A friend of mine just sent me a link to Bo Burnham’s music/comedy show on YouTube, and I found it to be spectacular. His musical talents are impressive, the songs are catchy, his humor is clever and constantly surprising (though very NSFW), and the whole thing is quite well put together. But I’m not going to write about his show. I’m going to write about its name.
The show is called “what.” No capitalization (and this is almost certainly intentional, since his other videos are properly capitalized), followed by a period. Not a question mark, not even a single word without punctuation: a period.
“What” is not a sentence. It can be a question, or, as a title, it could stand without punctuation. But it is not a sentence. The little voice in my brain that makes a living as an editor was screaming OH MY GOD THAT’S NOT CORRECT! But that little voice shut right the hell up, because the rest of my brain was busy enjoying the brilliance of that title and what it says about the flexibility of the English language.
Because “what.” is not really incorrect. I know what you’re thinking: it’s wild claims like this which got me a D on that one essay in 11th grade English class. Well, I’m a professional writer and an English teacher now, Mrs. Crumblebum, so you can just suck it.
Grammar is important for two reasons: clarity and care. Sometimes grammar is critical because improper grammar would make a sentence ambiguous or change the intended meaning. Sometimes it’s necessary simply to prove that you are intelligent and are careful and conscientious about your writing. But there is one situation where all the universally agreed upon rules of grammar go straight out the window: when the only way to communicate your precise meaning is to break them.
In days gone by, this didn’t happen all that often. Communicating a precise meaning requires both the writer and the reader to know exactly what that meaning is. A shared understanding is required. That’s why grammar rules exist in the first place: to provide that common framework that everyone can interpret.
But these days, we’ve got a series of tubes which a totally insane number of people are connected to every waking second of every day. They’ve got this in their pockets at all times. Memes, once a slow-moving analog process, have exploded to the point where they get old and tired in a matter of days. More importantly to the point I’m trying to make, people with writing styles that never would have seen print in the old days have found a massive audience online. (Have a look at Dinosaur Comics for a great example.) That means that huge numbers of people are internalizing patterns of speech and writing that never could have come into widespread existence before the internet.
And we’re on the second generation of this business at this point. Those of us who grew up in this fancy new age of technology have taken it mainstream. We’ve got cartoons for kids these days like Adventure Time and Spongebob Squarepants. These new speech patterns are no longer esoteric. They have become the norm. Language is constantly evolving.
That’s not to say that classic grammar doesn’t still have a place and a purpose. I cringe like you wouldn’t believe whenever I see someone type “your” when they mean “you’re.” Why? Because that changes the meaning of the sentence, and it also shows that they haven’t taken the time to write properly. It’s a lack of respect for the reader. It’s careless. It’s ugly. Those are two different words with two different meanings. Learn them, god damn it. Especially the native speakers. This is your language, but my Czech students learning English as a second language never make that mistake. It’s just embarrassing that so many people do.
But “what.” is a different situation. “What?” has a meaning, but it’s not the intended meaning. “What” without punctuation is closer, but it’s still not precisely what Bo’s trying to get across. But “what.” is absolutely clear. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time on the internet knows exactly what it means, down to all the subtle nuances and precisely what intonation to use when saying it. It’s so precise that I don’t even know how to describe it in words.
And that’s why it’s correct. It conveys exactly what it intends to convey in a way that the intended audience is sure to understand. That’s not a mistake. That’s a shining example of the flexibility and fluidity of the English language. My Czech students may not make stupid grammatical errors that native speakers make all the time, but they sure as hell can’t express that precise meaning in their own language. It just isn’t possible. Only in English can we make this happen.