Saturday, February 26, 2011

Random thoughts on National Grammar Day and Joan Osborne's One of Us


Is National Grammar Day a good thing?

March 4 is National Grammar Day in the United States. Not being American and therefore not having experienced it first hand, I don't know if that's a good thing or not. If it's used as an opportunity to explore the way grammar works, and how what we regard as acceptable grammar changes over time, that's great.
But if it's just another excuse to trot out all the old half-baked grammar shibboleths, to be endlessly repeated on forums and notice boards by oh-so-clever adolescents, I'm not so sure.
And my doubts seem to be shared by Gabe Doyle at the linguistics blog, Motivated Grammar, where he lists some of the perfectly acceptable grammatical forms which are considered by some to be 'bad grammar'. (There was one of them in that last sentence, by the way). It includes one of my favourites - singular they - one of the most useful, and I would argue, elegant constructions around. See links below.
Second conditional exercise - Joan Osborne's One of Us

Update - There is now a post with the full song available here

This year's celebrations are being hosted by Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl. On her site she features what she calls 'The Songwriting Hall of Shame', saying:
'If "Buy You a Drank" and "Imma Be" make you crazy, you'll love to hate our cringe-worthy playlist'.
Now I know this is all very tongue-in-cheek, and Grammar Girl is far from being a pedant, but does this sort of finger-pointing really augur well as to what the spirit of National Grammar Day is likely to be. Must grammar always be associated with the red pencil?
The language used in the two songs she mentions in that introduction is such non-standard English and so off the wall that I wouldn't even know where to start to evaluate their grammar. So let's look at another of her choices:

Joan Osborne's One of Us and Second Conditional.

Update - There is now a post with the full song available here

To my mind this is a particularly inappropriate choice to find fault with, because as any EFL / ESL teacher will see immediately, this is an excellent song for teaching Second Conditional, containing five perfect examples. Let's look at them now.

Exercise - Second Conditional

All these sentences taken from the song are in Second Conditional. If you need reminding about Second Conditional, English Club has a good explanation. Fill in the gaps with suitable words, using the words in brackets where given. Note that the if clause does not always come first.
1.If God (have) a name what it be?
2.And (you call) it to his face if you (be faced) with Him in all His glory.
3.What (you ask) if you (have) just one question?
4.If God (have) a face what (it look) like?
5.And (you want) to see, if seeing (mean) that you would have to believe in things like heaven ...
(See below for answers)
So what is the terrible problem with this song? I can only imagine it is this line:
What if God was one of us?
And what is wrong with that, you ask. From my point of view absolutely nothing, but for some it commits the heinous crime of using indicative 'was' instead of the subjunctive 'were'. In the UK at least, 'was' is perfectly acceptable in informal usage. I'm pretty sure I use both, depending on how the fancy takes me. According to the Bad Linguistics blog all three contenders for the job of Prime Minister of the UK in last year's elections said 'if I was your PM in three weeks' time, instead of 'if I were your PM in three weeks time'. So we're in good company. Maybe. Here is my idea of how these two forms fit into the different registers
FormalNeutralInformal
If I were / If he were
If I was / If he was
Swan puts it like this:
We often use were instead of was after if. This is common in both formal and informal styles. In a formal style were is much more common than was, and many people consider it more correct, especially in American English.
One of her other choices is the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction (I can't get no), presumably for its double negative in the chorus. But this is a feature of some dialects of London, where the Stones come from. This song, by the way, 'is considered to be one of the all-time great rock songs. In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine placed "Satisfaction" in the second spot on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, while in 2006 it was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.' (Wikipedia)
Next song up is Dylan's Lay Lady Lay. We're back with old lay, lie problem (see link below). But when it comes to Art versus Grammar, especially when the artist is one of the greatest popular poets of the twentieth century, I know where my loyalties lie. What was he meant to sing? - Lie down, Lady, lie down. It doesn't have quite the same ring, does it? It would sound as though he was talking to his dog. (That was the second example of my 'bad grammar').
Imagine if conventional poetry was put to this test. E.E.Cummings, well he obviously hadn't the first clue about punctuation, and what's that last line all about?.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did
And as for Wordsworth, he didn't even know about sentence order.
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
Ah, but that's poetic license! These are mere songs.
And the other songs on her blacklist:
  • Paul McCartney and Wings - Live and Let Die
  • Bo Diddley - Who do you love?
  • Steve Miller Band - Take the Money and Run
Wouldn't it have been so much better to see in these songs a positive aid to understanding grammar. Some ideas that could be explored:
  • The use of Second Conditional in One of Us
  • Why Can't get no satisfaction is so much stronger a line than Can't get any satisfaction
  • A look at aspects of London colloquial English:
    • Double negatives - I ain't never seen him
    • 3rd form for Past Simple - I done it yesterday
    • Question tags with statements - I met this man, didn't I?
  • What were Dylan's other options in Lay, Lady Lay, how would they have sounded?
  • The long history of intransitive 'lay'.
  • How does Take the Money and Run differ from Standard American English
  • How artists bend the rules - artistic licence.
  • American vernacular in Bo Diddley's Who do you love
  • Pop / rock artists using the language of their fans.
Now that might have been worth celebrating. It's not these songs that make me cringe, but the idea of a grammar 'Songwriting Hall of Shame', especially one that contains such good songs.

My 'bad' grammar

Some people would consider that the words in brackets should replace those in bold.
  1. some of the perfectly acceptable grammatical forms which are considered by some to be 'bad grammar' - (that)
  2. It would sound as though he was talking to his dog. - (were)

Answers - Click on 'Show' and return to the exercise.

Related posts

Links

Google Search - the 'offending' songs

1 comment:

Betty Baker said...

Grammar is the systematic study and description of a language.


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