TIME Sports

Five Ways to Tweak Baseball, Before the Next ‘Worst World Series Ever’

World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game Seven
Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants celebrate after defeating the Kansas City Royals to win Game Seven of the 2014 World Series by a score of 3-2 at Kauffman Stadium on October 29, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri. Jamie Squire—Getty Images

After the lowest-rated seven-game World Series in history, and season-long cries to make the game move faster, we have a few modest proposals

For the first Sunday since March 16 there was no Major League Baseball last weekend. The 2014 season, which began on March 22 in Sydney, with games between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, ended 221 days later, when the San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals in a World Series that went the full seven games.

A few weeks ago, ESPN savant David Schoenfield pegged this as the “worst World Series ever,” because for the first time in the event’s 113-year history, neither team had won 90 regular-season games. By the end, Schoenfield was wondering whether Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner had given the “best World Series performance ever.”

But his excitement didn’t spread to the national audience: Games 4 through 7 had the fewest viewers for an extended World Series in TV history. Last Sunday night, when the fifth game was programmed against an NFL contest of two mediocre teams, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, football’s ratings crushed baseball’s, 6.4 to 2.7.

What’s the matter with baseball? Let’s start with what’s still working: the business model. Team revenues are at all-time highs. But it’s a very local game now — fans tune in heavily for home-team games, as reflected in the massive local TV contracts that are handed out to owners. But does it pull in the same kind of numbers nationally? No — and it’s not even close. It doesn’t help that the game is not in limited supply on TV, like the NFL, which makes football appointment viewing. Nor is it, like the NBA, a sport in semi-regular supply, via TNT and ESPN. (Plus, the NBA has a roster of players who are superstars nationally, and not just for the home crowd).

All the same, why should baseball have fallen so far below football as a national pasttime? The average MLB game is a bit shorter (3 hr. 8 min.) than the average NFL game (3 hr. 12 min.) and offers fans more than twice as many plays (292 pitches to 144 runs, passes, kickoffs, punts and extra-point and field-goal attempts). Neither sport provides much “action,” with an average of 18 minutes in the MLB, according to a 2010 Wall Street Journal study, and just 11 minutes in the NFL.

The difference is in the nature of the action. Almost any football play, even an off-tackle slant by a running back, offers the balletic beauty of athletic skill and the punishing drama of physical collision. The typical baseball play is a pitcher throwing a ball and the batter not swinging at it, while the other players watch. Even a home run, the sport’s defining big blast, is only metaphorically exciting; a fly ball that leaves the yard changes the score but may offer no more compelling view than an outfielder staring up. Baseball is the only major team sport in which the defense (the pitcher) initiates a play, where the ESPN “Web Gems” are likely to be defensive (a circus catch or double play) and where a complete game may be played with not one member of a team coming into contact with any members of the other.

Even for some of its stars, the game lacks appeal. “I don’t watch baseball,” the Washington Nationals’ ace third baseman Anthony Rendon said this summer. “It’s too long and boring.” Rendon prefers to watch programs on the History Channel. What he doesn’t realize is that baseball is the History Channel. In no other sport does the glorious past so much inform the present. Generations of kids have grown up with certain hallowed numbers — 60 (Babe Ruth’s 1927 home-run total), 61 (Roger Maris’ HRs in 1961), 56 (Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak in 1941), .406 (Ted Williams’ 1941 batting average), 755 (Henry Aaron’s career home runs) — tattooed on their memories. Now those kids are seniors, and their children or grandchildren, like Rendon, don’t care. Haunted by the great players of long ago, the game has become the Turner Classic Movies of sports.

Baseball’s basic lure is also its challenge: it is what it was. As George Carlin noted in his famous monologue about the two sports, “Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game. Football is a 20th century technological struggle.” Football’s a war game without fatal casualties; baseball is a picnic on a huge field, without the food. And virtually everyone agrees that baseball takes too long for that not-very-much to happen. In the past decade, the average game time has increased by nearly half an hour, while run scoring has decreased by 13%. The perennial national pastime has become a national passing of time. “If baseball were any slower,” comedian Roger Rittenhouse has said, “it would be farming.”

The game needs to be goosed. Here are a few ways to make baseball move faster and win back a national audience, without changing the verities of a professional sport in existence since 1876.

