Pop Tunes and Grammar



For many years I’ve had a framed drawing sitting on my bookshelf. It’s from the New Yorker magazine, and it’s by the brilliant cartoonist Roz Chast. It depicts a record album titled Miss Ilene Krenshaw Sings 100% Grammatically Correct Popular Tunes.

Songs include “You Aren’t Anything but a Hound Dog,” “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing if It Hasn’t Got That Swing,” and “I’m Not Misbehaving.”

Note that all three songs, in their original form, contain ain’t: “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Houn’ Dog,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Also, two of the three tunes feature words with the colloquial lopped-off g (nothin’, misbehavin’). Saying ain’t and dropping g’s are timeless trademarks of popular music. They send the message that formality is out … prim and proper prigs and prudes can drop dead … let’s party!

For decades, “Miss Ilene Krenshaw” and her fellow nitpickers have cringed at the English-mangling pop music embraced by the young. Nowadays they especially deplore the damage it’s doing to a literacy-challenged generation.

But pop music’s coarseness is part of its scruffy charm. Here are some examples I heard growing up:

“Everybody Loves a Lover”  This justly forgotten trifle was a hit for a slumming Doris Day in the late 1950s. I’ll bet that back then, sticklers’ teeth were grinding over this couplet: “I should worry, not for nothin’. / Everybody loves me, yes they do.” In Miss Ilene Krenshaw’s perfect world, Ms. Day would have sung: “I should worry, not for anything. / Everybody loves me, yes he or she does.”

“It’s Now or Never”  A torrid love song from Elvis at his absolute peak. The King had the ladies screaming and swooning when he first warbled this tune in 1960. Nonetheless, it contains one of the clunkiest mixed metaphors of all time: “Just like a willow we would cry an ocean.” What the …?! OK, weeping willow, got it. And “cry an ocean” echoes the old ballad “Cry Me a River,” a nice touch. But a tree that cries an ocean? Weird. Is this a torch song or a Guillermo del Toro movie?

“Touch Me”  It was a smash in 1968 for the Doors and their lead singer, troubled heartthrob Jim Morrison. I was a stickler-in-training when “Touch Me” came out, and I hated this line: “I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.” My gripe: it should be “for you and me.” The skyI rhyme might make it poetry, but it sure isn’t good grammar. So I kept trying to rewrite it. Alas, the best line I ever came up with was “till the stars fall in the sea for you and me.”

“Lay Lady Lay”  This gorgeous, mildly risqué love song raised a lot of eyebrows in the late sixties. It was a big hit for Bob Dylan, who had recently reinvented himself as a Nashville crooner, with a mellifluous baritone no one at the time dreamed he had in him. The title gave the grammar patrol fits. Strictly speaking, it should be “Lie Lady Lie,” which sounds awful, as if he’s saying his lady is a compulsive liar. Sing it like that and you can kiss your hit record goodbye—along with your street cred.

Tom Stern

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2016, at 5:55 pm

15 Comments on Pop Tunes and Grammar

15 responses to “Pop Tunes and Grammar”

  1. Sara Kozel says:

    Here are two that have always driven me crazy:
    “Me and you and you and me; No matter how they tossed the dice It had to be. The only one for me is you; And you for me. So happy together”
    Both are “for me” and it should read: “The only one for me is you; and me for you”
    Then there is: “You’re so vain, you prob’ly think this song is about you.” Well, this is not grammar, but if he thinks the song is about him (which it is), then he is not vain, he is correct.

  2. Willow Feller says:

    My pet song peeve isn’t from a pop song, but an old classic. I cringe every time we sing “Amazing Grace” in church and proclaim in the fifth verse, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.” Aaahhh–no FEWER days, right?

  3. Allan M. says:

    In both the original and your “preferred/corrected” rendition of Touch Me, shouldn’t “’till” be “’til?” The original word is until and the apostrophe replaces “un.”

  4. Kathleen D. says:

    And what about radio and TV commercials?????

    And what about pronunciations? I recently heard a network journalist pronounce the last name of the Prime Minister of Japan as if it were the same as President Lincoln’s first name. No, it wasn’t a robo voice, it was a real, live, well-known and highly respected (and highly paid) news anchor. Shouldn’t we as consumers of the nightly news expect a bit more?

    Thank you,
    A devoted follower of your illuminating column, and in fond memory of Jane Straus.

  5. Kevin M. says:

    I commenced my schooling in 1960 in a small one teacher school. Most students including me used ain’t. A new teacher had each of us write out the word on paper, take it outside, set fire to the paper with a match and then bury the ashes. I have not used ain’t again.

  6. John M. says:

    How about John Mellencamp’s hit “Little Pink Houses?” I cringe every time I hear “and there’s winners, and there’s losers.” When did we stop caring whether the conjugation of the verb matches the predicate’s plurality? There is winners? There is losers?

    In Spanish, the word “hay” is used for as the same verb (there is/are) and no distinction is made between singular and plural predicates. Is that where we’re going in English too?

    There’re so many people that get it wrong these days, that I hear it from my own mouth sometimes. Argghh!

  7. John H. says:

    After taking the most current quiz, I need to ask, is the line from the 23rd Psalm grammatically correct ?

    23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. … Psalm 23:2 Hebrew beside waters of rest.

  8. Eva Robertson says:

    I am curious about the last example you give of a pop tune mangling a grammar rule: “Lay, Lady, Lay”. Mightn’t the title be correct if you read it as employing a transitive verb, i.e., “Lay yourself down, Lady, lay yourself down”?

    And for that matter, what do we think of the prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep”?

    And as I write this e-mail, I recall a conversation I recently had with my son. He said his English teacher told him that you never put a period or any punctuation inside quotation marks! That is surely wrong. What is she trying to teach the students? I learned (and continue to see the practice in print) that punctuation goes inside quotation marks. I know there are exceptions, e.g. (as used in this e-mail), when you are asking a question about a quote, rather than quoting someone asking a question. Are there more exceptions?

    Thanks!

    • Yes, lay is correct in both cases.

      The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and our Rule 4 of Quotation Marks all state that periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. This is an American English rule. As you pointed out, question marks are treated differently.

  9. John Lee says:

    Let’s not forget Pink Floyd’s “we don’t need no education” or Paul McCartney’s “. . . and in this ever-changing world in which we live in.”

  10. Anita Di Marco says:

    Your articles are clear, humorous and deal with the subtleties of the language. Thank you for such a useful tool.

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