Editors and logophiles the world over cawed in abject delight and hilarity when, on July 15th, “Weird Al” Yankovic released the second song on his new album. “Word Crimes,” a spoof of Robin Thicke’s macabre “Blurred Lines,” is a harsh criticism of language abusers in a modern world dominated by hasty and careless communication. While the sentiment is a little overwhelming—once you realize you’ve committed one of those dastardly word crimes, I can tell you that the shame is unbearable—one thing is clear: there are some culturally pervasive writing pet peeves that we should probably resolve.
This is one that I frequently fall victim to. I can’t put italics in my everyday speech, and sometimes inflection just isn’t enough to convey how dire/important/severe/insane the topic at hand might be. Naturally, I try to embellish it with “literally,” vainly hoping I can frame my words with the power of adverbs. Saying the last episode of “Orphan Black” was literally terrifying is wrong; saying you were literally on the edge of your seat is correct only if you were, in fact, teetering on your seat-edge. Many times, when you use the word “literally” as an intensifier, what you’re really doing is trying to emphasize a figurative phrase—and figurative is the opposite of literal. Next time you’re tempted—as I often am—to emphasize your phrasing, try switching “literally” with “figuratively;” you’ll be cured within minutes.
I’m Having Contractions!
No, not those kinds of contractions. I’m talking about “don’t,” “can’t,” “where’d,” “you’re,” “you’ll,” and the infamous, vile, confusing “it’s.” Most folks only mess up their contractions when they’re texting too fast—sometimes that little apostrophe is just too much trouble. But when it comes to “it’s” and “its,” you run into a world of trouble.
Recently, my sister said to me, “I’m wondering about the difference between its and it’s. You would say ‘its a cold night,’ or ‘it’s hat was yellow,’ right?”
You can imagine the heavy sigh I heaved. I understand the confusion, however; with only three small letters and one big, game-changing apostrophe, the “it’s” versus “its” debacle has the potential to end like the original Rocky. Luckily, in grammar there’s no room for ambiguity: when you’re speaking of possessives, use “its.” After all, you wouldn’t write “our’s” or “your’s,” would you? “It’s,” on the other hand, is a contraction for “it is.” When you’re having trouble remembering which to use, deconstruct your contraction. Without an apostrophe, you’ve only got one word on your hands, and somebody somewhere owns “a cold night.” If your sentence becomes “it is hat was yellow,” you know what to do.
We Can’t Always Agree…
But our verbs can! It’s easy to write things like “Here’s some reasons…”, but that doesn’t make it okay. Taking care with the words you use is what makes your writing move from mediocre to magnificent.
Could You Care Less?
Weird Al makes mention of this popular phrase, indicating that it often means the opposite of what it intends. Personally, I’m a fan of “the wrong way.” I appreciate the vague threat implied: “I could possibly care even less than I currently do, which is presumably very little, so shape up or ship out.” However, I can see how not everyone would read between those (blurred?) lines. If you prefer your derision to be blatant, stick with the contracted version (“I couldn’t care less!”). If sardonic mystery is your bag, join the club.
Words Versus Numbers: The Eternal Conflict
While different style guides have different rules for writing a number out or representing it numerically, one thing is for certain: never, under any circumstances, for any reason other than pure satire should you be writing words as numbers. While this is rarely an issue with professional writers, it’s a growing problem in classrooms around the world. Not only will it earn you the disdain of Weird Al, this pervasive issue will prove to shape our culture and language as a whole. Language is a constantly-evolving beast, as evidenced by the inclusion of “McMansion” and “bootylicious” in the dictionary, and giving slang terms like “brb,” “smh,” and “u” an inch is tantamount to offering them a mile. If you’ve been having a particularly text-heavy day and sit down to write, make sure you leave the lazy jargon behind.
Weird Al may be banging his gavel of judgment upon the world, but there’s no reason to feel persecuted; we all make mistakes. I have a sneaking suspicion the song may even be a commentary on the cruel nature of “grammar police.” If writing is your profession, however, it would be wise to take a moment, listen to “Word Crimes,” and consider what mistakes you might unwittingly be making that could affect the quality of your writing.