1. Pitchers gotta pitch. MLB Rule 8.04 is crystal clear: “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call Ball.” Yet in 2014 there was a 23-second average between pitches. Granted, a few seconds might be consumed by the catcher throwing the ball back to the pitcher; and the pace slows further when the man on the mound is preoccupied with men on base. So let’s say the average is 20 seconds when the bases are unoccupied. That still includes way too much time for the pitcher to shake off a catcher’s sign or glower at the batter or simply face center field in silent contemplation.

It’s kind of a New Age mood-ring thing. “If I don’t feel right, or I’m not on the same wavelength with my catcher,” says the poetically named Kevin Slowey, who pitched for the Miami Marlins this year, “I want to have the ability to step off and regroup or call the catcher to the mound.” Yes, it’d be wonderful if we all had time to contemplate our place in the universe without fretting about deadlines. But pitchers, even when they “don’t feel right,” should be able to get the ball and throw it in 12 seconds, as the rules oblige them to. Only the Pointer Sisters like a man with a slow hand.

Consider that a football team has only 40 seconds between plays to get 11 men in a huddle, come up with a complicated play and carry it off, or else suffer a delay-of-game penalty. This year, the average time between NFL plays is a tidy 28 seconds. For the Philadelphia Eagles, with their hurry-up offense, it’s just 23 seconds — the same speed as between baseball pitches.

Solution: Put a big countdown clock, from 12 seconds to zero, on the outfield scoreboard and behind the backstop (and on TV). When time runs out, the umpire’s delay-of-game penalty is to call a ball. And for those players having an existential dilemma, allow three 45-second timeouts a game for pitcher-catcher conferences. Imposing Rule 8.04 and reducing the wait from 20 seconds to 12, or by eight seconds per pitch, would shave 39 minutes off an average 292-pitch game. The overall time would go down to 2 hr. 29 min. — close to the 2-hr. 31-min. average for Major League games in 1954, when baseball was fun.

2. Batters gotta bat. Sometimes, batters are no more eager than pitchers to start play. They call time to adjust their Velcro glove straps, stare at their bat (as Ichiro Suzuki does) or gaze for a sign from the third-base coach or the heavens. In home games, the New York Yankees’ Brett Gardner often takes a stroll out of the batter’s box halfway to the Bronx Zoo. The recent World Series was rife with dilatory batters, particularly among the Royals. In Game 2, with a 1-1 count in the first inning, Billy Butler’s dawdling helped pushed the time between pitches to 54 seconds. And in the second inning of Game 6, Nori Aoki fussed and fidgeted to a near record 71-second pitch-time count. (Both times, the Giants pitcher was Jake Peavy, who looked as if he was on the mound against his will.)

Kansas City fans will tell you that, after those titanic longueurs, Butler and Aoki smashed RBI singles that led to Royals wins. Aoki’s hit was part of a seven-run inning in a 10-0 rout. The Fox broadcast noted that, in that inning, 40 pitches were thrown in 32 minutes, for an average of one every 48 seconds. That’s not farming; that’s a funeral procession — at least for the Giants in those games.

Solution: Insist that the batter keep at least one foot in the box between pitches. If he doesn’t, call a strike against his team.

3. Umpires need help. Football has end zones and goal posts; basketball has the hoop, and hockey the goal cage. Baseball is the only game with an imaginary box: the strike zone, which the umpire determines at his own discretion. Or indiscretion. An umpire’s strike zone can vary from game to game and player to player. The better batters often receive close calls in their favor; an umpire once apologized for calling Ted Williams out on strikes. And the craftier pitchers — like Gregg Maddux, inducted this year into the Hall of Fame — have been granted a wider strike zone. Only in baseball is a premium player rewarded with an easier job.

At times the strike zone is patently ludicrous, as in Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship Series, when Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez fanned 15 Atlanta Braves batters. A look at the calls by umpire Eric Gregg shows that on Hernandez’s third, fifth, 11th and 15th strikeouts, the crucial pitch was far out of the strike zone. Braves fans, and in fact anyone but Marlins fans, must have been screaming the plaint from the musical Damn Yankees: “Yer blind, ump! Yer blind, ump! Ya must be outta yer mind, ump!” Yet they had no recourse: players and managers can’t dispute balls and strikes. The Marlins won the game 2-1, and took the series in six games.

