Grammar is Weird

Renting bikes in Cafayate, Argentina—Note the sign!

Renting bikes in Cafayate, Argentina—Note the sign!

In mid-July, I started getting tweets from students about a new “CreComm anthem” that included sentence diagramming. It was all very exciting. But being in rural Argentina, I didn’t have a strong enough Internet connection to actually watch the video. All I could figure out was it had something to do with “Weird Al” Yankovic and grammar.

Before these tweets, my strongest “Weird Al” association goes back to the summer I was 14. My mother had arranged for me to get a ride to summer camp with a family that was dropping off their son to work for a couple of weeks. This was the sort of thing my mother was always arranging. As the middle of five children, I got used to these schemes; but as a 14-year-old, I didn’t even try to hide my disdain.

I had met Phillip* before, the younger of the two sons who was being dropped off at camp, but I had never met his parents or his older brother Myles, who were continuing on to Winnipeg to visit some family.

As we pulled into the driveway, Gordon—the dad—was putting the last suitcases into the full trunk of the car.

“How can you be doing this to me,” I wailed at my mom. “Six-and-a-half hours in that car is going to kill me.”

“They’re super nice,” my mom said.

“Yeah, nice and dorky,” I said. “He’s seriously the weirdest guy that works at the whole camp.”

As I got out of the car, Lynda—the mother—was arranging sandwiches in a cooler and called out in a sing-songy voice.

“Emily, we thought you could sit in the middle between the two boys!”

I got in and settled onto the hump with my backpack on my lap. As we pulled off, I gave my waving mother one last death stare from where I was wedged between Phillip and Myles, as if to say, “Don’t think two weeks at camp will make me forget this!”

Before we even turned off their street, Myles turned to look at me and began tapping his fingers together à la Mr. Burns.“I have a plan to take over the world,” he said.

“How ‘bout some music?” his mother called out from the front seat.

“Okay,” said Myles, his eyes never leaving the side of my face, “but you know my rule mother, only ‘Weird Al!’”

And so it was—six-and-a-half hours of “Weird Al.” And the whole family sang along.

I had kind of forgotten all about it, but since returning to work last week “Weird Al” and his new song “Word Crimes” has come up over and over again. So, I finally watched the video.

It’s catchy and clever and a little bit annoying. It has sentence diagrams (!!!) and dancing punctuation and lots of other nerdy grammatical stuff that I love. But what I found most interesting was how “Weird Al” points to the deeply ingrained connection we make between using good or proper or standard—(the term we use here is a debate in itself)—grammar and intelligence.

In this song people who use poor grammar are seen as morons, mouth-breathers, spastic, and immature (e.g. “unless you’re 7” and “go back to pre-school”).

Parody is a complex form—often one that comments on culture. As a writing instructor I see these deeply held views about language and writing in the classroom. Lots of student are embarrassed that they don’t know more about grammar, or maybe that they have never really had any formal grammatical training.

I teach a fair amount of grammar, and since my students hope to go on to work as writers in various industries it is especially crucial that they learn to use appropriate forms of grammar, syntax, and spelling. To this end, we do lots of exercises, diagram sentences, talk about gerunds until it becomes a hash tag, and some people even memorize poems about the eight parts of speech. My students simply have to get it right—their future careers depend on it. So, I don’t apologize for teaching grammar.

But the point of it is not to create a bunch of meanies, who are now able to ridicule those who haven’t had the same training or education. The point is to foster successful, confident writers and communicators.

Writing is hard, and it is even harder when you feel ashamed. Shame clams you up and makes you afraid of failing. Curiosity is a better place to start. So if grammar makes you nervous, as it does me, forge ahead and when you are not sure look it up.

*Some names have been changed to protect innocent “Weird Al” enthusiasts. I did not know what cool was at 14.