Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Songs Wot Have Bad Grammar

Among my many bugbears in life – going to the hairdresser, the humble omelette, nouveau riche ponces, content warnings on blogs, working for a living – there is one that looms over them all like the Leaning Tower of Pez. Yes – improper grammar in music.

This plague of improper speech and incorrect English usage began (on record) in the early days of the blues – Robert Johnson being a prime example. In his intimate, soul-bearing songs, Johnson gives birth to the spate of poor grammar that was to infest the blues for the next 73 years. Take his song ‘Terraplane Blues’ as an example (correct grammar below):

I’m gon’h’ist your hood, mama
I’m bound to check your oil
Who been drivin’ my Terraplane now for
you-hoo since I been gone

(Should be):

I’m going to lift your hood, mama
I’m going to check your oil
Who has been driving the Terraplane for
you since I have been gone?

Appalling! Now, Mr. Johnson is, of course, exempt from blame. After faxing his soul off to Satan and single-handedly re-inventing the blues for an entire generation of bluesmen, he can be excused. What pumps my pistons, though, is when musicians can’t be bothered to check their grammar before singing their lyrics. Or, in some cases, when a band is so big no one has the balls to correct their crimes against English.

Case in point: the Beatles. Who doesn’t want to bitch-slap George for the missing O in ‘Love You To?’ And some of those song titles: 'Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!' What’s that exclamation point doing there, John? Yuck. Solo Paul McCartney was also criminal. From ‘Live and Let Die’:

But if this ever-changing
World in which we live in…

This can scar a young mind for life. One popular song from my childhood was Deacon Blue’s ‘Real Gone Kid’ which boasted the clunker: ‘I’ll do what I shoulda did.’ Likewise, my father’s country records, with all those horrible uses of ‘ain’t’ and ‘I knew that girl was you’ from the Sun Records bunch. It’s a miracle I didn’t turn out illiterate.

At least we don’t have the Fab Four to blame for the legendary "missing question mark" at the end of songs. This is a sickness. There are millions of songs that, for some inexplicable reason, pose a question but FAIL to use the question mark. ‘Why Did You Leave Me’ or ‘Why Do You Love Me’ being two random examples. Where did this hatred of question marks begin? Which anti-punctuation punk perpetrated this grammatical rape upon the art of song titles? If you find him, ask him (using a question mark).

Unfortunately, there are a million examples of wonky grammar in music I adore. Although these slip-ups don’t ruin the songs, they do demean the artist. Take Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ for example: ‘If you’re lookin’ to get silly you better go back to from where you came.’ Come on, Bob. Proofread your work, mate.

Eep. But I still adore the song. Even Vashti Bunyan, who can’t put a foot wrong and who is immortal, has bent the rules of grammar for her own gain. In ‘Come Wind, Come Rain’ she muddles a tense for the sake of a rhyme: ‘The grass has growed and it’s time we were on the road.’

So what is the point of this blog post? The point is, grammar mistakes for the sake of artistic daring are fine. In popular music, however – music the kiddies listen to in their bedrooms – the writers have a responsibility to at least check the grammar. Even if the songs are a steaming heap of generic old cake, AT LEAST take the time to correct the flippin’ grammar. And I don't mean on Microsoft Word.

I’m waggling my finger at YOU, record company execs.


  1. Amen. Amen. Amen. This grammarant is worthy of publishing.

    I don't see what's wrong with the Vashti Bunyan quote. Looks right to me. How would you say it? It's time we got back to work. Past tense is used in this construction.

  2. Surely the past tense of grow is "grown" in this instance? Which vagabonds use "growed" in sentences??

  3. Verification: Past participle of grow is indeed grown.

    I think SOME songwriters take liberty for reasons of rhyme, cadence, pentameter and the like, and some do it to create a FEEL (pick up a dialect--those country songs have bad grammar because all those people who do those idiotic things they write songs about have bad grammar)

    But generally I agree... if you're throwing it out there for general consumption, it ought have been proof read...

  4. Ha, I read "grown". Are you sure you didn't change that, or had I drunk too much wine last night? I thought you were referring to the second part of the sentence. I must get new glasses.

  5. Mark, I think you're related to an early childhood English teacher of mine. I wrote a short story, where an old man was sitting on his porch rambling. I used vernacular dialogue for him, and she red marked every word and failed me!

    I prefer my rock stars to be illiterate, it reminds me to keep perspective. Remember when Mick Jagger tried to get all intellectual in an interview with Dimbleby?

    Now, pick on the crap language usage in newspapers and journalism - I'll light the torch and bring the hanging rope!

  6. Tart: Definitely agree about songwriters using bad grammar on purpose, but that's a tricky feat to achieve!

    Chris: I need new specs too. We should go together.

    Mike: Boo! Evil, very confused and stupid teacher! Surely that was obvious? I'm the opposite: I prefer my rock stars intellectual but very bad communicators. And thanks for planning my next blog post.