A Def Ear to the rules of Grammar [or is it orthography?]
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Mar 11 13:39:41 UTC 2005
>>From the NYTimes,
March 11, 2005
A Def Ear to the Rules of Grammar
By CLYDE HABERMAN
VERYBODY seems to be on the rap world's case these days. And for what?
Trivial things like lyrics that glorify violence, misogyny and racism? Or
the propensity of some rappers to aerate one another with hot lead?
The people who should really be hip-hopping mad are grammarians.
Yet for the most part they stand on the sidelines, raising no audible
objections to Lil' Kim's wayward apostrophe or 50 Cent's hostility to
plurals or the spelling horrors committed by the likes of Supreem Da
Regulata, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and Capone-N-Noreaga. Where, you have to
ask yourself, is the outrage?
A fair question, said Patricia T. O'Conner, the author of books on
grammar, including "Woe Is I." "It's bad enough that the content is so
offensive to so many people," Ms. O'Conner said. "It offends all kinds of
sensibilities, including those of grammarians." "If you wanted to get
ridiculous," - as opposed to, say, ridikyulis, which would look ludacris -
"I guess somebody could argue it's supposed to be heard poetry rather than
read poetry, so you don't see it in writing," she said.
"But the truth is that you do see hip-hop in writing, and it is pretty
outrageously spelled and punctuated." That it is. But don't expect a
protest group to be formed any time soon, something on the order of
Grammarians Repudiating Rancorous Rap Refrains, or Grrrr.
Guardians of the language tend not to organize themselves along such
lines. Besides, few of them seem to be losing sleep over tortured word
formations. On the contrary, rap usage "is grammatically interesting,"
said Jesse Sheidlower, the North American editor of the Oxford English
Dictionary. "It's not random, and it's not sloppy." Of course, if similar
deviations from standard English popped up in everything schoolchildren
wrote, there might be a problem. "Things can be imitated badly - that's
always a danger," Mr. Sheidlower said.
But if you consider rappers "on purely linguistic grounds," he said,
"their poetic inventiveness is worthy of emulation." Ostentatious
misspellings are hardly new, said Barry Popik, an etymologist. Think of
the 19th century. "This is not a recent phenomenon at all," Mr. Popik
said. Besides, it's not as if lapses in usage are the biggest worry when
it comes to rap music, said Barry Tarshis, the author of "Grammar for
"People recognize it for what it is," he said. "To some degree, you might
even say it has a positive effect because it's at least encouraging kids
who've never verbalized anything to do just that."
Well, if mutilated grammar doesn't get anyone worked up, we might as well
focus on insignificant concerns like the latest rap wars. In case you do
not track these events, they have all the charm of a professional
Much of the action revolves around a hip-hop station in SoHo, Hot 97
(WQHT-FM, 97.1). That is where some geniuses in January played a song
mocking victims of the Asian tsunami, its lyrics littered with foul
language and racial slurs.
Hot 97, in a building on Hudson Street, is also favored by rappers when
they get in the mood to put holes in one another. A gunfight outside the
building in 2001 led to Lil' Kim, she of the misplaced apostrophe, having
to stand trial now on federal perjury charges.
Last week, another shootout occurred there between hangers-on - they
prefer to call themselves posses - of 50 Cent and his onetime protege, the
Game. IT seems that Mr. Cent, who earns a lot more than four bit for his
albums, does not get along with Mr. Game. You know how temperamental
artists can be. That is especially true when they walk around with bullet
wounds from old shoot-'em-ups. Fortunately for Mr. Cent, wounded nine
times but going strong, some in the rap world don't shoot any better than
The latest bang-bang led the Rev. Al Sharpton to cry, Enough is enough. He
proposed that rappers be banished from the airwaves for 90 days if they
resort to violence. Separately, the owner of the Hudson Street building
demanded that the hangers-on - er, posses - be kept away. Feeling the
pressure, Messrs. Cent and Game staged a public display of harmony on
Wednesday, accompanied by press coverage worthy of an Israeli-Palestinian
Mr. Game said he was "almost ashamed" of the latest nastiness. Almost. For
his part, Mr. Cent had trouble reading a prepared statement. Maybe it was
because the words were spelled right.
[Moderator's note: these folks give people who have to observe the
rules of the New York Times style sheet the willies. Note the
obligatory style "Mr." Cent and "Mr." Game, etc. (hs)]
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