Grammar Warnings

Posted December 2, 2000 at 5:42 pm 1 Comment

Given the strict regulatory policies about what words are allowed on the radio, I’m surprised that standards are so lax when it comes to grammar.  It’s no wonder that high school students have difficulty with English composition when you consider the number of popular songs that blatantly abuse the language.  It seems, for instance, that very few musicians care about using the proper prepositions.  Consider the hit song Dammit by Blink 182:

I’ll turn to a friend,
Someone that understands,
And seeks to the master plan.

Blink 182 is a punk rock band, so perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect them to understand the distinction between “who” and “that”.  But this alarming grammatical incompetence extends into country music as well, as evidenced by this except from the Shania Twain’s Still the One:

You’re still the one I run to,
The one that I belong to.

I will concede that the phrase “You’re still the one to whom I belong” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.  But this is no excuse for setting a bad example for a generation of children.  Thanks to Shania’s casual attitude toward preposition-object agreement, her fans will fail to grasp one of the basic concepts of English grammar.

Conjugating in the subjunctive tense also seems to be a serious point of difficulty for many modern musicians.  On his top selling album The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem raps:

I am whatever you say I am.
If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?

Don’t get me wrong — I’m often in awe of Eminem’s lyrical flow.  But I don’t think it would kill him to say “If I weren’t, then why would I say I was?”  And Joan Osborne made an even more egregious error with her song What If God Was One of Us.  It indicates a troubling level of ignorance on the part of the music industry when the very title of a hit song is flagrantly grammatically flawed.

Explicit lyrics don’t bother me; I’m not offended by any particular words or their meanings.  I am bothered by poor grammar, however.  Perhaps the music industry should add new parental advisory labels on their albums that warn of improper language structure.  For example, a warning label should definitely be slapped on Emilia’s latest album.  Consider this excerpt from the chart-topping single Big Big Girl:

I do do feel
That I do do will
Miss you much.
At least Emilia has an excuse: her first language is Swedish.  Vonda Shepard has no such excuse, and her album is even worse.  Consider the song Baby, Don’t You Break My Heart Slow.  Not only does the title indicate Shepard’s ignorance of the distinction between adjectives and adverbs, but within the song itself, she continually croons, “I was believing in you,” making the perplexing decision to use the imperfect tense when the past tense would clearly have been more appropriate within the context of the lyrics.

I propose that along with the policy of adding warning labels to songs with bad grammar, the music industry should encourage artists to create vocabulary-building songs that use a variety of lesser-known words.  Although Shania Twain may not select her prepositions correctly, she is to be commended for the lyrics to Man, I Feel Like a Woman, in which she sings:

The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a good time.

The same can be said of Blink 182, who redeemed themselves somewhat for their earlier grammatical oversight with the lyrics to All the Small Things:

Always, I know,
You’ll be at my show,
Watching, waiting, commiserating.

Kudos especially to Mariah Carey, who uses the words “relinquish”, “incessantly”, and “audacity” all in the same song. She should release an album designed to help high school students prepare for the SAT.

Back when I was in high school, I wrote a rap about the importance of proper grammar, and performed it with my friend John. You can download it here.  I realize that the humor is pretty immature, but you have to keep in mind that I was only 16 years old at the time.

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  1. I remember one second year ESL student came to me & asked, “What’s the difference between ‘who’s’ & ‘whose’? I was so impressed I wanted to jump on my chair. Of course Tom Cruise was light years away from meeting Katie Holmes at that time. There are native English speaking adults who never, in their entire lifetime, differentiate the two. This thirst for English mastery is absent in America today. Children & parents throw language around indiscretely, imposing the listener with some pretty pathetic lack of knowledge. We’ve shunned the reality that a language spoken effectively.. eloquently, is the first giant step to success.
    I cringe when I hear English butchered, and I hear it spoken poorly,often. The syntax & slang I hear screams apathy, lack of emphasis from teachers & parents & loss of concern for the most important skill one can achieve; the connection with other human beings through transmission of words.
    The most abused favorite –
    “Where’s it AT?” UUUHHHH! Why has this become acceptable?? No one in any other English speaking country would dare impair a sentence in that way.
    Am I part of a lost generation of Schoolhouse Rock afficionados? I attribute a great deal of poor language skill to music – yes, that poetic license thing. Clear, concise communication is beautiful & admirable in any language.

    Comment by marie — November 11, 2006 #

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