Solution: For the 19th century anachronism of ball-strike calls, import 21st century technology. Some of the networks airing games have an electronic gadget, the Zone Evaluation System, which tracks the passage of the pitch through or outside a rectangular strike zone. Before a game, allow the home-plate umpire to “draw” his strike zone on the ZES, which then would be visible to him and the players, fans and viewers, like the pitcher’s clock. The umpire still gets to make his calls, but if he repeatedly violates his own strike zone (see Solution 4), he must be replaced by one of the three other umps working the game. Don’t worry about the umpire’s dignity; just get the call right.

4. Expand the replay system. This year, baseball instituted a challenge system, similar to football’s, that granted a manager two chances per game to demand a review of a close play, which was then adjudicated by officials at the MLB home office in New York City. Some fans complain that this makes a long game even longer, but remember that, with the enforcement of the 12-second pitch rule, we’ve trimmed the average game by nearly 39 minutes. “I don’t know why we want everything to be perfect,” Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said in 2012, “because it’s just not a perfect game, it really isn’t. Life isn’t perfect. I think this is a game of life.” But the goal isn’t a perfect game; it’s to have the winner judged on the field, in a cleanly umpired game with no epochally awful calls — as in the ninth inning of the 1985 World Series’ sixth game, when Don Denkinger called the Royals’ Jorge Orta safe at first, even though the ball had beat Orta to the bag by a half-step. The Royals came back to win, and they took Game 7 from the St. Louis Cardinals, all because of a blown call.

Solution: Don’t leave it to managers to call for reviews in important games. At least in the postseason, let the home office monitor every play.

And while I’m at it …

5. Expand the wild card. Until 2012, four teams in each league made the postseason: the three that won their divisions, plus the next team with the best record. That wild-card club would play the team with the best record in the league. All very simple, until the MLB decided that the wild-card position would be expanded (or reduced) to a single do-or-die game for the divisional playoffs, like the play-in teams in the NCAA basketball tournament — the ones that have to win a qualifying game just to reach the round of 64. This year the Royals and the Giants were those play-in teams, which meant that for the first time in history, the World Series comprised two squads that failed to win 90 games in the regular season. This matchup of improbable teams with mediocre season records was like an NCAA final of Albany vs. Cal Poly.

A sour-grapes confession here: my team, the Oakland A’s, dominated baseball with the best record in either league — until August, when we performed a swoon of historic proportions, crept crippled into the wild-card game and, after leading 7-3 in the eighth inning, fell to the Royals 9-8 in 10 innings. But put my tragic grievance aside. The outcome of a 162-game season should not be determined by one postseason game, especially when that game relies so strongly on who happens to be pitching that day.

Solution: The two wild-card teams will play a three-game series, with the winner advancing. The division championship round is then five games, instead of the current seven, with the league championship and World Series both remaining at seven games. Yes, the other eight qualifiers would have a few more days off while the wild carders are playing, but this year the Royals idled for nearly a week between their clinching of the league title and the beginning of the World Series. The three-five-seven-seven scheme would have the same number of possible postseason games (20), but with more teams fully involved.

And then the A’s — or perhaps your team, dear reader — will have a proper chance to shine in the postseason. Because as each fan imagines it, that’s the way to save baseball.

TIME The Cranky Guy

Goodbye and Halo: Derek Jeter for Sainthood?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees
Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees gestures to the crowd during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The game was Jeter's last at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees defeated the Orioles 6-5. Jim McIsaac—Getty Images

On his last weekend of baseball, fans sing No. 2's praises because he's a Hall of Fame-worthy star — and because he's not A-Rod

Saints and sluggers have something in common: For canonization or Hall of Fame membership, the Roman Catholic Church and Major League Baseball have five-year waiting periods. Yet recently, Pope Francis waived the five-year rule to name two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, as saints. That makes me ask if the Baseball Writers of America voters can sit around until 2019 to elect Derek Jeter to the Hall of Fame. They might just approve him by acclimation on Sunday, when he ends his career in New York Yankee pinstripes with a game at Boston’s Fenway Park.

Jeter, who on Thursday put a pretty bow on a storied 20-year career at Yankee Stadium by hitting a game-winning RBI single, has the credentials to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But given the rapturous respect — I mean “RE2PECT” — poured this year on the man who wears No. 2, I also have to ask whether Pope Francis should also become involved in honoring him. Derek Jeter for sainthood?

