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"Word Crimes" Errors &
Exercises

by Stephen Wilbers

Related column
 

 

Did you catch all 29 errors featured in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s music video “Word Crimes”? If not, here they are, as well as some exercises to help you avoid them.

 

Setting aside “Weird Al’s” intentional errors – such as jamming words together without spaces, omitting periods at the ends of sentences, and using informal spellings of ya for you, gonna for going to, and wanna for want to, as well as joining complete sentences with a comma in an error called a "comma splice" (Never mind, I give up.), which is acceptable only in informal writing I've marked the 29 errors with * below:

 

Maybe you flunked that class!
And maybe now you find
that *1peepl mock *2u online.

          In addition to the obvious misspelling of people, “Weird Al” is making fun of people who use letters in place of words, as noted below.


And that’s why I think
it’s a good time
*32 *4lern some *5grammer?

          2 should be spelled out as to in formal communication.

 

          Lern is an obvious misspelling of learn.

 

          Although Kelsey Grammer spells his last name with an e, the word for the rules that govern language is spelled grammar.

 

          Note: The use of a question mark in place of a period at the end of the sentence is an unintentional error.
 

You should know when
it’s *6less or it’s fewer

Less refers to quantity; fewer refers to number. You have less money but fewer dollars. You have less business but fewer clients. The sign frequently posted at checkout counters should be “Twelve items or fewer” – not “Twelve items or less.

 

          As the video illustrates, there is less liquid in this bottle than in that bottle, whereas there are fewer bottles in this stack than in that stack.

 

I hate these word crimes

like *7I could care less.

That means you do care,

at least a little.

In identifying I could care less as an error, “Weird Al” insists on a literal interpretation of a common idiomatic expression. Although the two expressions differ in literal meaning, I could care less and I couldn’t care less are generally considered synonymous.

 

Don’t be a *8moran.

          Moran should be spelled moron.


You would not use it’s in this case
as a possessive.

(Every dog has
*9it's day.)

Spelled with an apostrophe, it’s is a contraction (or shortened form) for it is. When used as a possessive pronoun, its – like his, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs – has no apostrophe. A common error is to use it’s in place of its.
 

No x in *10espresso.

The word is not spelled expresso; it’s spelled espresso.


Watch for other commonly misspelled words, such as loose for lose, there for their, and sherbert for sherbet. (And while we're on the topic of desserts, the cliché is spelled just deserts
as in getting what you deserve not just desserts.)
For exercises in avoiding common word choice errors, see www.wilbers.com/Abusage.htm and google “Wilbers correct word choice.”
 

     Your *11participle’s danglin’.

“Weird Al” offers no explanation or examples of this common error.

An introductory modifying phrase is said to “dangle” if it fails to connect sensibly to the person or thing that comes next in the sentence, as in “Walking across the room, the table got in my way,” in contrast to “Walking across the room, I bumped into the table.” For more information on dangling modifiers, see wilbers.com/DanglingModifiersColumn.htm or google “Wilbers dangling modifiers.”

 

But I don’t want your drama
if you really wanna
leave out that *12Oxford comma.

          An Oxford comma or serial comma is the comma used (or omitted) before the last item in a series. You may use or omit this comma as long as you do so consistently throughout a document and as long you are respecting the stylistic preference of your organization or publisher. For additional information, see www.wilbers.com/FAQPunctuation.htm or google “Wilbers serial comma.”

 

Just keep in mind that *13BCRU
are words not letters . . .

Although letters are commonly used in place of words when texting, this shorthand style should be avoided in formal writing.

 

You should never *14writ3 word5 u51n6 numb3rs
unless you’re 7.

Although numbers are commonly used in place of words when texting, this shorthand style should be avoided in formal writing.

 

*15you really *16needa
full*17time *18proof reader*19
you *20dum *21Mouth *22breather*23

          The video illustrates and corrects nine proofreading errors here (including two missing punctuation marks, a comma and a period) so that the passage reads

          You really need a
          full-time proofreader,
          you dumb mouth-breather.

 

Full-time in full-time proofreader is spelled with a hyphen because the unit modifier or compound adjective precedes the person or thing modified. When the unit modifier follows the person or thing modified, it's spelled without the hyphen, as in This proofreader works full time. For guidelines on when to spell unit modifiers with hyphens, see www.wilbers.com/hyphensunitmodifiers.pdf and google “Wilbers unit modifiers.”

 

Mouth-breather, like other compound words such as to spot-check, is spelled with a hyphen. For guidelines on when to spell compound words with hyphens, see www.wilbers.com/part224.htm and google “Wilbers compound words.”

 

One thing I ask of you.
Time to learn your *24homophones

is past due.

“Weird Al” illustrates the difference between lightening, which means to make brighter, and lightning, which is an electrical bolt that comes from the sky.

 

Watch out for other sound-alike words such as complement/compliment, capital/capitol, and principle/principal.

 

For exercises in avoiding common word choice errors, see www.wilbers.com/ConfusingWordPairs.htm, www.wilbers.com/Abusage.htm, and google “Wilbers correct word choice.”

 

(You) learn to diagram a sentence too.

