Word crimes, pet peeves, and judgment calls

If you’re a self-appointed member of the grammar police, you’ve likely heard “Weird Al” Yankovic’s latest. You couldn’t miss it. All your friends and colleagues sent you a link five minutes after it was uploaded to YouTube.

The song is hilarious. It also shines a light on how arbitrary the so-called rules can be. Our notions of “proper” English change over time. Furthermore, even copyeditors take certain rules more seriously than others. Ask ten different editors which ones we can safely ignore, and you’ll get ten different answers. That’s why, when you listen to “Word Crimes,” you probably find yourself pumping your fist in solidarity with some of the lyrics—but not all.

Here are my opinions on a few of the linguistic pitfalls Weird Al takes on, in the order they appear.

I hate these word crimes
Like I could care less
That means you do care
At least a little

“I could care less” was one of my favorite put-downs when I was nine. One day it occurred to me that “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” meant exactly the same thing. But how could that be? I rolled both phrases around in my mind, trying to make sense of it. There was no sense to be made. They were the same because they just were.

As an adult, I discovered that a good many people get bent out of shape over “I could care less.” There are a few good arguments for why we should … er … shouldn’t care less about this, but if I’m truthful, I have to admit that my reason for not caring is because “I could care less” wore a groove in my brain before my rational self thought to question it.

Say you got an I-T
Followed by apostrophe-S
Now what does that mean?
You would not use “it’s” in this case
As a possessive
It’s a contraction

I cringe every time I see something like Its okay (missing apostrophe!) or That is it’s function (incorrect apostrophe!) in e-mail or on Facebook. If I’m editing, I fix it. But over the centuries, it and the apostrophe have had an on-again/off-again relationship. From a purely logical standpoint, there’s no reason you couldn’t use an apostrophe for both the possessive and contraction. It looks wrong to me only because I’ve been trained to believe it’s wrong.

But I don’t want your drama
If you really wanna
Leave out that Oxford comma

This is the only point where Weird Al gives a nod to personal preference, possibly because the rule depends on the medium. The Chicago Manual of Style, used by most book publishers, says to include the last comma in a series, also known as the Oxford comma (I bought bread, jam, and peanut butter). But The Associated Press Stylebook, used by most newspapers and magazines, says to leave that comma out (I bought bread, jam and peanut butter) because The Associated Press Stylebook is stupid and wrong. You might think my bias comes from working mostly in the book-publishing world for the last decade and change, but my first editing gigs were for magazines, and I hated the omission of the Oxford comma even then.

Always say “to whom”
Don’t ever say “to who”

A few months ago, a writer posed a question to a discussion group for writers and editors. Which tagline should she choose for her back cover: Who can you trust? or Whom can you trust?

A no-brainer, right? The word in question was a direct object, so whom was the grammatically correct choice. And yet, something inside of me rebelled. Whom was fine if the book was about upper-crust people who talked that way in casual conversation. “The butler did it? Whom can we trust?” But otherwise it sounded stilted. Distancing. Altogether wrong for promotional copy. Who can you trust had a punchy, informal feel that was appropriate for the occasion.

When editing, I’ll only out-and-out change a who to whom if the level of formality calls for it: To whom am I speaking, but Who am I speaking to? If a technically incorrect who sounds okay in context, I’ll flag it with a comment and inform the writer that some readers may be unhappy with the grammatical incorrectness, but it reads better “wrong,” and ultimately it’s the writer’s call.

And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull
What’s figurative and what’s literal
Oh but, just now, you said
You literally couldn’t get out of bed
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head

Renowned linguist John McWhorter has this to say about the use of literally to convey emphasis:

Seeking ways of spicing up meaning is part of any language’s timeline, and literally follows the noble tradition … No one would want to speak a language where we couldn’t shine a light on a point or lend things a bit of color—and the words we do this with often come from what started as other ones. After all, we can’t just make them up out of thin air. Do we despise calling things “cool” because the word started out meaning “cold”? It’s just that, for no apparent reason, literally has been singled out as a word somehow barred from changing like other words.

I agree with McWhorter on almost all things linguistic, but … no. No no no no no. Literally hasn’t been singled out for “no apparent reason,” it’s been singled out because the new definition contradicts the real one in a way that’s too painfully ironic to bear. I don’t care what Alexander Pope and Jane Austen thought. I shall not yield.

Sigh. Nevertheless.

How about you? Which word crimes do you hate? Which ones would you legalize?

This entry was posted in Editing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Word crimes, pet peeves, and judgment calls

  1. Brian McDonald says:

    I don’t like seeing any grammatical errors that are made because the person was simply too careless to correct them. That said, I don’t particularly want to spend my time correcting other people’s grammar or spelling, even with just a “*you’re” as some people do. If someone literally could care less or figuratively could not, I actually could care less, but not by much.

    That said, I will use the Oxford comma until the day I die. It’s correct, leaving it off looks wrong, and it can change the meaning of the sentence if it’s left off. Maybe there are reasons why one might want to leave it off, but those reason are stupid, and I refuse to entertain them.

    I’ve seen some people complaining about two spaces after a period. That’s just about the platonic ideal example of ridiculous internet outrage. I use two spaces, but that’s mostly because it’s how I was taught in the typing class I took back in Jr. High, and I think it might just be a bit late to change my muscle memory because YOU can handle an extra space after the period.

  2. susanedits says:

    Sentence that best illustrates the case for the Oxford comma: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”

    I agree with you about the two spaces thing. Here’s the deal. In days of typewriting yore (not to be confused with you’re), everyone was supposed to insert two spaces after the period. In fact, you can see this in old-timey typesetting. Then programmers invented page layout programs with the ability to optimize spacing between words for justified text. Inserting two spaces after a period was like pumping the brakes in a car with an anti-lock braking system — counterproductive.

    I do page layout in addition to editing. Just before I suck any manuscript into InDesign, my page layout program, I open it up in Word and replace every instance of two spaces with one space. It sometimes takes a few search-and-replace rounds, but I’ll have the document cleaned up within 15 seconds.

    So if two spaces is more comfortable for you, go for it. It does not matter even a little bit unless you’re doing your own layout … and you probably shouldn’t be doing your own layout. :)

  3. I began hearing something here in Philadelphia about 20 years that grated painfully on my ears. The two people I noticed using it were (1) a fella from Pittsburgh, and (2) a gal from the Philippines. In the 20 years since then however I’ve heard it more, and more, and ever-painfully more. ::sigh::

    The “something” is when someone leaves out “to be” in sentences like:

    This window needs TO BE washed.

    The car needs TO BE fixed.

    Hmmm… while writing this just now I noticed that both examples that came to mind follow the verb “needs.” I *think* I may have heard it used with “wants” (as in “the dog wants walked.”) but “wants” is simply a less extreme form of “needs.”


    - MJM

  4. susanedits says:

    I first heard the “needs [verbed]” construction in 1988. The speaker was from somewhere in Ohio. For whatever reason, I found it charming, not grating.

    And yet, I grit my teeth every time somebody says “lay” when they mean “lie.” You’d think that one would be less offensive.