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.

John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun talks about it here and Ben Zimmer posted a guest article from Lauren Squires in the Language Log 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.

Inconceivable!

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.

Elitism

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.

  • Dan H

    Interesting post, but I’d respectfully disagree with you on … well … all counts.

    On “could care less”:

    Have you considered the fact that “couldn’t care less” is actually equally nonsensical? If you couldn’t care less, then it follows that in any direct comparison, you are never the person who cares least (if any person can care more than you, then you care less than them, and you “can’t care less”). That is, that if the amount you care is compared with the amount somebody else cares, the amount you care is always greater. By a strict, literal reading of the phrase – “I couldn’t care less” means “I care more” or indeed “I care the most”. Otherwise there would be people than whom you cared less, and you *can’t* care less.

    Of course nobody uses it to mean that. Nobody uses “couldn’t care less” to mean “I care the most” but if you really care about being “correct” in the sense of using a phrase that unambiguously means what you intend it to mean then you should say “I don’t care” or “I care very little”. If you absolutely must use a comparative, use “nobody could care less than I do.”

    Otherwise, accept that “could care less” and “couldn’t care less” are both equally idiomatic, and that while one might be more common than the other, that doesn’t make the other one “wrong”.

    On literally:

    Suppose I were to tell you now that I really, truly, honestly am writing this post while wearing a full-sized chicken suit.

    That sentence contains several words that explicitly refer to truth. Their purpose is to reassure you that what I am saying is real, actual truth and not in any way a lie.

    Now as it happens, I am *not* wearing a chicken suit (full-sized or otherwise). Does this make my original sentence ungrammatical? Of course not. I was simply intensifying the deception by not only lying to you, but by explicitly telling you that I was *not* lying to you.

    “Literally” works the same way.

    If I wish to intensify the impact of an exaggeration, a useful and effective way to do that is to claim that it is *not* an exaggeration. Nobody is failing to understand the meaning of the word “literally”, rather they are deliberately using it deceptively. If people thought that “literally” meant “figuratively” they wouldn’t use it in the way you are complaining about, because it would undermine their intended purpose, which is to exaggerate the impact of the original metaphor.

    Finally:

    Why are there endless grammar style books on the market that we must obey when writing?

    There are endless books on the market telling you about the power of crystal healing and the risk of alien abduction. That doesn’t mean that they’re true. An awful lot of the “rules” of English you were taught in school are *actually wrong*. But a lot of people make a lot of money trying to tell you they aren’t.

    • Erik Zidowecki

      “I couldn’t care less” is an idiom with a specific meaning. How logical or grammatical it is is irrelevant. “See eye to eye” is another idiom with a specific meaning, even if it may not be logical or grammatical. If you change either of them but use them in the same manner, the usage is still wrong. If I replace “effects” with “affects”, but use it in the same way, it is wrong, no matter who uses it, the grammar of it, the logic, etc. We are talking about a single idiom having a single, accepted meaning which people are misusing. What I noticed is that a lot of people didn’t seem to understand the meaning. That also doesn’t change the meaning. “A stitch in time saves nine” isn’t one that everyone understands, but it has a specific meaning.

      With “literally”, you are trying to say that people can use it as a means of exaggeration, but “literally” is a word that means you are being exact and honest. If you are using it to deceive, then yes, you can say it is “grammatically” correct, but that doesn’t mean the usage is correct. If I say “I flew out of bed” to mean “I got out of bed really fast”, that is also grammatical, but it’s not what really happened. “Literally” is subtly different, however, because the meaning is specifically claiming that it is the exact and actual truth of what happened. I do understand the justification of it as a lie, but you are changing the meaning, because you aren’t “literally” doing as you say.

      I didn’t get taught crystal healing or about alien abductions in school, I got taught English grammar rules. When I study another language, I am also given a set of rules to follow. If I mess those up, I am not told “oh.. nevermind those silly rules”. And while there might be some rules that are wrong, it doesn’t mean none should be obeyed. English is often described as having an “exception to every rule”, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire rule.

      My primary issue with the attempts to pick apart the video is as I stated: the reasons revolve around the false excuses of language changes, illogical, and usage. Once you put those into place, then you can excuse anything you want as valid. “My bad” has become common usage, but it is still bad grammar. The video is talking about the rules. You may not like them or agree with them, but that doesn’t make the video or Weird Al wrong in stating them.

      • Dan H

        “I couldn’t care less” is an idiom with a specific meaning.

        And so is “I could care less”. The fact that you personally consider one to be wrong and the other to be right has no bearing on the rules of standard English. Both idioms are attested from the middle of the last century, “couldn’t care less” predates “could care less” by about a decade, but we’ve been using both for more than fifty years. “Couldn’t care less” is slightly more common, but not so much more common that it can be considered to be a flat error. There are simply two different ways of expressing the same sentiment, one of which is unthinkingly deprecated for no logical reason.

        The difference between “could/couldn’t care less” and “intents and purposes/intensive purposes” is marked. A quick Google ngram search shows that “for all intents and purposes” is several orders of magnitude more common than “for all intensive purposes”, while “could care less” is only about a third as popular as “couldn’t care less”. The fact that one phrase is used three times as often as another does not make that phrase “right” and the other “wrong”.

        I do understand the justification of it as a lie, but you are changing the meaning, because you aren’t “literally” doing as you say.