Ever since spring training, when Jeter announced he would retire at the end of the season, rival teams have lined up to shower him with farewell presents. (Famed Yankee closer Mariano Rivera got the same treatment last year when he called it quits.) This gifts-for-the-baby-Jesus fealty suggested that his preternatural skills needed to be acknowledged with a six-month love-in from ex-Presidents and fans alike. In July in Arlington, Tex., where George W. Bush gave Jeter a pair of cowboy boots, two pilgrims in the stands lofted a sign reading, “We drove 1,152 miles to say goodbye to the Captain!” For the last month, all Yankees uniforms have sported a “2” patch, normally reserved to pay tribute to deceased teammates; yet Jeter is not only not dead yet, he’s still playing for the Yankees. And on Thursday, when Jeter’s final home game was threatened to be rained out, NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra wondered “if it’s God crying because He will no longer be able to see Derek Jeter play.” (God relented and the game was played.)

(READ: Sean Gregory on Baseball’s Derek Jeter problem)

For candidates for canonization, the Catholic Church requires “evidence” of two “miracles.” Jeter’s got plenty of those. We’ll make do with five.

Oct. 9, 1996: The homer that wasn’t. In Jeter’s first full year, the Yankees reached the playoffs against the Baltimore Orioles and were trailing 4-3 in the eighth inning when Jeter hit a fly ball to right field. 12-year-old fan Jeffrey Maier reached out and grabbed the ball that outfielder Tony Tarasco was about to catch; umpire Rich Garcia ruled the Jeter bash a home run — this long before Instant Replay allowed for the overturning of a bad call — and the Yankees won the game in extra innings. Eventually they took their first World Series in 18 years, aided by a Jeter pop fly in Game 6 that would have been caught if another umpire hadn’t collided with Atlanta outfielder Jermaine Dye. (God works in mysterious ways.) With Jeter at shortstop, and a lot of other exceptional players on the team, the Yanks won four World Series in five years.

Oct. 13, 2001: The flip play. The Oakland A’s had won the first two of a five-game playoff series against the Yankees; one more victory and they would advance to the league championship round. With New York nursing a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning, and Jeremy Giambi on first base for the A’s, Terrence Long hits a double to right field, the lead-footed Giambi lumbers toward home — and Jeter . . . Sorry, but as a lifelong A’s fan I can barely think about this moment, let alone describe it. Watch, if you must, the “iconic flip” here. Undoubtedly a great play, it helped the Yankees win that game. Of course they took the next two, proceeding to the World Series and sending the A’s home.

(READ: Corliss on his favorite team, the A’s)

Jul. 1, 2004: The dive into the stands. Game tied, top of the 12th inning, and the hated rival Red Sox threatening with men on second and third. Trot Nixon hits a pop fly near the foul line that a hustling Jeter catches, his momentum carrying him three rows into the sideline stands and earning him severe scratches and bruises. His catch saved two runs, and while he was on the way to a hospital, the Yanks won in the 13th. “Jeter, of course, scared the hell out of everybody,” said Yankee manager Joe Torre. “Hopefully, he’ll be all right.” He was, though fans overrated the strategic importance of the catch: the Yanks were 7½ games ahead of the Red Sox that day. In the playoffs, Boston would rally from a three-game deficit to beat the New York and win its first World Series in 86 years.

Jul. 9, 2011: The 3,000th hit. Struggling at the plate, his skills publicly mocked by Yankee brass, the 37-year-old made a bold statement by going five-for-five: three singles, a double and, for his 3,000th hit, a home run over the left field wall on a David Price slider. For his fifth hit, he knocked in the winning run in the eighth. “If we didn’t win, it definitely would have put a damper on things,” Jeter said. Yankees 5, Rays 4.

Sep. 25, 2014: The farewell hit. In his final game at Yankee Stadium, which scalpers had made the most expensive regular-season ticket in MLB history, Jeter doubled in a run in the first inning and, in the seventh, reached first on an Orioles error that plated two more. That would have been his final at-bat in the Bronx if Yanks closer David Robertson hadn’t surrendered three runs in the top of the ninth to even the score at 5. In the bottom of the inning, a single and a bunt put the winning run on second for Jeter. Instead of walking him, as conventional strategy dictated, Orioles skipper Buck Showalter (Jeter’s first manager on the Yankees) had reliever Evan Meek pitch to the star. Jeter hit a clean single to right, which scored the winning run. He accepted hugs from current and former teammates, walked out to genuflect at his shortstop position and was lifted to the heavens on a cloud of cheers. Did you see that, Pope Francis?

