out that “I could care less” doesn’t mean what it is being used for, the defence is that idioms don’t have to make sense.
2) Language changes. People use the incorrect idiom, thus making it an acceptable “local variant”.
3) As long as people understand what you mean, it’s fine. You don’t have to be correct, as long as those around you know what you are trying to say.
Stan Carey has a whole page about this particular idiom in the Macmillan Dictionary blog in which he concludes that ‘you have no business insisting that the illogical form is “wrong” and that everyone should stop using it’.
Well, I disagree. It’s wrong.
I am not a language expert, nor a linguist. I make plenty of my own grammatical mistakes and I am not as sophisticated a writer as these other bloggers. I did, however, attend the English classes of my school and learned the rules, English being my first language. Even if I do not spend my time studying it in all its intricacies or discuss it with extensively with others, I do think I have a pretty firm grasp of it. And so, I will address each of the arguments as I see them.
1) Idioms, indeed, do not need to be logical. That is not the issue with this case at all. If “I could care less” were the only usage, that might be applicable, for in that case, you could say the idiom is allowed to be odd. However, there is already a correct form of the idiom, which is proper and logical. Using an incorrect version is just that: incorrect.
Take it outside of English. If I am learning German and I say “Sie kümmern sich nicht keinen Pfifferling um ihre Kinder”, that is an incorrect form of the idiomatic phrase “Sie kümmern sich keinen Pfifferling um ihre Kinder”. I would not be told “Oh, you can say that too, even if it is wrong and illogical.” I would be corrected on the proper idiom. Not only that, I would WANT to be corrected, because I would like to be speaking the language correctly.
2) Language changes. Yes, it does. We are constantly adapting language, changing meanings, adding new words, dropping old ones, etc., but that doesn’t give us a free license to accept incorrect usages as correct. We have many words that are used in place of others, like “farther” for “further”, “persecuted” for “prosecuted”, and “than” for “then”. When someone uses the wrong form, we don’t simply start changing the meaning of the words. We mark them wrong. I can’t start using “five” for “six” and have people accept that 5 = 6.
3) As long as people understand what you mean, it’s fine. Wrong! So wrong! You can get away with that when you are learning another language and are trying to make yourself understood, but not when you are expected to be speaking it properly. If I ask someone on the street “Where go bathroom?”, they will understand that I am asking where is a place that has a facility to relieve myself, but I will sound like an idiot. Babies talk like this when they are first learning, but we then teach them to speak properly, to be clear. We don’t just leave them talking like that for the rest of their lives.
Using the wrong forms of “their”, “they’re” and “there” or “too”, “two” and “to” are things we get corrected on all the time, and will instantly lower someone’s approval of your literacy skills. They know what you meant to write, but that doesn’t mean it is acceptable. Try submitting that in a paper or a report and see how quickly the grammar police come down on you. It’s the same with idioms. If you use the wrong form, it is wrong. Period.
If you still aren’t convinced, perhaps I should give you the “variant” of “for all intents and purposes”. That idiom basically means “in every practical sense”. It is commonly misconstrued, probably by an error in hearing it, as “for all intensive purposes”. You could probably say that out loud and people would understand it as the correct form, but in writing, it really has a different meaning, depending on what you think an “intensive purpose” is.
There are other parts of the song that seem to upset people, like the usage of “literally”. This word means that something is exactly as you say, like “I literally cried all night” means that you wept the entire night, and not just for a short time. People use it in a non-literal way quite often, thinking it is meant to be used for emphasis, like “My head literally exploded”. Obviously, it didn’t literally explode, or you wouldn’t be talking about it later.
The English experts again seem to say it is fine to use it this way, since people know what you mean and it has been used before in literature this way. Again, I disagree. If it doesn’t mean what you are trying to use it for, then it is wrong.
There is a beautiful example of this kind of misuse of words in the film “The Princess Bride”. One of the characters, Vizzini, uses the word “inconceivable”, which means “impossible to imagine or believe” when he really means “impossible”. The way he uses it is as a dismissive, meaning its not possible, but what he is saying is that he can’t believe it is possible, which is not the same thing. It’s the difference between saying “birds fly” and “I think birds fly”. At one point, another character says to him “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Again, some can argue (and some do) that usages can change, but that doesn’t mean that using the wrong word is allowed. These same people would scream if I wrote “I was effected by the bright sun” or “He was struck by lightening”. The second example, the difference between “lightning” and “lightening” is actually included in the “Word Crimes” video, but none of the experts seem to have a problem with that being exposed as incorrect.
The bottom line from these critics seemed to be that Weird Al should not be criticising people for not having a strict adherence to grammar rules. Lauren Squires writes that the term “grammar” has different meanings among people and that language should be fun, and not tied to “not fun” grammar rules. She also talks about how it relates to linguists, and that correcting someone’s English is class related and promotes elitism.
If this is truly the case, then why do we native English speakers have to spend so many years in school being taught the proper rules of spelling and grammar? Why are there endless grammar style books on the market that we must obey when writing?
As this applies to learning another language, we are always given the grammar rules that we must learn, and if we get them wrong, while we are likely to be understood, we wouldn’t want to keep using poor grammar. That would perpetually mark us as “foreigner” when we are trying to pass for “natives”. Having fun with a language doesn’t mean you butcher it, which is what you be accused of if you used the wrong words or idioms in your new language. So why should it be excused in your native language?
Like I said, I am not an English expert, just a native speaker. I am not a professional writer, nor am I an English teacher. I’m just a humble programmer. I am also someone that likes to believe that there are right and wrong ways of speaking in any language, and that wrong usage doesn’t make things right!
And I do care.