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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Words and Language Toolbox

When grammar has an artistic license

By Paula LaRocque

There's an old Bill Trader song I like a lot. It’s been recorded by artists as various as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jo Stafford, Hank Snow — even by Petula Clark, in French. It goes:

Pardon me, if I’m sentimental

When we say goodbye

Don’t be angry with me should I cry

When you’re gone, yet I’ll dream a little

Dream as years go by

Now and then there’s a fool such as I

I like that song in part because it’s grammatical — a sometimes rarity in the world of pop music. And I bring it up because of this line in a news feature: His defense? That we should expect misbehavior from a fool such as him.

That last word should be “he”: A fool such as he [is].

We don’t expect to see better grammar in the world of poetic license than in the world of journalism. But here’s another careful lyric from Tony Bennett (words and music by Sadie Vimmerstedt and Johnny Mercer):

I wanna be around to pick up the pieces

When somebody breaks your heart

Some somebody twice as smart as I

These lyricists choose the correct pronoun “I”: Some somebody twice as smart as I [am].

There is such a thing as artistic license. The usually impeccable Cole Porter wrote:

It was just one of those things

Just one of those crazy flings

One of those bells that now and then rings

See anything wrong? That last line should read “one of those bells that now and then ring.” A common kneejerk assumption is that one is the subject for the verb rings, but it isn’t; bells is that subject. One rings; two ring. Or to put it another way: “Of all the bells that now and then ring, this was one.”

That’s a common error, as I said, but for all I know, it’s a purposeful error here, made not in ignorance but with poetic license. Porter is rhyming with things and flings, and he wants a perfect rhyme, not a ham-fisted “near-rhyme.” So he chooses to keep the S.

Some ungrammatical lyrics make us cringe, but others? Not really. Would we change them? Not really. Lobo’s Me and you and a dog named Boo — should that be “you and I and a dog named Ty”?

Would we change “I got rhythm”? “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”? “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”? (However! “Hound Dog” does have a lyric that’s so cringe-worthy you can’t even sing along without guilt: “They said you was high class.”)

Speaking of cringe-worthy: I didn’t think I’d ever listen to The Doors again when I heard: I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.

For you and I? Ack! They also sang: If they say I never loved you/You know they are a liar.

They are a liar? But wait. In defense of The Doors, what can they do? “They is a liar”? One fix is “They are liars,” but it’s missing a syllable. “They are dang liars”?

The thing that makes you crazy is it’s usually easy to fix lyric errors, if only the writers knew they were errors! Songwriter Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” says: I’m going to miss you like a child misses their blanket.

That’s bad but is readily fixed by changing the last five awkward words to “children missing their blankets.”

So, yes, there is such a thing as artistic license. But it does imply some artistry. Lacking artistry, in song as well as in prose, we’re left with the intolerable.

Case in point: Baby I’m a want you/Baby I’m a need you — lyrics by (gasp!) Kenny Rogers, who adds: Lately I’m a prayin’/That you’ll always be a stayin’.

So if we need another syllable, we just put in “a”? This isn’t grammar, no. It’s not even English. But what is it? Italian?

For the truly intolerable, you couldn’t do better than the following from Tinchy Stryder and Tim McGraw. From Stryder’s “Take Me Back” (Taio Cruz lyrics) — aka “I’ll do anything for a rhyme”:

I’m sorry I misleaded you pretty lady

I’m sorry I mistreated you pretty lady

At least Cruz had a reason to create the non-word “misleaded.” Here, McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” makes an equally intolerable choice but without a reason:

Spent 48 dollars last night at the county fair

I throwed out my shoulder but I won her that teddy bear ...

Throwed.You’re kidding, right?

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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