(WATCH: Jeter’s big hit in his last Yankee Stadium game)

Stephen Colbert used to ask of George W. Bush, “Great President? Or the Greatest President?” That’s the question about Jeter. “New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi will likely play without a shortstop next year,” wrote USA Today’s Mike Foss. “How can you replace the irreplaceable? You can’t . . . The Yankees can never have another shortstop. It wouldn’t be proper.” Hilarious hyperbole aside, the statement is pretty rich because, in the view of the game’s stats mavens, Jeter is a lousy shortstop. His limited range at getting to ground balls has converted many outs to hits, and dragged down his Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the stat that measures a player’s offensive and defensive skills. This year, when the Angels’ Mike Trout leads with a WAR of 8.0, meaning he’s worth eight games above a replacement player, Jeter’s is a pathetic 0.1 — the lowest of any regular player in the major leagues.

“How are the Yankees going to fill the void left by Derek Jeter?” Jack of Toronto sarcasticated on David Schoenfield’s ESPN Chat Wrap a few weeks ago. “There aren’t a lot of SS out there who can hit an empty .270 and have the defensive range of a statue. hmmm. Maybe they could just put a statue of him at SS, and hope no one notices the difference.” Schoenfield added: “But statues clearly lack leadership skills and fist-pumping ability!”

Leadership skills mean a lot, though the taciturn Jeter leads by example. And if clubhouse inspiration is supposed to translate into championships, his has got rusty in the past 14 years — the Yanks have won only one World Series since 2000, and haven’t earned a playoff spot since 2012. But I’m not going to take sides in the great debate: Jeter H. Christ vs. the Jeter Beaters. For opposing views from ESPN pundits, listen to Colin Cowherd on Jeter’s lasting value, and watch Keith Olbermann take a dump on No. 2. I’ll just say this: For much of his career, Jeter was an excellent offensive player on an excellent team (1996-2001); then he was a very good player on an underachieving team of big stars; and at the end he hung around as one of the least productive players at his position. That seem fair?

The real Jeter magic was his aura. He carried himself with poise; he was the charmed son of interracial parents (father black, mother white, Derek mauve) who this season could be seen at nearly every game rooting for their lad. A master at withholding emotions, he managed to give 20 years of post-game interviews without saying anything controversial — in fact, anything at all. That is a stunning accomplishment in an age of blab-your-brains-out social media. He was never tainted with taking performance-enhancing drugs in a baseball era stained by steroids. And he gave the impression of being a team-first guy, less interested in personal stats than in extending the bountiful legacy of the New York Yankees.

(WATCH: Derek Jeter in his final All-Star Game)

In other words, he wasn’t A-Rod.

Every saint needs a devil, and Alex Rodriguez was perfectly cast as Jeter’s evil twin. A year, a month and a day younger than Jeter, Rodriguez had far more impressive talents of offensive power and defensive range. First for the Seattle Mariners, then the Texas Rangers and, in 2004, the Yankees, A-Rod made a strong case for being among the game’s very best. On the all-time top-50 list of best WAR years, the only two active players are Trout (with 10.9 in 2012) and Rodriguez (10.3 in 2000); and A-Rod had three other finishes in the top 100. (Jeter’s best WAR year, an 8.0 in 1999, lands him in a tie for 264th.) He also enjoyed a Jeterian magic moment of his own: On the last day of the 2009 regular season — the year he helped the Yankees win their only World Series since 2000 — Rodriguez hit two homers and drove in seven runs, all in one inning, thereby extending his record of 30 homers and 100 RBIs to 12 seasons.

Rodriguez and Jeter had been friends from their teens, but the bromance soured into a no-mance by the time A-Rod joined the Yankees. Superior to Jeter at shortstop (a factor that contributed to his high WAR), he didn’t grouse when Torre shifted him to third base so Jeter could stay put. Ian O’Connor’s Jeter biography, The Captain, implies that A-Rod was frozen out of the Yankee clubhouse by a veteran who wanted to make sure the new guy remained an untrusted outsider.

