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