Friday, October 27, 2006

Pop song grammar

In poetry and song lyrics, rhyme and rhythm often play large roles. (In fact, that's the main reason it's so difficult to translate poetry well; so much depends on the specific sounds of words in a particular language.) With this in mind, we frequently give writers of such types of work a certain amount of liberty in stretching the rules---or at least conventions---of grammar and word order. As long as their choices register as "unusual" and "interesting" rather than "wrong", it's fine.

But some pop songs just go too far. Paula Cole's "I Don't Want To Wait" begins

Open up your morning light
Say a little prayer for I

Say a little prayer for "I"? Even the most uneducated English speaker knows that the preposition "for" must be followed by "me", not "I"; there is no dialect in which this is a valid construction. Every time I hear this, I wince. And though I'm editorializing, I really don't think the sentiment expressed is profound or beautiful enough to justify such an egregious grammatical error.

A little lower on the offensiveness scale is Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply", which goes

I wanna stand with you on a mountain
I wanna bathe with you in the sea
I wanna lay like this forever

It's a common mistake to use the transitive "lay" instead of the intransitive "lie"; so common, in fact, that the author of these lyrics may not even have chosen the word intentionally. The same goes for Joan Osborne's "What if God was one of us", which fails to use the subjunctive form "were" as is appropriate. These could be chalked up to ignorance of proper grammar, or the idea that since so many people misuse English in this way, it's more aurally pleasing to use what is common rather than what is correct.

I was going to include John Mellencamp's "Hurt So Good" in this category, but actually in this case it's acceptable. In a song that includes "love don't feel like it should" and "I ain't made no plans", "good" rather than "well" is the appropriate adverb. It's not the Queen's English, but it's consistent and valid. As I hope I made clear in my previous post on grammar, there are dialects in which the standard rules of English do not apply (though other, definable rules do), and this is one of them.

8 comments:

Marve said...

I'm inclined to believe that it's for aesthetic reasons, but not to dumb-down the diction so that audiences can relate. One can hear the assonance and rhyme in the examples you give--I think that's what makes the grammatically incorrect lines sound more pleasing.

Marve said...

Oh yeah--and if you want to listen to some lyrics that will really make your brain hurt, try Avril Lavigne. She's like the queen of using sentence fragments and random words as filler to round out the meter in her verss. :)

Marve said...

/verses

Language Lover said...

I'm not sure which examples you're referencing here. In "a prayer for I", it's obviously done for reasons of rhyme, but the error is so painfully obvious (to me, anyway) that any aesthetic advantage is more than cancelled out. For the second example, I see how one might want to avoid the assonance of "lie like this", but I'm skeptical that the author even considered the correct version, given how frequently "lie" and "lay" are misused in common speech. As for the third example, I personally don't see any auditory advantage in "if God was" vs. "if God were", except that the former sounds more colloquial---which was my point exactly.

I'm only familiar with one Avril Lavigne song and I loved it and didn't notice any language crimes...now I'm wary of listening to more of her work. ;)

Marve said...

I was referring to the latter two examples. You get a parallel sound effect with the lines "I wanna bathe with you in the sea/I wanna lay with you forever" which sounds better than "I wanna lie like this forever" because the assonance is spread out. In the Joan Osborne song, the two first lines of the chorus are "What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us (whew... yay for schwas). That's how I'm hearing it anyhow. Oh man, I hope I closed all my tags for this post...

Sluggo said...

For a big-time songwriter, Paul McCartney is one of the worst offenders. I still wince at "my love does it good" and the unbeatable "in this ever-changing world in which we live in".

Anonymous said...

I agree that McCartney is a major offender. But, in Sir Paul's defense, I think the line in Live and Let Die is "in this ever-changing world in which we're living". Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part...

S said...

I hate, hate, hate that Paula Cole song for just that error. I frankly think it would sound so much better if she just used the proper pronoun! No rhyme is worth that tortured construction. As it is, I can't listen to the song.

The Joan Osborne one kind of irks me, but I can live with it because a) most people don't know it's wrong and b) the slobbish grammar almost adds to the song.

The John Mellencamp song is just right. Not correct, technically, but right. I've never had a quibble with it because it would sound so weird if he used well. But he does have another song that has a very incorrect line. In "Small Town", he sings, "I cannot forget from where it is that I come from." That second from just kills me. I really don't care which from he uses, but not both!