          Although rarely taught these days, diagramming sentences is a method of creating a visual scheme to illustrate how the components of a sentence function. For an illustration of how diagramming works, see http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams/diagrams.htm.


Always say “to whom”;
don’t ever say
*25“to who.”

          Pronouns stand in place of nouns, and they change cases (or forms) according to how they are used. When used as subjects, they take the subjective case, as in “Who is it?” and She kissed him.” When used as the objects of verbs or prepositions, they take the objective case, as in “to whom” and “He kissed her.

 

          The choice between the subjective pronoun who and objective pronoun whom is becoming less clear these days because whom is being used less and less frequently in everyday English. For more guidance on making the correct choice, see www.startribune.com/business/266280991.html and google “Wilbers pronouns who whom.”

 

And (you) listen up when I tell you this.
I hope you never use
*26“quotation marks” for “emphasis.”

          A distracting – and to some readers, annoying – practice is to call attention to certain words or phrases by placing them in quotation marks, as in We need to “do our best” when it should be We need to do our best. For guidelines on the correct use of quotation marks, see www.wilbers.com/quotes.htm or google “Wilbers quotation marks.”

 

I hope you can tell,
if you’re doing *27good or doing well.

          Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, as in “Al has a big dictionary,” whereas adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, as in “Al has a very big dictionary.”

 

          As the video illustrates, if you’re Superman, you’re doing good. If you’re a wealthy man, you’re doing well.

 

          Good and well are easily confused because well can be used both as an adjective when referring to one’s health, as in “I’m well” or “I’m feeling well,” and as an adverb, as in “Your report was well written.” Perhaps because some people mistakenly assume poor follows the same pattern, they say, “I feel poorly” when they mean “I feel unwell.” Likewise, they incorrectly say, “I feel badly about my error” when they mean, “I feel bad about my error.”

 

          Sometimes, but not always, adjectives can be made into adverbs simply by adding –ly to the end of the adjective, as in “He is a quiet person,” where quiet modifies the noun person, and “He speaks quietly,” where quietly modifies the verb speaks.

 

          In everyday English, adjectives are often used in place of adverbs, as in “Drive slow” rather than “Drive slowly” and “That was real good” rather than “That was really good.”  In formal communication, however, the adverb should be used.

 

(You) better figure out the difference.
*28Irony is not coincidence.

          The two words have different meanings. Irony suggests an opposite or contrary outcome or meaning, whereas coincidence suggests chance or happenstance.

 

          As the video illustrates, a fire engine on fire is irony, whereas an outdoor wedding held during a rainstorm is coincidence. Some people, however, would call the latter bad luck. Perhaps a better example of coincidence would be two lovers discovering they have the same middle names – although I suppose some people would call that fate.

 

And I thought you’d gotten it through your skull
about what’s *29figurative and what’s literal.

Just now you said
you “literally couldn’t get out of bed.”
That really makes me want to literally
smack a crowbar upside your head!

          Literally is commonly – and incorrectly – used to create emphasis when the intended meaning is actually figuratively, as in “We literally found the smoking gun” in place of “We [figuratively] found the smoking gun.”

 

The 29 errors can be grouped into the following categories or types of errors:

 

7 misspelled words (not counting informal spellings)

          peepl for people, grammer for grammar, moran for moron, it’s for its, expresso for espresso, proof reader for proofreader, dum for dumb

 

2 capitalization errors

          you for You, Mouth for mouth

 

4 misused words & expressions

          I could care less for I couldn’t care less

          less for fewer

          irony for coincidence

          figurative for literal

 

3 grammatical errors

          dangling participles (no examples given)

          pronoun case: to who for to whom

          adjectives for adverbs: doing good for doing well

 

homophones

          lightening and lightning

 

2 types of punctuation errors

          Oxford or serial comma (Don’t stress over it, but use or omit consistently; not explained or illustrated.)

          missing hyphens in unit modifiers:

                   full time proofreader for full-time proofreader

 

3 usage errors

          letters for words:

                   mock u, BCRU

          numbers for words:

                   2 lern; You should never writ3 word5 u51n6 numb3rs
          unless you’re 7.

          quotation marks for emphasis

 

9 proofreading errors

          you for You, needa for need a, full time proofreader for full-time proofreader, dum for dumb, Mouth for mouth, mouth breather for mouth-breather, including a missing comma and a missing period

 

And just to make sure you’re having fun, “Weird Al” throws in two off-color puns, one having to do with hiring a cunning linguist and the other with having a big dictionary.

 

In addition, after he was told that the term spastic, which he used in the line, "You write like a spastic," is considered an offensive reference to people with cerebral palsy, he tweeted an apology: "If you thought I didn't know that 'spastic' is considered a highly offensive slur by some people . . . you're right, I didn't. Deeply sorry."

 

“Weird Al” also offers three definitions:

 

A noun is a word that is the name of something (such as a person, animal, place, thing, quality, idea, or action) and is typically used in a sentence as subject of object of a verb or as object of a preposition.

A preposition [is] a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object.

[A contraction is] the shortening of a word or group of words by omission of a sound or letter.

 

For additional definitions, see www.wilbers.com/glossarygrammar.pdf.

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