Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Proofread your favorite songs!

While listening to "Just One of Those Things" this week ("It was just one of those things ... One of those bells that now and then rings"; the last word should be ring; the subject, those bells, is plural), I thought, "What other songs commit sins that would earn the lyricist or singer a slap on the wrist from a fastidious editor?

The two I always notice are "Bitch," in which Mick Jagger sings that his heart is beating louder than "a big bass drum," pronouncing bass as if he meant the fish rather than the deep musical tone, and "Jet," in which Paul McCartney thought the major was a lady suffragette, pronouncing the last syllable with great emphasis and with a hard g. (I presume the mispronunciation is by way of establishing emphatic contrast with the j sound of Jet at the beginning of the line and is therefore deliberate. I mean, the man's a knight of the British Empire. He has to be able to speak proper English, doesn't he?)

What such transgressions do your favorite songs commit in the name of poetic, melodic, or lyrical license?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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44 Comments:

Blogger Matthew E said...

McCartney again, "Live and Let Die": "This ever-changing world in which we live in".

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a good one. I should have thought of "world in which we live in" myself ... unless he's really singing "world in which we're living." Let me check.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nope, it's "world in which we live in." McCartney ought to be in a hall of fame for this sort of thing.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

Hate to be a quibbler here, but the lyrics are grammatically correct. The subject is "one," a singular subject, therefore "rings" is correct.

"Those bells" is the object of the preposition "of."

However, your point is well-taken. Grammatical errors are found frequently.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hate to disagree, but I'm right. The larger point, though, is that Cole Porter was a skilled enough lyricist to capitalize on the confusion.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In the absence of reputable souces immediately at hand, a quick search online reveals that, while there is disagreement on the matter, people who think about such matters seem to agree for the most part that a prepositional phrase can function as the subject.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, check out this link to an article called "Just One of Those Things."

January 25, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The subject is "one". For Pete's sake!

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., read the article to which I link in the comment above yours for an explanation of the contrary, traditional, and -- for now -- still correct view.

January 25, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

One of those bells that now and then rings

'One bell that now and then rings' would be fine, but if you use the construction 'one of', the subject does seem to slip almost imperceptibly from the one bell to the group of bells that one bell belongs to, and therefore should take a plural.

Not that it matters a damn.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right, and it does matter a damn. Maybe.

I used to say that language is not like a sport that has a codified set of rules. In baseball, three strikes, and you're out, not two, and not four. In language, what is correct today may be wrong in five, 10, 50 or 200 years.

The matter under discussion here is one of those rules that now and then change.

January 25, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Not wishing to muddy the waters, Peter, but what is the subject of 'one of those bells is broken'?

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The subject is "one of those bells."

And you do so want to muddy the waters.

January 25, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

On second thoughts I'm thinking this 'one of' business is a little bit complicated. Take this sentence:

He is one of ten people who has/have been arrested.

I'd certainly go with the plural there. But then take this sentence:

Emirates Airline is one of a half dozen airlines that cultivate/cultivates an elegant image for its cabin crew.

The singular sounds much more natural there and that's what I would use.

Thos examples are taken from the NYT. The copy editors there are on your side.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The copy editors there are likely former colleagues of mine. One of the New York Times' mistakes in recent years is that it passed up the chance to hire me. It prefers quieter help.

A complicating factor occurred to me after I posted my previous comment. British English will use a plural verb with a collective singular noun where American English would use a singular verb. That is, an English newspaper will write "Manchester United are poised atop the league table" or "The government are prepared to concede the point," where an American paper would use "is" in both cases. I don't know which usage Irish English favors, but at the very least, I suspect Irish readers and speakers are more familiar with the British way than we North Americans are.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger C.B. James said...

I hate to quibble, no I don't...

The lyric is "It was just one of those things, one of those bells..." 'It' implies a singular subject, one particular bell in this case, referring the the little fling the song is about.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger C.B. James said...

And I like

"Is you is or is you ain't my baby?"

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B,: Anyone who posts in this string loves to quibble, possibly above all other things.

You're absolutely right that "it" implies a singular subject, but the predicate of that subject is "one of those bells that now and then ring." Within that phrase, "those bells" turns around and fuctions as a (plural) subject that takes a plural verb.

Cole Porter's English professors at Yale, could they speak from the Great Beyond, would tell you I'm right grammatically. Am I right poetically? Lyrically? It's listener's choice.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Maybe Jagger was thinking about a drum made of fish skin.

Peter is right about the whole "one of those bells" argument. But then he should be.

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course! He got the idea when Keith Richard was practicing his scales on guitar.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, this discussion shows some of the interesting ways that people deal with language change. Here's what I mean: Some sentences that are correct according to rules traditionally taught in school sound stilted today, "Whom do you love?", for example, is "correct" according to rules dictating that the object comes first in a question and that "whom" is the objective form of "who." But the "correct" form sounds like crap, so virtually no one uses it anymore. Instead, we join Ronnie Hawkins and joyously say "Who do you love?" and nobody bothers to come up with rules to explain why; we just say it that way.

"One of those things that," takes a plural verb, according to traditional rules; there's no argument about this. The traditional rules are clear. As with "Whom do you love?", the correct form sounds odd to some ears, so people use a singular verb instead. But because the new, "wrong" form is not yet as widely accepted as interrogative who instead of whom, speakers and writers go back and form rules to justify the new usage. In time, these rules may be codified as correct in schoolbooks. But not yet!