Rodriguez earned a rep for wilting in the playoffs, though his postseason on-base and slugging percentages are nearly identical to Jeter’s. Then there’s the quite plausible theory that A-Rod is a jerk — playing for himself more than for the team, ignoring the Yankee staff and fans, dallying with Madonna and other naughty ladies, commissioning a portrait of himself as a centaur. Last year Rodriguez was banned from baseball for 211 games for taking horse pills human growth hormones.

(WATCH: TIME’s Sean Gregory on A-Rod and steroids)

I have a little sympathy for the devil. He was hot to Jeter’s cool, sometimes pretzeled by pressures Jeter either never felt or never showed. I think A-Rod needed love but didn’t know how to earn it — whereas Jeter seemed not to need love, yet got it from everyone. I wonder where Rodriguez was on the night of Jeter’s Yankee Stadium farewell. He might have wanted to be there, for the pleasure of offering a younger-brother hug, and for the sad realization that, when he returns to the Yankees after his suspension is lifted next year, many fans will pummel him with boos. “A-Roid!”

Playing out the last three years of baseball’s highest-paid contract won’t be fun for Rodriguez; there’ll be no shots of his parents smiling in the luxury boxes. But it will bring a new kind of excitement to the Stadium: not the sanctified Jeter valediction, more a crackling tension before the expected explosion — tape-measure home run or emotional blowout. And I’ll bet you this: A-Rod, if he’s clean and healthy, will have a more productive 40th year than Jeter did, with a higher WAR than 0.1. Saint Derek was so 2014; it’s time for the devil to get his due.

TIME The Cranky Guy

How Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’ Is Saving Grammar for the Future

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In the first in a series of columns taking a caustic look at modern mores, our writer considers how Weird Al's No. 1 album has revived a debate on the proper use of language

The plaque commemorating pitcher Greg Maddux’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week testifies that he is the “only hurler with 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts and less than 1,000 walks.” If you winced, or for that matter hurled, at the use of less instead of fewer, you may be a careful reader, a grammar snob — or Weird Al Yankovic.

At 56, after nearly 40 years of musical burlesques, the accordion-grinding pop satirist has scored his first top-of-the-pops CD with the album Mandatory Fun. It’s (not its) the first comedy album to reach No. 1 since 1963, when Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut reigned on the Billboard charts, propelled by its (not it’s) hit single “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” (insert commas). The Yankovic number that has attracted more than (not over) 12 million listens on YouTube — and which (not that) everyone is sending to his or her (never their) friends — is “Word Crimes,” a “Blurred Lines” parody that (not which) itemizes crimes against the language. English teachers, on realizing that Weird Al has become the arbiter for proper grammar, may figuratively (not literally) look for the nearest bridge to jump off. And yes, it’s O.K. to end a sentence with a preposition, and to use the word O.K.

(WATCH: Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” video)

Aside from dry-cleaning the smut from last summer’s Robin Thicke–Pharrell Williams smash, “Word Crimes” serves as an instant anthem for any language maven (Hebrew for expert) or alter kocker (senior citizen, from the Yiddish for old poop) who has mourned the slippage of good grammar over the years, especially with the rise of social media. (And aren’t all media social?). In 1990, if you had told Weird Al that young people would soon be communicating as much by writing as by telephoning, he might have dared hope that the return of literacy would wipe out a generation of slang mumblings: “I mean, like, you know?” Texting has reduced the number of waste words, but it has also exposed a black hole of ignorance about traditional — what a cranky guy would call correct — grammar.

Or maybe the texters could care less, which for Yankovic is another word crime: “That means you do care/ At least a little.” The texters might explain gently to Al, as to a grandparent from the old country, that “I could care less” is an example of irony; and Al would snap back, “Irony is not coincidence.” The exact meaning of irony is so narrow that the word is hardly worth using; in its broad, current definition, it’s a euphemism for sarcasm. “I’m not being sarcastic; I’m being ironic.” No, you’re not. You’re evading the responsibility for being sarcastic. You’re also being a sloppy thinker — just as someone using literally (in Yankovic’s example “You ‘literally couldn’t get out of bed'”) almost always means figuratively, and a sentence beginning “With all due respect” almost always presages an insult.

