The Grammar of Song

grammar-someecardsFor Melburnians who love cabaret, the dear old Butterfly Club may have been turfed out of its old home in South Melbourne, but it now has new digs in the city. The shiny new Carson Place venue is tucked down an alleyway, as all the best Melbourne venues and bars are.

I was one of many, many people who helped to fund the Butterfly Club’s move through a Pozible crowd-funding exercise, I’m proud to say. To celebrate the successful fundraising and the imminent launch of the new venue, the Club held a gala evening at the Melbourne Town Hall on 8 February.

One of my favourite acts (and there were many splendid acts at the Gala) was Gillian Cosgriff, who sang a song made of up texts from an ex-beau who didn’t know why she’d dumped him. (Hint: The texts had somethink to do with how fustrated he was that for all intensive purposes he didn’t know definately what had gone wrong.)

I howled with laughter from start to finish, evil grammar nazi that I am. I wouldn’t have lasted a single date before bludgeoning the poor man to death with a Macquarie Dictionary, no matter how pretty he was.

Ms Cosgriff’s song reminded me, however, of the fine tradition of songs about spelling and grammar, as well as the many, many songs that contain painfully incorrect grammar.

There are the famous spelling songs like D-I-V-O-R-C-E by Tammy Wynette and of course Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I’m also a fan of the linguistic creativity that brought us Take the L out of Lover and It’s Over by The Motels. There’s an important lesson in that one for all of us, I’m sure, even if it’s just that heartbreak can help you learn about ways of placing words on a Scrabble board.

I keep a soft spot in my heart for Bob Marley’s song of the definition of ‘exodus’ (movement of the people, in case you were wondering). Not many people take the time to teach you new vocabulary in a song.

The fabulous satirist Tom Lehrer actually wrote two songs that deliberately taught grammar – LY, which taught listeners how to made an adverb, and N Apostrophe T.

Of course, there are the songs whose primary purpose is to remind you of a grammar rule mainly because the songwriter got the grammar so very, very wrong.

I’m fond of you, Bob Dylan, but you should never have written the lyric ‘lay, lady, lay’. I always think she’s going to lay a big mutant egg across your big brass bed. Did nobody ever teach you the difference between ‘to lie’ and ‘to lay’? Do you not know that you can you can lie on a bed, but you have to lay your head on a pillow; that you can lie on a bean bag, but you have to lay a book on the coffee table? Well. Obviously not.

(By the way, if you don’t know the difference and would like to, if only to avoid my snobbish scorn, check out Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips on the subject.)

A lot of other songs containing bad grammar do so by ignoring perfectly good adverbs in favour of grammatically incorrect adjectives. Simple Plan, I do like you, but when in Jet Lag you sing ‘I miss you so bad’, I’m forever mouthing a silent ‘ly’ so that I feel better about singing along.

Here’s a website listing a lot of bad grammar in songs. The songs may be good musically, but beating the language to death with a treble clef is still murder, wouldn’t you say? Offenders include Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Eric Clapton, The Police and Freddie Mercury. Sigh.

Of course, writers can deliberately twist grammar and punctuation to make it technically wrong for artistic effect. I’m all for that. Well, I have to be, because I do it myself.  I maintain, however, that you have to know what the rules are so that when you break them for effect, you actually know the effect you’re trying to achieve.

I guess music remains in a category of its own in this regard, though, because songs and lyrics are not just about pretty and perfect English. They convey personality, emotional states, natural dialect and use of slang, knowing and deliberate use of onomatopoeic and shorthand spelling, and all kinds of linguistic and artistic devices to tell their very short musical stories. They also have to scan and sometimes even rhyme. Many daft things are done in the name of a rhyming couplet, and we must forgive them, especially if the melody is a corker.

Still. Don’t get me started on Alanis Morissette and all the sad or inconvenient but otherwise not actually ironic things occurring in her song Ironic.

So, good people of the interwebs, tell me: what grammatical sins in music really tick you off?

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.

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Posted on February 14, 2013, in language, music, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Julie (@chameleongirl)

    sorry Narrelle, but for a post about spelling and grammar, i was amused to see that you misspelled the saying “for all intents and purposes”

    • You’ll notice I also misspelled ‘something’, ‘frustrated’ and ‘definitely’. Those and ‘intensive purposes’ are all lyrics from Gillian Cosgriff’s song! (See, you can’t trip me that easily!)

  2. I giggled all the way through this.

  3. Here’s a puzzler for ya:

    “Some of those who work forces are the same who burn crosses.”

    Should that second ‘who’ be a ‘whom’?

    • It *could* be. While ‘who’ is the subject form and technically ‘whom’ is the object form, the latter is considered very stuffy, old fashioned usage in modern English and is rarely used any more. I think the choice of whether or not to use ‘whom’ depends on the sentence and the feeling the writer wants to convey with it. How formal should the sentence be, for example?

      I’m not sure of the meaning of the examaple out of context, but the first ‘who’ could be ‘whom’, as the subject is ‘some of those’ in that clause. IN the second instance, ‘who’ appears to be the subject of a verb clause with ‘crosses’ as the object. I might have to look up stuff to confirm the grammar of that construction. The sentence might flow a little better if the correct object form was used, but it does make the sentence sound a little more archaic.

  4. This one has had me scratching my head for 20 years. I don’t know, I’m a nerd. The programmer part of my brain wants the statements to be parsed in a way that is not ambiguous, but… this is English, not C.

    I, uh, don’t think that context would help very much in this case but if Rage Against the Machine ever used the word ‘whom’ in a song I think the nineties would be rescinded.

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