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When Bad Grammar Happens To (Mostly) Good Music

Contributor Faith Salie asks: Has bad grammar in music ever driven you crazy?

Friday, February 15, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Time to let your inner schoolteacher out and kvetch about bad grammar. (flickr/proctorarchives)

We each have songs that, to our particular ear, sound like nails on a chalkboard. And some songs should be deconstructed on a chalkboard…for bad grammar. I’m not talking about slang, colloquialisms, or innovative language. I’m not being punctilious about making sure you don’t end a lyric line with a preposition. In fact, the first dance song at my wedding reception was “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” I think it would have lost a little something if it were “To You It’d Be So Nice To Come Home.” Nobody wants to sound sort of like Yoda.

What I’m talking about is crappy syntax. Artistic license is one thing, language mangling is another. Bad grammar is jarring; it takes me out of the flow of the song.

Here’s how I define unnecessarily bad grammar in a song: when it wouldn’t change the rhyme scheme to use the correct word or when the syntax results from being lyrically lazy.

Like this, from the Paula Cole song “I Don’t Wanna Wait”:

"So open up your morning light / And say a little prayer for I"

That lyric makes me say a prayer for the objective case.

Bryan Adams also pulls one of these in “Run To You”:

"She says her love for me could never die / But that'd change if she ever found out about you and I"

Or maybe he’s just speaking Canadian.

I’m not a lyricist, but I am a writer. If there’s a sentence I’m composing that bends the laws of language or just doesn’t sound right, I rewrite it until it does. Sometimes that means scrapping it entirely and expressing myself differently. In the case of musicians like the ones above, I’d prescribe a little more creative diligence rather than copping out by using the easy (and egregiously incorrect) rhyme of “I.”

Here are a few more:

“Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton

We all remember the 6th grade lesson about “lay” vs. “lie.”

“Rich Girl” by Gwen Stefani:

"If I was rich girl (na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na nah) / See, I'd have all the money in the world, if I was a wealthy girl"

If she were a rich girl, she might buy a tutorial in subjunctive.

On the other hand, Beyoncé gets big credit for using the subjunctive in "If I Were a Boy."

And then there’s…

“Play Me” by Neil Diamond:

"Songs she sang to me, Songs she brang to me"

Of course this is from the man who brought us these lyrics, which are grammatically sound, but accidentally hilarious:

"I am I said / To no one there / And no one heard at all not even the chair"

Now let’s talk subject/verb agreement:

“If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback:

"If everyone shared and swallowed their pride"

“Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen:

"Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed"

I feel Leonard Cohen is somehow blameless and Nickelback is not, because they’re, well, Nickelback.

But look, everyone’s entitled to their — oops, I mean her or his opinion.

Does musical bad grammar bug you? What songs are on your Most Wanted list for bad grammar? Leave us a comment below.

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Comments [15]

Max Power from Orange Country, CA

Jack Daniels by Eric Church...love the song - hate the grammar.
"It ain't hard to tell who got the best of who"
I can forgive the ain't because it's a country song, but the second who should be whom.

Jun. 11 2013 04:58 PM
Athena

"You and me will write a bad romance"

Lady Gaga

The worst part about this song is that by saying "me" instead of "I" adds absolutely nothing to the song, nor rhymes with anything at all...

May. 28 2013 10:30 PM
Paul from Stuy Town, NYC

Heard the broadcast last night, and today in a café my favorite example is playing:

Frank Sinatra, The Lady is a Tramp

"...She's broke and it's OK" (pronounced oke)

I guess technically it's not grammatically incorrect. But no one ever says oke instead of okay. I focus on that absurd lyric whenever I hear the song.

Mar. 05 2013 11:18 AM
Fitzcarl from NYC

Bob Marley rules!
gwan wit yo' self!

Mar. 05 2013 04:26 AM
LInda Griggs from LES & AP

"If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar"
the Doors

Feb. 20 2013 05:27 PM

"You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet"

Feb. 20 2013 11:44 AM
Rich Perez from Long Island

I hear relatively innocuous complaints like the use of split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition. Want a reality check on what's really egregious? Try listening to Keith Murray, "The Most Beautifullest Thing in this World".

Feb. 20 2013 07:42 AM
Max Stewart from Glenville, WV

Diana Ross in the theme from Mahogany: Do you know where you're going to?

Feb. 19 2013 08:28 AM
Robert Meade from Westchester County

I also cringe at Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay." I know the long "a" sound is nice assonance, but it's such bad grammar. Maybe "Lie Lady Lie" wouldn't have been a hit.

Feb. 16 2013 02:13 PM
Marcia Ian from Metuchen, NJ

This agreement error in Metallica's "Master of Puppets" makes me want to whip out my battle axe: "Master of puppets are pulling the strings...."

Feb. 15 2013 11:03 PM
Margery Rothenberg from Suffern, NY

Thank goodness I'm not the only one who is troubled by poor grammar in popular music! First of all, Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady Lay" continues with "Lay across one big brass bed." It should be "lie." This error is the most common in all popular music. The 2006 song by Snow Patrol called "Chasing Cars" gets it wrong only half the time "If I just lay here, would you lie with me..." And the ever popular Maroon 5's song "Through With You" offers up "As you lay in bed." Gosh, is it really so hard for them to get this little word right?

Feb. 15 2013 10:24 PM
Harry Zernike from New York City

The Doors:
"I'm gonna love you / 'til the stars fall from the sky / for you and I".
Fingernails on a chalkboard! How many times have I endured this on the radio?
Recently I heard somewhere that Jim Morrison thought some of his own songs were really stupid, and that he couldn't bear to play them live. I think this is a strong candidate for that category.
"Stronger than dirt!"

Feb. 15 2013 09:35 PM
Jen Adams from New York City

The King of trying-hard-but-not-getting-it-right is the perversely sublime autodidact Morrissey. He sang to us of "Cemetry" gates, and he asked a compelling rhetorical question; "Why pamper life's complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?" Why? Why not ponder them instead? Die-hard fans insist he meant what he said, but I'm one who still cringes, every time I hear the lyric. Around the same time, very early on in his career, in an interview he said something about how great it would be to go down in "the annals of history." But he gave the word "annals" a strangely saucy pronunciation... one wonders if the error was intententional, but it probably wasn't.

Feb. 15 2013 09:24 PM
Jim Berrie from River Edge NJ

My nomination for worst grammar in a song lyric: The Kinks' "All Day and All Night": "The only time I feel all right is by your side."

Feb. 15 2013 09:23 PM
Devin Stone from Denver, CO

It kills me every time I hear the second "in" in Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" line "But if this ever changing world in which we live in (Makes you give in and cry)". Too many prepositions!

Feb. 15 2013 04:38 PM

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