When I was a kid, I fancied myself a musical-parody artist. Most of the spoof lyrics I created for popular songs are lost to the ages, and the stuff I remember I’ll spare you due to its heavy emphasis on flatulence (“Heart of Glass,” indeed). But the lessons from that exercise live on: Writing lyrics is hard and writing funny lyrics is even harder.
In other words, I’m no Weird Al Yankovic. Then again, Yankovic is no grammar expert. But while I suppressed the urge to reinterpret “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and to record my very own “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes (something that rhymes with blue),” Yankovic has ventured outside his area of expertise and into the grammar game.
Perhaps you’ve seen the result: an online music video spoof of “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (or as I usually call him, “Wow, Alan Thicke looks great!”) titled “Word Crimes.” The video by Yankovic (or as I usually call him, “Wow, Tiny Tim looks great!”), which had logged more than 2 million YouTube views within two days of its release, is a harsh and hilarious critique of bad grammar.
The song is often right on point. But not always. Yankovic gets some of his facts wrong. That’s a shame because the ones he gets right are important.
Early in the video, Yankovic gives a musical crash course on the difference between “it’s” and “its.” This alone makes the song a thing of value. No doubt countless people have learned from Yankovic that the “it’s” with an apostrophe is never possessive and always a contraction. To show possession, “its” has no apostrophe. As Yankovic shows, “Every dog has it’s day” is wrong and “Every dog has its day” is right.
But as the song goes on, Yankovic doesn’t do as well. His insistence that “literally” can’t be used as an intensifier we can let slide. Though technically it’s correct to say, “The town was brought literally to its knees,” no one can be blamed for disavowing that icky usage.
Yankovic sings that you should never use letters or numbers in place of words, like “Nice 2 C U.” But “never” seems an overstatement for anyone who’s limited to 140 characters or texting behind the wheel.
Then Yankovic instructs listeners, “Always say ‘to whom,’ never say ‘to who.’” That’s where he loses me. “Whom” is for formal speech and writing. When you tell people they must “always” use it, you invite them to dismiss grammar altogether as stuffy and impractical.
Yankovic’s lesson on “less” and “fewer” is an overstatement, too. If you look “less” up in any dictionary published in the last hundred years, you’ll see it can indeed be a synonym of “fewer.”
“Word Crimes’” worst crime is the missed opportunity to focus on more important grammar points — things people really struggle with. For example, I’d argue that Yankovic should have tackled “between you and me,” which, contrary to popular belief, is the correct alternative to the all-too-common error of “between you and I.”
Taking this further, he could have noted that anytime pronouns come after a preposition or a transitive verb, “me” is correct and “I” is incorrect. For example, “Sing along with Al and me” or “You’ve offended Robin and me.”
I wish, too, he could have squeezed in a lesson on “I feel bad.” Contrary to popular belief, that is correct and “I feel badly” is incorrect, unless, of course, you’re describing your lack of skill at touching things.
So I’ll tell you what, Al. Consult me next time you want to go public on grammar and I promise I’ll stay away from “Achy Breaky Heart.”
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.