DEAR READER: 'Word Crimes' creates complicated discussion of language

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:07 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 12, 2014

COLUMBIA — For years, Gallagher, the comedian known for smashing watermelons, and "Weird Al" Yankovic have merged in mind. I have often confused one for the other as both use a larger-than-life persona and daring gimmicks in their comedic performances.

But I think that mix-up has come to an end. Weird Al has been embedded into a stronger memory cell, thanks to his new album, "Mandatory Fun," and the track "Word Crimes." The YouTube video for the song has gone viral, and so have the comments about it in the copy editing world. The album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for the week of July 23. The last time a comedy album was No. 1 was in 1963 with Allan Sherman's "My Son, The Nut." 

In case you've missed it, "Word Crimes" strongly chides folks who dangle their participles, fail to use the correct form of a word — it's vs. its — and misstate common sayings, as in "I couldn't care less." There are a few not-too-subtle double entendres, and some of the attempts at correcting listeners are insulting and rude (mouth breathers and moron).

I was turned off at the start, as the opening lines include the words: Shut up.  That's a statement that I consider to be a threat, as it implies an "or else" at the end of it. But, there is a lot of cleverness here wrapped in catchy music, based on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." Anything that helps folks remember and use better English is OK with me. 

Matthew Crowley, writing in a column for the American Copy Editors Society, says Yankovic turned language discussion upside down. Crowley, a copy editor at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, gathered comments from the Twitter-sphere and Facebook to summarize the response to the song. Initially, the song drew praise for bringing grammar to the forefront. Within a few days, the cracks were showing as several leaders in the editing world cautioned against its insults and threats. 

Mignon Fogarty, writing in her Grammar Girl post, said she didn't want any part of it; in fact, she found it so embarrassing that she wanted to disassociate herself "from being Grammar Girl for a week or two."

She wrote: "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 education tool that tells your struggling kids that they're stupid. It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that's OK."

Well said, Mignon. While using music is terrific for engaging students' interest and learning, insulting people is a terrible teaching technique.

There were two participants in the Show Me the Errors contest for June. The winner is Marilyn Cummins, who also won the May contest. She will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "Yes, I Could Care Less" by Bill Walsh. We invite you to join in the contest by filling out the entry form that can be found at the bottom of every article. It's simple to participate: If you find an error, go the entry box, type it in and send it along. We'll take it from there, and you'll get your name entered in the contest drawing.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at

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Ellis Smith July 30, 2014 | 6:48 a.m.

Weird Al is either a scourge or a genius, which well depends on persons conducting his "rating."

Al's "Eat It!*" represents the most scathing commentary on America's fast food habits there has yet been.

In their respective times some folks thought Mark Twain's and Will Rogers' pronouncements on then current situations were scandalous and definitely uncalled for. Have they stopped teaching history as sell as grammar in the United States?

*- Sung to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Beat It."

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 30, 2014 | 7:33 a.m.

Sorry, the word in the final paragraph should be "well," not "sell." Engineers are notoriously poor at spelling and grammar, and I purchased my spelling check software from Klaus, who lives in the Czech Republic.

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