Country Grammar: When Bad Grammar Happens to (Mostly) Good Songs

Printby: Leslie Hale
Contributing Columnist

As an English teacher, reader/”writer” and general language nerd, I am often accused of being a “grammar Nazi”. I feel this is an unfair and inaccurate label.

Language is meant to be used; its purpose is communication, and if it serves that purpose, I’m really not overly concerned with whether it was done “correctly”. To me, language is more about function than form. You will never catch me using the word “whom” in everyday conversation, nor will you find me clutching my pearls when I hear someone ending a sentence with a preposition, or saying “they” to refer to an ambiguous individual rather than the grammatically correct “he or she”.  And God forbid I ever become one of those people who take borderline maniacal delight in pointing out other people’s typos.

That said, there are some things that cross the line, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it’s just me nitpicking at arbitrary things that for whatever reason just get under my skin more than others, or maybe there are some rules that just really, truly shouldn’t be broken. Whatever it is, I do have my personal grammatical pet peeves, and nowhere are they as prevalent as in song lyrics.

Let’s start with one that’s always gotten under my skin: the “beloved” patriotic anthem “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood.

The chorus begins with the line: “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” This is a classic case of disagreement between clauses. Lee is proud to be an American. So far so good. The problem starts at the word “where”, whose placement in the sentence indicates that it is a modifier for the first clause. (For those of you who are lost: simply put, a clause is the group of words before or after the comma.) The subject of the first clause is the narrator himself (“I”), which means that the modifier “where” is referring to the narrator – which doesn’t make sense. Of course, we all know that Americans are from America, so it’s not like we don’t understand what he’s talking about. But the lyrics could just as easily have said “I’m proud to live in America, where at least I know I’m free” OR “I’m proud to be an American, ‘cause at least I know I’m free.” Either option would get the same point across while sounding better and not compromising lyrical sentiment.

A similar offense can be found in the Red Hot Chili Peppers classic “Under the Bridge”, where Anthony Kiedis sings: “…the city I live in, the City of Angels; lonely as I am, together we cry.”

He says “we” even though he is technically only referring to the city itself. Of course, I suppose you can’t really expect too much from a band that had the audacity to rhyme “California” with “mourn ya”, but what can I say – I’ve always been a Chili Peppers fan, despite the crap I get every time I admit that.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, I love Taylor Swift. I’m not kidding. I think her first two albums were fantastic, and while I’m not as crazy about her more recent endeavors, I still think she is a gifted songwriter who gets more flack than she deserves. That said, though, she does have some pretty bad grammatical habits. Taylor is the queen of my biggest pet peeve when it comes to songwriting, which is switching back and forth between first, second, and/or third person within a song for no reason. Taylor is guilty of this in several of her songs, but I think the biggest offender is “Tim McGraw”.

The song begins with the line “He said the way my blue eyes shine put those Georgia stars to shame…” The entire first verse continues referring to the unnamed boy in the third-person (see also: “I was right there beside HIM”). But then, in the chorus, she sings, “When YOU think Tim McGraw, I hope YOU think my favorite song…” Taylor started off singing ABOUT the boy, then begins singing TO him. The most baffling thing about this choice is that it was entirely unnecessary. She could have just as easily said, “YOU said the way my blue eyes shine,” and “I was right there beside YOU”. I suppose I should cut her a little slack seeing as she was, like, five when this album came out. Still, I feel like someone should have caught this mistake and corrected it before the final cut of the song was recorded. Her cowriter? Producer? Mom? English teacher? Someone.

Another repeat offender is Maroon 5, whose 2004 hit “She Will be Loved” is such a cluster of person- and tense-changing insanity I don’t really even know where to begin.

Let’s break the lyrics down line-by-line in order to appreciate just how many things are wrong with this song:

Beauty queen of only 18, she had some problems with herself (third person, past tense)
He was always there to help her, she always belonged to someone else (third person, past tense. Also, who is “he”? He sounds like a good guy, but isn’t the narrator supposed to be the good guy? I’m confused already.)

I drove for miles and miles and wound up at your door (second person, past tense)
I’ve had you so many times but somehow I want more (second person, tense unclear)

I don’t mind spending every day out on your corner in the pouring rain (second person, present tense)
Look for the girl with the broken smile, ask her if she wants to stay a while (third person, present tense, and also WHO IS HE TALKING TO???)

And she will be loved… (third person, future tense)

The second verse is actually consistent (second person, present tense), but then all hell breaks loose in the bridge:

I know where you hide alone in your car (second person, present tense)
Know all of the things that make you who you are (second person, present tense)
I know that goodbye meant nothing at all (?????)
Comes back and begs me to catch her every time she falls (Third person, present tense. Unless maybe he’s talking about a different girl now? Who even knows anymore.)

It seems even my favorite band is not immune from this scourge of the songwriting world:

The problem arises in the second verse. The first line (“Lorrie said her family used to have a little money, and they still act like they do”) refers to Lorrie in the third-person. The rest of the verse, however, reverts back to second-person (“Your daddy don’t think I’m fit to sit in the same room with you…”) Also, while I’m nitpicking, it should be “the same room AS you”. But just to be clear, it’s a testament to my love for the Troubadours that I’m willing to forgive them of these sins. I mean, come on,  “Good Lord Lorrie” won New Slang’s inaugural Song Tournament. It’s safe to say these mistakes pale in comparison to the greatness of the song as a whole.

I’d like to wrap things up by recognizing a couple of songs who are actually Doing It Right. The first is a song that is all too often cited as containing a grave grammatical error, when actually the error is on the part of the listeners.

The common complaint is that McCartney sings “…but in this ever-changing world in which we live in”, which anyone with two functioning ears could tell you is not the case. He clearly says, “…in which we’re LIVIN’”. Even with Paul’s thick British accent, the “R” sound in “we’re” is present. There are plenty of things to criticize about Paul McCartney, but this isn’t one of them, so lay off the bloke.

Lastly, let’s talk about what is easily one of the best pop songs of the last decade, Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy”.

I should really be giving props to BC Jean, who penned the song and threw a hissyfit when she found out Beyoncé was releasing it as a single, which is about the craziest thing I can think of. If I wrote a song and Beyoncé was willing to LISTEN to it, let alone RELEASE it, I would collapse at her feet groveling about how I am unworthy and spend the rest of my days showering her in tokens of my never-ending devotion and gratitude.

But I digress. The point is, credit should be given where it’s due for the choice of using the subjunctive “were” in the song’s title. A lesser songwriter would have gone the colloquial route – “If I WAS A Boy”. Would I like this song any less if the lyrics said “was” instead of “were”? Probably not. Misuse (or lack of use) of the subjunctive mood is pretty low on my list of grammatical grievances. Still, it delights me to see the proper form used. I like to think that somewhere, sometime, a teen listened to this song and wondered why Beyoncé said “were” instead of “was”. And maybe that teen took out her iPhone and Googled it. And maybe, just maybe, that teen learned something about the subjunctive mood that day. What more could we possibly hope for?

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