        You’re not changing the meaning at all. When I say “I literally flew out of bed” I mean “I literally flew out of bed” in the normal sense that you would understand the word “literally”. This is exactly equivalent to saying “I really, truly, honestly will not tell anybody about your divorce” and then telling everybody. You didn’t change the meanings of “really”, “truly” or “honestly”, you just used them deceptively.

        If I did not literally fly out of bed, then I did not fly out of bed. If your objection is to the misuse of words, then surely what you should be objecting to is my use of “fly” to mean “get out quickly”. If you accept “I flew out of bed” as a legitimate construction meaning “I got out of bed in a hurry” then you *must* accept the legitimacy of “I literally flew out of bed” as meaning “I literally got out of bed in a hurry.”

        Were feeling especially mischievous, I might argue that if anybody is trying to *change* the meaning of the word “literally” it’s the people who have somehow taken into their heads the idea that “literally” has to mean “physically”.

        I didn’t get taught crystal healing or about alien abductions in school, I got taught English grammar rules.

        You’re still applying extremely faulty logic here.

        Schools should try to teach students only things that are true. It does not mean that everything you were taught in school is correct. I was taught in school that there are seven colours in a rainbow, but there aren’t.

        If you were taught in school that it is wrong to split an infinitive, your school taught you wrong.

        If you were taught in school that it is wrong to end an sentence with a preposition, or to start one with a conjunction, your school taught you wrong.

        If you were taught in school that it is wrong to say “can I” instead of “may I” when you ask for permission, your school taught you wrong.

        I’m sure the *vast* majority of the grammar you learned in school was correct. But then the vast majority of grammar you see online is actually correct as well – if it wasn’t you would be genuinely unable to read what people said.

        My primary issue with the attempts to pick apart the video is as I stated: the reasons revolve around the false excuses of language changes, illogical, and usage.

        I’m afraid I don’t understand what that sentence means.

        The video is talking about the rules. You may not like them or agree with them, but that doesn’t make the video or Weird Al wrong in stating them.

        The video is talking about a set of rules, some of which exist and some of which do not, in fact, exist.

        Are there conventions on the use of the apostrophe? Of course there are.

        Is “could care less” a less correct idiom than “couldn’t care less”? I’m afraid not.

        Is there a difference between less and fewer? Of course there is. But the difference is that “less” can refer to a smaller number or a smaller quantity, while “fewer” can only apply to a smaller number. This rule is extremely well understood, and ignored only by people who are being deliberately sarcastic.

        • Erik Zidowecki

          You are using circular logic to defend “I could care less”, ie. lots of people use the incorrect version, so now it is correct. What is the required magic number for this transformation? One thousand? One million?

          You then refute this argument when stating that one version being used more than the other doesn’t make either more correct. If you are claiming that “I could care less” is valid because it is heavily in use, then you are claiming that the number of uses does, indeed, denote correctness.

          The video also pointed out the confusion between “it’s” and “its”, yet millions of people have been making this mistake for a very long time. Are they now both valid usages for the same thing? Of course not. People repeating the same mistake over and over doesn’t make it correct.

          Millions of people believe that Thomas Jefferson was the first United States President. That doesn’t change history.

          You also cannot use Google search result counts to validate anything:

          1) A search on “Elvis is dead” returns 95 thousand hits, while “Elvis lives” returns 375 thousand. Surprisingly, the singer remains dead.

          2) There is no context. The pages for “I could care less” could be people explaining how the usage is wrong. This page would be among them.

          • Dan H

            You are using circular logic to defend “I could care less”, ie. lots of people use the incorrect version, so now it is correct. What is the required magic number for this transformation? One thousand? One million?

            I’m not using circular logic. I’m using a clear understanding of how language works.

            If a construction is used by a *large fraction* of users of that language, then it is a valid construction in that language. How large? There isn’t a “magic number” but basically that *really is* the difference between a mistake and a valid alternative usage. If something is *widely* and *consistently* used in a *rule-bound* way then it is a valid usage and not an error.

            What do you believe to be the alternative? Where do you think these magical “rules” come from, if they are not deduced from the way people actually use language. Are they handed down by God? Are they invented in universities? Are they bequeathed to primary school teachers who are then given a sacred duty to pass them on?

            I’d point out that I’m not working from a google search here, I’m working from a google ngram search, which searches *tens of thousand of real books and journals* over the past *century and a half*. Do you really believe that fully for every three uses of the phrase “couldn’t care less” in any book, journal or magazine there has been one use of the phrase “could care less” specifically dedicated to complaining about it?

            Patterns in usage really do tell you what is a mistake and what isn’t. To take the example from the video, the phrase “every dog has it’s day” does not appear in google’s ngram corpus *at all*. That is, it has not appeared in *any book or journal published in the last two centuries* – or at least not one that google has access to text for.

            You honestly can distinguish (at a rough level) between legitimate alternative usages and simple mistakes. For example, take the alternatives “in the lift” and “in the elevator” (phrases chosen to make fairly certain that it is the actual building-ascending devices that are being discussed). An ngram corpus search shows that “in the lift” is three times less common than “in the elevator”. That doesn’t make it an error, it makes it a legitimate alternative word (British, as opposed to American English).

            Now try comparing a real mistake/correct phrase pair, like for example “the cat sat on the mat” and “on mat cat sat the”. You will find that “cat sat on the mat” produces a visible trend line on the corpus while the ungrammatical alternative is not there.

            The same is true of “for all intents and purposes” versus “for all intensive purposes”. The latter construction appears, but is sufficiently rare that it is likely to be – as you rather improbably suggest is the case for all uses of “could care less” people highlighting an incorrect usage.