So, I’ll admit that I thought ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s humorous remake of “Blurred Lines,” called “Word Crimes,” was funny. I find misplaced apostrophes and the improper use of “fewer” annoying, because, really, is it that hard?
And I wasn’t the only one. I saw quite a few variations of “English teachers rejoice!” on Twitter. I get it- these grammar errors can be annoying.
But what really worries me is that using this video for instructional purposes might make students feel like they really are committing word crimes.
Actually, I’ll expand, and say that traditional grammar instruction more generally can make culturally and linguistically diverse students feel like they’re committing word crimes. I’ve been guilty of this- inadvertently emphasizing through my tone and language that something is the one right way to do things, for example. I did it in this blog post a couple times. And I’ve done that even though I’m not a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar- as you can probably see from this blog post. It’s easy to do- but something I really need to guard against.
How do you do that? I’ve written before about what good grammar instruction should look like- that it should emphasize why we use particular grammatical structures, talk about how to do so, and have students apply those structures to their own writing. I’d like to expand that a little and say that when we talk about why, we also need to emphasize the use of particular grammatical forms for particular purposes with particular audiences in order to identify with specific communities. Otherwise, we end up privileging proficient writers of Standard Written English and speakers of particular registers and disenfranchising those who communicate in other dialects and social registers. Lauren Squires nicely summarizes this very issue in her post on Language Log. She has a great series of questions to use with students when sharing the video. I think my favorite question is number 17:
“Weird Al mentions “Proper English.” What do you think he means by this term? … Do you think you speak “Proper English” all the time? When do you or don’t you?“
I’d add a couple questions, and ask, “What communities do you think Weird Al identifies with? When might you follow all the rules Weird Al identifies- and when would you break them? Why?”
This kind of conversation might help students feel like they are not the perpetrators of “Word Crimes”- and might help them situate grammar within a larger social context.