(READ: Lily Rothman on the no-longer-so-weird Al)

Yankovic decries the texters’ shorthanding of words into letters: be into B, see to C, are to R, you to U. Given that Twitter permits only 140 characters for a message, the truncation is really thrift. Besides, as Yankovic notes in the song, Prince is probably the prime culprit, having slapped such titles as “I Would Die 4 U” and “Take Me With U” on his ’80s hits. The trope goes back further, to the 1955 novelty tune “I-M-4-U (I Am for You),” written for TV host Jack Paar by Sev F. Marino and José Melis and consisting entirely of letters and numbers. So who do we blame? No. Whom?

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“Pronoun trouble!” — as Daffy Duck quacked to Bugs Bunny in the 1952 Chuck Jones cartoon Rabbit Seasoning — is rampant these days, and probably always has been. Though I try to avoid it in writing, I wouldn’t guillotine those who use who colloquially for whom, particularly when whom masquerades as the subject of a sentence, as in Who Do You Trust? (a ’50s game show hosted by Paar’s successor as The Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson) or Ray Parker Jr.’s No. 1 1984 movie theme “Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” I do agree with the “Word Crimes” proscription: “Always say ‘to whom.’ Don’t ever say ‘to who.'” And don’t fall for the fake gentility of I as an object. “Between Weird Al and I” may sound elegant, swellegant (in Cole Porter’s phrase), but grammatically it’s smellegant.

(SEE: A career-long gallery of Weird Al Yankovic photos)

I also sympathize with neophyte writers (neophiters) who confuse its the possessive adjective and it’s the contraction for it is — a mistake to which Yankovic devotes an entire verse. In the phrase “a dog’s life,” the dog is it, so it’s life can seem logical. Logical but wrong. To distinguish between the two, think of the dog as a boy: you wouldn’t spell his as hi’s. So a boy’s life = his life, and a dog’s life = its life.

RCA Records

Weird Al raps: “You should know/ It’s ‘less’ or it’s ‘fewer,’/ Like people who were/ Never raised in a sewer.” Less should refer to collective nouns (less knowledge), fewer to plurals of individual things (fewer brain cells). But that distinction may be a lost cause; I’ll bet that not even Whole Foods has a “10 Items or Fewer” checkout line. And what about doing well (achieving success) vs. doing good (performing benevolent deeds)? In “The Old Dope Peddler,” musical satirist supreme Tom Lehrer paid sarcastic (not ironic) tribute to a drug dealer who was “doing well by doing good.” But that song is more than 60 years old, so the two words may no longer be different from (not different than) each other. And with marijuana legally available in some states, the song may have outlived its comic point.

(READ: A Richard Corliss tribute to Tom Lehrer)

Yankovic commits a couple of his own crimes — as in “Here’s some notes,” which should be “Here are some notes,” for the subject to agree with the verb — and quite a few rhyme crimes. Broadway songwriters Stephen Sondheim (rhymes with rhyme) and Leonard Bernstein (doesn’t) would never approve of pairing proper way with conjugate, or find with online. These are false rhymes, lazy rhymes, blurred rhymes. Virtually every pop songwriter employs them today, but in a comedy song arguing for traditional grammar, they dull the precision of the wit.

Yankovic also stoked a ruckus with this quatrain: “Saw your blog post/ It’s really fantastic/ That was sarcastic,/ ’Cause

RCA Records

you write like a spastic” — an insult word that also can refer cruelly to those afflicted with cerebral palsy. Yankovic quickly posted: “If you thought I didn’t know that ‘spastic’ is considered a highly offensive slur by some people … you’re right, I didn’t,” he wrote. “Deeply sorry.” Apparently no one has complained about his use in the song of moron, which psychologists once used to describe an adult with the mental capacity of a child. Like idiot, moron has probably passed its sell-by date as an offensive term.

That’s the sticking point about language: it keeps changing. Each person’s sense of grammar probably came from his or her teachers or parents. My mother, a first-grade schoolteacher, instructed her two sons that “between you and I” was wrong, and that the proper way to answer the phone was to say, “This is he.” But she was born in 1907 — for the edification of mathematicians in the room, I was a very late baby — and may have taken syntax cues from her mother, born in the 1860s. One hundred fifty years later, no one speaks or writes like Abraham Lincoln. In Mad magazine in 1956, Doodles Weaver copyedited the Gettysburg Address, amending “Fourscore and seven years” to “Eighty-seven: Be explicit!” Yet today’s teachers indoctrinate their pupils with many rules from Lincoln’s time and long before.