January 26, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think we need a drum crash with a cymbal effect right about now.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or a long cane with a big hook on the end of it.

January 26, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I just like to be right. But then so does Peter.

I'm with Solo (and CB James). The context makes it clear. And then you're dealing with verse, rhyming verse. Different rules apply there anyway.

January 26, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I'm not really a good person to be with because I can change my mind in an instant. Not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

If 'one of' is followed by a relative clause beginning with 'who' or 'that' then it's perfectly reasonable, as Peter says, to demand a plural. If there's no relative clause then 'one' is indeed the subject.

But I can't see that it's an important transgression. If one uses the singular rather than the plural, the meaning will be no less clear.

I would consider such distinctions stuffiness, like saying 'no jeans here', or 'I'm sorry, sir, we can't let you in without a tie'.

January 26, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

:) Hah, Solo, you've never sat through a conference of English profs devising some document.
However, I meant the idea that context may influence the reading of a sentence.

January 26, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

:) Hah, Solo, you've never sat through a conference of English profs devising some document

May God protect me from all evil.

You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldn't get much higher

Come on baby, light my fire.

Would you hang The Doors, Peter, for not using the subjunctive?

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you're changing the subject. You're right, of course, that different rules man apply in verse, as my comments make clear. In this case, the traditionally incorrect rings makes a slightly better rhyme with things, and this Cole Porter fan will not begrudge Mr. Porter the lapse.

My claim to be right applies only to the sentence's construction according to traditional rules. I make no claim about whether bending that rule in a given context may be the right thing to do. And I understand, of course, that if speakers of English continue to interpret "one" as the subject, incorrect as they may be according to those rules, the rules will change.

More to the point, if I ever copyedited one of your books and that book contained a "one of those that + singular verb" sentence, the editing program I use would allow you to reject the change with the simple tap of a key.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'd say you understand and, more important, apply the distinction perfectly. I would add, though, that restaurants that insist gentlemen wear jackets used to (and may still) keep a stock of jackets on hand for diners who arrive without their own.

I'd say that we have a group of intelligent, literate users of English here and that the disdain for the grammatical rule in question is an example of language change in action.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'd hang the Doors for a lot of things, but not that. I've occasionally rewritten song verses to reflect "correct" grammar as an a humorous exercise, and I know how ridiculous the result can be, But I think the distinction between formal prose and other sorts of speech and writing is worth maintaining, and this includes correct application of traditional grammatical rules.

January 26, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

While listening to "Just One of Those Things" this week

I'm guessing Mel Torme, but with little expectation of being right, given how many singers have covered that song.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can't even remember whose version it was; it was playing in a public place. The singer may have been Frank Sinatra.

I love Ella Fitzgerald's renditions of Cole Porter, but when it comes to lyrics that are obviously tailored to the demands of melody but still sound as is they were being spoken naturally, the greatest was Johnny Mercer.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

This is way off topic but this morning I just finished The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen III Century 1969 which has a really interesting cameo featuring Jack Carter from Jack's Return Home and Get Carter.

I know you've posted about League before (at least I have that memory) and I think you'd like this. It's VERY British but I don't think the refs would baffle someone of your Anglo erudition.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, Jack Carter! I was wary of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen after the first two books, but a Jack Carter appearance makes me want to read more. Hmmm, I am dangerously close to a comics shop now.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I turn my back for a few months, and the neighborhood comics shop up and closes its doors. It was a small branch of a larger store in another part of town. I hope it just consolidated at the other location rather than going out of business.

January 26, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

And in League III part 1 we get Mack The Knife and Raffles as characters which is pretty cool.

If I have a criticism of League III its that Alan Moore has become a little too referential. If he keeps it up he has a gdanger of turning into a comic book Thomas Pynchon.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, that wouldn't be entirely a bad thing, at least from your point of view, would it?

A bit off topic, but I learned to appreciate Moore as a writer when I tried to read a volume of the Top Ten comic that he had not written. It was so much worse than the Moore stories, so bogged down in clumsy expository prose, that I could not finish it. And I love the Moore Top Tens.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its a fair point, but to be honest when I read a comic book I really dont need to be dashing off to Wikipedia every five minutes.

The good thing I suppose is that it will hold up on rereading which is pretty rare in a comic.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

an example is this guy:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnacki

I thought I knew my early history of crime fiction, but Moore clearly knows more than I do.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I never felt that I had to look things up when reading Moore, but now I will. Thanks a lot.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did, however, get me thinking about investigating some of the original stories featuring those characters.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, a fictional supernatural detective whose creator invented an electric pentacle, eh?

January 27, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I should say that Jack Carter has been drawn as Michael Caine so whether Moore read the original book or not is questionable. Both he and the artist definitely were influenced by Get Carter. Carter gets involved in the story when a Brian Jones like figure mysteriously drowns in a swimming pool.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the edition of Jack's Return Home that I read was published under the title Get Carter and had a picture of Michael Caine on the cover, so Moore and his artist would not be the only ones. Damn, I'm sorry that comics shop near me had closed. I'll ahve to go somewhere else to buy LOEG III elsewhere.

January 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, I.J.! And to think that you once congratulated me for using none with a singular verb.

January 28, 2012  

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