When is it okay to make fun of grammar?

Remember Weird Al? Yeah, me neither. Well, no– that’s not true. Of course I “remember” Weird Al from lots of different parodies over the years, all the way back to “My Bologna” to “Like a Surgeon” to his latest releases that have come out this past week. It’s just that I don’t find myself thinking about Weird Al one way or the other– except when he pops up in the media once in a while, like now.

WA has a new album out and one his parody songs is called “Word Crimes:”

Sung to the tune of “Blurred Lines,” it’s a series common “grammar nerd” criticisms that are ridiculously picky (it is a parody, of course) and that rhyme in funny ways. As someone who appreciates word humor, I thought it was funny and I didn’t think much more about it. Ha ha.

And then the hating/backlash began.

There was Forrest Wickman’s Slate article,”Weird Al Is Tired of Your “Word Crimes” in New Video,” which goes into equally silly detail in out pet-peeving WA’s pet peeves. A more pointed critique came from Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty here, “Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” Video.” She is not amused:

Perhaps the most troubling thing for me is seeing teachers who say they are going to use this in class because kids will find it funny and it will make them care about grammar. The entire ending of the video is putting down people who have trouble writing. The video says it’s OK to call people who can’t spell morons, droolers, spastics, and mouth breathers. Really, you’re going to use an educational tool that tells your struggling kids that they’re stupid? It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that’s OK.

It’s also hard for me to separate my feelings about this video from my feelings about his 2010 grammar videos that reinforce simplistic ideas, such as one in which he goes off about signs that read drive slow being wrong. The problem is that slow can be used as something called a flat adverb. The sign isn’t wrong, but drive slow is one of those things that people who don’t bother looking things up love to rant about. Those videos were extremely popular, so I imagine at least a few people told him that he got it wrong, but his comments from the NPR video suggest to me that he didn’t take the time to listen to those people and figure it out—that he still thinks he was making those signs better. If, as he says, “correcting people’s grammar is kind of a big deal” for him, then with the kind of power he has, I expect him to get things right.

The bottom line is that I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.

In my Facebook world of comp/rhet folks, there seems to be a fair number of people in the Grammar Girl camp, finding WA’s song offensive– it’s not funny to make fun of people who can’t spell, it’s not funny to make fun of people who can’t write, we don’t need to be calling bad writers dumb, etc., etc., etc.

First off, I’m not going to “mansplain” anyone about the definition of parody. That’s a recipe for disaster. Though one fun fact: here’s the second link I found on Google searching for parody. That WA is everywhere right now.

But in a tradition that includes  a “modest proposal” to eat the children of the poor and more recently a runaway hit Broadway musical that skewers Mormonism with lots of filthy and hilarious songs, it seems kind of strange to me for people to get bent out of shape over “Word Crimes.” Even for a Weird Al video, this is pretty tame stuff.  Where were these people with arguably more offensive WA parodies like the racially charged “White and Nerdy” (fun fact– this video has Key and Peele in it!), or the food/fat-hating “Eat It” and “Fat?”

So, is it ever okay to parody and/or make fun of bad writing, grammar, and students? Are these even more off-limits than fatness, religion, and eating babies?

Don’t get me wrong– I don’t think it would be fair to make fun of/mock particular students in public, which is where sites like Shit My Students Write more or less crosses a line. There is at least the illusion that these are “real” quotes from “real” students– though I think that the realness here is debatable. Though some of the stuff on that site is pretty funny.

Of course I don’t think a prescriptive/pet peeve approach to grammar is write for teaching at any level and I’ve never done that. Of course it’s not useful to call students dumb or accuse them of committing “word crimes” or whatever. Of course.

But bad writing is funny and fair game for parody, and you know what? there are “word crimes” of various sorts. We see them every day in bad apostrophes or stupid exclamation points or “unnecessary” quotation “marks” or even passive aggressive notes.  My experience has been that these kinds of “word crimes” are ones that students at all levels recognize and they’re often actually an entry into a less picky discussion into what constitutes correctness and the rhetorical/persuasive impact of effective or ineffective grammar.

So lighten up, people. But don’t get me started on that bastard’s mocking of the Amish.

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