(READ: the complete parody of the Gettysburg Address by scrolling down this webpage)

Those who think we should go with the flow of evolution in syntax — welcome to the 21st century, word codgers — balk at the usage traditions of their very elder elders. I confess that I long avoided the split infinitive (“To boldly go where no man has gone before”), until I learned it was an 18th century codification by an obscure grammarian who thought English should be more like Latin. In that language, infinitives were an unsplittable single word: to split is dilaminare. (Then again, few poets in preceding centuries split their infinitives. Shakespeare didn’t write “To be or to not be?”) Another Latin-derived no-no was ending a sentence with a preposition, which everyone sensibly ignores today. As Winston Churchill, one of the last century’s most powerful writers, wryly observed, “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Modern grammar has also efforted (one of my favorite faux verbs) to free itself from sexism. Mankind is now humankind, and Gene Roddenberry would surely have rewritten his Star Trek intro as “To boldly go where no human has gone before.” In the ’70s, during the first flush of grammatical feminism, the generic he got modified into s/he. That didn’t take, but the pluralizing of everyone did. The singular pronoun turns plural midway through the sentence “Everyone has their reasons.” I can’t bring myself to write that, so I usually perform pretzel exercises to make the subject plural: “All people have their reasons.”

In my experience, copy editors, like the stalwart staff I’ve worked with and learned from in my 34 years at TIME, are linguistic conservatives — the keepers of the flame ignited by the Strunk-White Elements of Style, published in full in 1957 and chosen by TIME as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction books of the past century. And grammarians tend to be liberal, willing and often eager to promote common usage into acceptable speech.

On a fascinating episode of the Judge John Hodgman Podcast, in which a man brought a complaint against his wife for correcting his grammar, Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster derided The Elements of Style, saying, “They even break their own rules. They say no split infinitives, and there are split infinitives [in the book].” For adjudication, I turn to TIME deputy copy chief Elissa Englund, who notes, “This isn’t actually true. The Elements of Style discourages it generally but actually says there are times when it is preferable to split an infinitive. (See Chapter V, reminder 2: ‘Write in a way that comes naturally.’)”

(FIND: The Elements of Style among the all-TIME 100 nonfiction books)

Among the bugbears of Kira, the persnickety wife in the Hodgman case, were irregardless (instead of regardless or irrespective) and most importantly (instead of most important). Brewster, as the expert witness on the episode, ruled that the first was now common and the second was new to her. Hodgman then asked Brewster if “I feel badly” was an acceptable equivalent to “I feel bad.” Again, Brewster pleaded ignorance of the distinction, adding, “Those don’t even sound funny to my ear.” (She meant they didn’t sound funny even to her trained ear.) But they should have sounded funny (not funnily). You feel bad, not badly, just as you feel good, not goodly. James Brown didn’t sing “I Feel Goodly,” and a grammar scholar shouldn’t say “I feel badly.” Quick hint: If it doesn’t sound goodly to you, don’t use it.

Liberal grammarians would tell us we live in a democracy, not a kingdom of antiquated rules. I’m a grateful subject of that kingdom, and I’m sure I’ve broken a few of my own rules, which readers are welcome to comment on. TIME’s spell-check always admonishes me whenever I compose a sentence in the passive voice, a warning that is often ignored by me. And the copy editor of a book I wrote for Simon & Schuster corrected my frequent use of years as adjectives (“the 1955 novelty tune …”). I didn’t know that was a word crime, and, between you and I, I keep breaking it.

Nothing in a living language is written in stone. Over the decades, words go from wrong to right. Speak as you will; others will understand you, whatever offenses you utter against hoary tradition. Just realize that the people in a position to hire you, mark your exams or fall in love with you may have stricter standards of written and spoken English. Like Weird Al Yankovic, or the reporters who noted the less and fewer mistake on Greg Maddux’s Hall of Fame plaque, we grammar snobs are listening.

* * *

This is the first in a series of columns in which Richard Corliss drops his usually genial demeanor and assumes the stern tone of the Cranky Guy.

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