Michaeline: Word Crimes or Changing Times?

A highway man in a torn shirt breaks out of a stone prison and is received by a startled guard and a young lady with a candle.

Break free from a prison of received wisdom, and find a worthy guide to rules and usage. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes living in Japan, I wind up discovering stuff years after it was popular. So, you might read this and think, “Oh, Michaeline, you are so two-thousand-late!” like a Black-Eyed Pea. (Yes, I just heard that lyric for the first time two days ago.) But that’s the way I roll. Discovering pop culture, like an archaeologist, LOL.

Anyway, I’ve always been an admirer of 80s pop parody phenom, Weird Al Yankovic. I came across his YouTube video  “Word Crimes” this week, and it plugs right into what I wanted to talk about: the changing language and how to determine the right way to write.

Weird Al is half serious and half joshing in his lyrics about the various word crimes people shouldn’t commit. I think he’d agree with me that people should be allowed to stretch the language in the name of humor and art. I think I agree with him that it’s nice to have rules. How else can we know them, study them, and then break them really hard when the writing requires it?

One of his verses goes: “You better slow down and use the right pronoun.” I’m assuming this is about the everyone/their “mismatch” (note the scare quotes – I don’t think they are a mismatch). The traditional argument goes that everyone should take a singular pronoun, like he. But in this day and age, a lot of girls don’t like to be lumped under the generic he. And just try using a generic she; you’ll see how many male readers feel slighted. So, we’re stuck with the clunky “his or her” or the typographically ugly “his/her.”

But 14th century usage to the rescue! We can use the singular their. As in: “Everyone finds their own proper pronouns.” Steven Pinker makes a case for it in The Language Instinct, and so have many others. (Here’s a link to a Linguistics 101 worksheet from the University of Pennsylvania that describes “the battle” under the heading, “Standards: Preservation or Imagination?”)

And now, I finally come to the point of this whole post, which technically should have been in the first paragraph. I found out this week that Steven Pinker came out with a new book. (Fangirl squee! Sorry, no link to my sounds of joy; I wish I were hip enough for an appropriate gif. Here is a link to the Guardian article about it.) And, it’s a style book (I’ve been doing some proofreading this month, so learning about this feels like a Coincidence Wrought By Destiny, but it probably came about because I was googling commas obsessively.) And, The Sense of Style (amazon link here) actually came out Sept. 30, 2014, so I’m only a year and two weeks late with this fine writing tidbit.

Pinker is, among other things, a descriptive linguist. Perhaps, he’s even the linguist that Weird Al slyly refers to in these lyrics:

“Well you should hire
Some cunning linguist
To help you distinguish
What is proper English.”

Oh, wouldn’t that make all my fangirl dreams come true? Excuse me while I fan myself rapidly for a few seconds.

Anyway, I ordered it, and after it makes the long sea voyage to my home, I shall set aside a weekend and devour it. I shall slurp it up with hot chocolate and ham sandwiches, and be ready to discuss it sometime in December.

So, are you reading anything to make your writing better this month? Share it in the comments, if you will. Wishlist season is almost upon us . . . .

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Word Crimes or Changing Times?

    • Purdue OWL is really great — I keep running into them over and over when I’m looking for clarification on something the Chicago Manual of Style is a bit fuzzy on.

      I really like the original melody to that song, but the horrible video (I understand it’s supposed to be a parody, itself, but it either doesn’t go far enough, or goes too far) makes me nervous. But groovin’ out to grammar nuts? Oh, I can do that! I may not agree that everything Weird Al points out is wrong, but it’s so much fun. (BTW, it seems to me that he avoids the Oxford comma brou-ha-ha, too (-:.)

  1. Damn you, Michaeline, now I have to buy The Sense of Style, and I haven’t read Jeanne’s discovery Wired for Story yet. Amazon should come with a health warning, like online gambling sites and other addictive offerings

    Since class, everything I read makes my writing better. If it’s a great book, I wonder what makes it great and how I can learn from it. If it’s not so good, I think about that, and what I must remember not to do. McD really was time and money well spent.

    • Pinker is definitely going to be advocating for not only North American usage, but pioneering North American usage, I think. I think British usage may be . . . well, I don’t know. Some things are certainly different. For example, there’s the pronoun thing. Collective pronouns are often treated as a single unit in American English. My family, the soccer team, the hospital’s board . . . they all take “is”. Each one would be an it — “My family has its annual barbecue and roast in July.”

      It’s my understanding that British usage would make those collective things plurals (which makes a lot of sense, because they are a collection).

      Although, in actually usage, the lines are a lot blurrier. I could definitely see, “My family is frying their Thanksgiving turkey this year instead of grilling it.”

      Now I’m not sure (-:. I love grammar, but too much does tend to make me pale and nervous.

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