by Kate Woodford and Dom Glennon
Are you annoyed by song lyrics that do not obey the rules of grammar? Do you correct them as you sing along? To mark the inclusion of English Grammar Today on Cambridge Dictionaries Online, we thought we’d count down some of the worst offences against the rules of grammar committed by songwriters, either deliberately, or without knowing.
5. The standard non-standard
Rock’n’roll has always been drawn to the rebellious side of life, so it’s little surprise that a large number of songs feature non-standard or slang grammar in their lyrics: double negatives such as ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ (‘Another Brick In The Wall’ by Pink Floyd) and ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ (‘Satisfaction‘ by The Rolling Stones). Some musicians go even further, adding in the equally non-standard ‘ain’t’, as in ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers, and ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’ (‘Hound Dog‘ by Elvis Presley).
Perhaps the best example of deliberate breaking of the rules is in Louis Jordan’s ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?’, guaranteed to send your Word grammar-checker haywire. The non-standard seems almost standard in rock music.
Whether to use ‘I’ or ‘me’ after ‘and’ is something that even native speakers of English struggle with. The rule is actually quite simple: ‘take away the preceding noun and ‘and’ and use the form of the pronoun that you would use in that context (so eg Kate and I are going to France this year, but It’s easy for Johnny and me) – and yet somehow it can trip up even the most careful of speakers. But there’s no excuse for songwriters to get it wrong – is there? Take this line from The Doors’ ‘Touch Me’:
Till the stars fall from the sky, for you and I
For I, Jim? Bringing things a little more up to date, Lady Gaga makes the same error in the song ‘You and I’, when she sings:
Oh, yeah, I’d rather die
Without you and I
You and me could write a bad romance.
Me could write a bad romance? If only she could pay as much attention to her pronouns as she does to her outfits…
3. You wouldn’t let it lay
Moving on to a different type of error, what was Bob Dylan thinking in the song, ‘Lay Lady Lay’ when he invited his lady to ‘lay across’ his ‘big brass bed’? Surely Bob Dylan knew the rule? You lie on a surface. (intransitive) You lay a person or a thing on a surface. (transitive) Or perhaps not?
Eric Clapton also ignored – or was not aware of – this grammar rule while co-writing his 1977 song, ‘Lay Down Sally’.
2. How many ‘in’s?
And if this ever-changing world in which we live in / Makes you give in and cry / Say live and let die.
The phrase ‘in which we live in’, should, of course, be either ‘in which we live’, or ‘which we live in’ – you can’t have ‘in’ in both positions. But then this wouldn’t have scanned (= had the right number of syllables for the line). So did the McCartneys add the extra ‘in’ thinking no one would notice? Were they even aware of their mistake? Did they, in fact, ever write this incorrect lyric? Asked about the line many years later, McCartney said he couldn’t quite remember what he’d written, but added that he thought it was probably, ‘in which we’re livin’’, which is, of course, perfectly correct. We’ll let you be the judge.
1. Dreams aren’t made of this
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
Oh Alicia, relative clauses can be tricky things, but ‘where dreams are made of’? It should be either ‘which dreams are made of’ or ‘where dreams are made’. But maybe ‘which dreams’, with the consonant sounds of ‘ch’ followed by ‘d’, doesn’t ‘flow’ as nicely when sung, and the preposition ‘of’ at the end of the line is needed to make it scan.
Do you know any ungrammatical, or otherwise nonsensical, lyrics that make you see red? Let us know?