The song comes on the radio — or, more likely now, on your iPod, Pandora, or Spotify. It’s undeniably catchy, and you’re singing along . . . until that one hitch. Adam Levine might be singing about “them moves like Jagger,” but what comes out of your mouth is “those moves like Jagger.”
Call it grammarian’s karaoke: that moment when you find yourself diverging from a song’s lyrics, not because you don’t know them, but because you’re fixing their grammar. Sure, not everyone does this; some folks can let a missed preposition or the wrong verb glide right by. But others — like the members of the Facebook group called “I Mentally Correct Ungrammatical Song Lyrics” — find them as impossible to ignore as a rock in the shoe.
We expect (and even demand) that poets will stretch and bend the language — we call it poetic license, and we issue those licenses right and left. (Some poets use theirs more than others. Emily Dickinson’s early critics labeled her verbs in lines such as “The Dust in Streets — go down — ” as “regrettable.”) So why don’t we extend the same privilege to song lyrics?
Wrong pronoun use in song lyrics triggers quite a bit of irritation: “And it’s over now for you and I” (Keren Ann, “For You And I”), “Till the stars fall from the sky, for you and I” (The Doors, “Touch Me”), “that would change if she ever found out about you and I” (Bryan Adams, “Run To You”). There’s the grating “Us girls we are so magical,” (Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl”) and “You and me could write a bad romance” (Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”). Even the anthem for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, “I Believe,” included the line “I believe in the power of you and I.”
The lack of the subjunctive seems to be a common sticking point for listeners. There are The Doors again, in “Light My Fire”: “You know that I would be a liar/ if I was to say to you,/ girl we couldn’t get much higher.” Some of the others most commented on online: “If I was the king of the world” (Three Dog Night, “Joy to the World”); “What if God was one of us?” (Joan Osbourne, “One of Us”); and “I wish I was special” (Radiohead, “Creep”). On the other hand, the subjunctive has been on the endangered-species list for decades, so it might be a bit much to ask pop stars to give it lyrical CPR.
But there are other verb problems, too. Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” both offend the ears of those who draw a distinction between lay and lie. “Songs she sang to me, songs she brang to me” from Neil Diamond’s “Play Me” makes some people feel Neil should have sacrificed the rhyme for the standard brought — although humorist Dave Barry is on record as a fan. Even Steve Miller fans who are fine with “the pompatus of love” sometime quail at “Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas/ You know he knows just exactly what the facts is” (Take the Money and Run).
Comparatively few people complain about lyrics confusing that and who. When I asked for examples of ungrammatical song lyrics a few weeks ago via Twitter, however, Peter Sokolowski, who is both a lexicographer and a jazz trumpeter and DJ, brought up Gershwin’s “The Gal That Got Away,” which Sinatra later recorded as “The Girl Who Got Away.” (“Correcting Gershwin? Nice woik if you can get it,” Peter wrote.)
A stranger misfire is when songwriters put in an extra preposition. That’s the issue in John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” in which he sang “I cannot forget from where it is that I come from.” Maybe if you’re lucky, you missed hearing what’s commonly considered one of the “worst Christmas songs of all time” these past few weeks, Andy Williams’s “Happy Holidays/It’s the Holiday Season,” which includes the line: “he’ll be comin’ down the chimney down!”
All this said, there are plenty of “ungrammatical” lyrics that don’t raise an eyebrow. See: “We Don’t Need No Education” (Pink Floyd); “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones); “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” (lyrics by Jerry Leiber); Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by The Schoolyard”; and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (Louis Jordan). These lyrics are the right kind of wrong. They’re either appropriately informal, or they’re the right nonstandard dialect of English. Rap and hip-hop songs tend to fall into this category, because they typically aren’t trying to be standard English and failing, but proceeding naturally within a vernacular English. Also, like Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely,” say, these songs are often intentionally playing with language.
Still, what’s with all the irritation? It may be that, these days, we expect our popular entertainment (unlike poetry, which we no longer consider popular) to be smooth and easily digestible, and any lump in the lyrical oatmeal sticks in our craws. The wrong word sounds a wrong note, if you will; to some listeners, it’s just as jarring. And, sadly, there is still no Auto-Tune for grammar.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.