Recently, a friend of mine posted this on my Facebook wall:
She obviously knows me well. I do correct people’s grammar – mentally (and I hope, expressionlessly). I’m not talking about obvious errors – I’ll also mentally correct split infinitives, faulty parallelism, and even the improper use of the future subjunctive mood. I suspect that many of you may also mentally correct people’s grammar, and consider this habit to be merely one of your idiosyncrasies.
I’d now like to raise the quirkiness bar a little and make another admission: I also mentally correct song lyrics when I listen to the radio. Not in all songs of course – there are so many that contain tortured grammar that the continual frustration would quickly turn me into a complete basket case.
The worst offenders are singers who use double negatives. However, in certain cases, correcting this error will change a song’s meter. In the Neil Sedaka tune Next Door To An Angel, the line “I can’t believe that this, is, the girl next door. Her funny little face isn’t funny no more” works rhythmically, and my 5-6 corrected versions don’t flow quite as well as the original. So Neil Sedaka gets a pass from me this time.
The Rolling Stones’ classic, Satisfaction, is another good example. The line “But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” uses an object pronoun instead of a subject one. That line should be “the same cigarettes as I”, but that will ruin the rhyme scheme, so Mick Jagger is also off the hook. However, the song’s chorus is another story. How difficult would it be for Mick to sing “I can get no satisfaction”, instead of “I can’t get no satisfaction”? Drop a single consonant, and the song suddenly sounds so much more refined!
My Lyrical Pet Peeve
My biggest grammatical pet peeve in song lyrics involves a word that is almost never heard. In this age of “gangsta rap” and grunge bands, it’s difficult to believe that any word is verboten or avoided, but there remains one that escapes the lips of very few singers: whom.
Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters. This was the wildly popular mid-1980s movie theme that spawned the catch-phrase “who ya gonna call?”. Every time I heard it, it made me cringe. Personally, I think that this line should be changed to “whom shall one call?”, but I’m willing to compromise and accept “whom you gonna call?”. I don’t want to be perceived as inflexible, or (heaven forbid) pedantic.
Tommy Tutone – 867-5309 (Jenny). The first line of this song is “Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to?”. As you’ve probably guessed, I feel the same way about this song and Ghostbusters. While the line should be “To whom can I turn”, that doesn’t rhyme, so I’ll settle for “Jenny, Jenny, whom can I turn to?”. If Tommy Tutone had simply added that one letter, he wouldn’t have been a one-hit wonder.
Aretha Franklin – Who’s Zoomin’ Who? According to Wikipedia, this 1985 song zoomed up to the #1 position on the Billboard charts, and stayed there for five weeks. In my humble opinion, if the song title had been “Who’s Zooming Whom?”, it would have stayed on top of the charts considerably longer, and it would have single-handedly catapulted Aretha Franklin’s career into the stratosphere. I’m sure you’ll agree that the corrected version does sound a lot catchier. It’s too bad that Aretha’s people didn’t call me for advice back in the 1980s. With that single change, the Queen of Soul’s career would have certainly eclipsed that of the King of Pop.
Barry Manilow – Copacabana. This is a tricky one. Even though only one letter needs to be added, it’s not an easy fix. Here is the original verse:
And then the punches flew,
And chairs were smashed in two,
There was blood and a single gunshot,
But just who shot who?
Changing who to whom diminishes the AABA rhyme scheme. After dwelling on this problem for some time, I finally decided to re-write the entire verse:
There was a raucous boom,
Chairs sailed across the room,
There was blood and a single gunshot,
But just who shot whom?
At the Copa…
As you can imagine, singing along to this new version while the original plays on the radio is exceedingly difficult. Therefore, the only solution is to win the lottery. Instead of spending my winnings on a dream vacation or on an expensive car, I would buy some studio time and hire Barry Manilow to re-record this modified version of Copacabana. He wouldn’t have to release a new album or do anything extravagant – he would merely record a single copy just for me, to play in the car or on my MP3 player. Then, if I had any funds remaining, I would hire Aretha Franklin and Ray Parker Jr. This, in my opinion, would be money well-spent.
Good Lyrical Examples – The Runners-Up
There are a couple of pop songs that use the word whom in their title or lyrics: For Whom The Bell Tolls by the Bee Gees (and another – entirely different – version by Metallica). The first two lines of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Just A Song Before I Go are “Just a song before I go, to whom it may concern”. While I’m glad that the word whom was used in each song, CSNY merely parroted a well-known expression, and the Bee Gees appropriated the title of an Ernest Hemingway novel.
Honourable Mention: Rush – Limelight. While Limelight doesn’t fall into the “whom” category, I’d like to mention Rush for the following line: “One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact”. Other than members of the British royal family, few people use gender-neutral pronouns these days. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear something so proper from a progressive rock band. I’ve linked this song to a live version, because it gives me such immense joy to hear an entire audience of young people singing along and using gender-neutral pronouns.
The Winner: My Source of Lyrical Inspiration
My choice as the most inspirational and grammatically-uplifting song comes from an unlikely source – the 1970s and 80s British punk rock band The Clash. Their song Should I Stay Or Should I Go? contains the following lines:
This indecision’s bugging me,
If you don’t want me set me free,
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be,
You’ve got to hand it to the Brits. The Clash was one of the defining groups of the late-1970s punk rock era – a musical genre characterized by non-conformity, violent rebellion, ear-piercing volume levels, cacophonous and distorted music, and lyrics that were usually screamed into the microphones. However, as intimidating as all this seems – in England, even bad boy punk rockers know how to use the word “whom” properly in their lyrics.