Bad English: When Awful Grammar Happens to Good Songs

It ain’t nothing. Sometimes words must bend to melody.

L.A. Salami’s 2016 album cover (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Good grammar is hard to find these days. Pop songs don’t make it any easier. As an American expat who has spent much of the past 12 years living in and traveling through countries where English isn’t the native tongue, I’ve come across so many people who learned to speak my language by watching TV and listening to music.

As much as I admire their ability to make entertainment fun and educational, I wouldn’t recommend this route in lieu of English 101. Television, even in the U.K., and the radio — especially the radio — are not exactly brimming with the Queen’s English these days. That said, I understand that sometimes words must bend to melody. Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” just wouldn’t have had the same catchy spark if she’d called it “That Doesn’t Impress Me Much.”

In a grammatically perfect world, The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” would be “(I Can’t Get Any) Satisfaction,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” would be “Lie, Lady, Lie,” Don Williams’ “Lay Down Beside Me” would be “Lie Down Beside Me,” and Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” would be “Lie Down, Sally.” Just not the same, right?

“Lay” is no earwormy substitute for “lie” when it comes to love interests crawling into bed with you. Of course, if you pick them up first, you can lay them down, as Conway Twitty promised to do to his underappreciated lover in his 1980 hit. But Twitty’s “I’d Love to Lay You Down” aside, few song titles ever seem to go there. Frankly, though, I wouldn’t want to live in a grammatically perfect world where song lovers lie down side-by-side. It’s so much sexier to get laid.

So English students, turn it up and dance … if you want to. Feel free to sing along, too, but when the following songs are over, ain’t nobody want to hear you talking like that.

As frowned-upon as “ain’t” is in everyday speech, it’s so commonplace in everyday singing that one might mistakenly think it ain’t bad English. Pat Boone initially tried to clean up Fats Domino’s grammar by covering “Ain’t That a Shame” as “Isn’t That a Shame.” Obviously, that didn’t work. Fats’s “Ain’t That a Shame” (ultimately recorded by Boone with its original title line intact) and “ain’t” in lieu of “isn’t” remain pop standards.

Ain’t that peculiar?

I’d never dream of messing with the genius of Mr. Wonder, and let’s face it, “You Haven’t Done Anything” just wouldn’t have had the same incriminatory sting. Doo doo wop.

If I had been singing along to “Doesn’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” since 1977, would that line sound as awkward as it does to me in 2019? Few things are as sexy as good grammar, but every time Crystal twists English to her melodic needs in her biggest hit (written by mega-successful country songwriter Richard Leigh), her heartbreaking way with words make my brown eyes get a little blue, too.

“Don’t Come Around Here Anymore” probably wouldn’t have had any less of a hitbound ring, but considering that Petty and company’s 1985 single came from an album called Southern Accents, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” actually makes more sense.

Going top five with your first seven U.S. singles is no minor feat, but doubling up on ungrammatical with your debut hit (subject-verb disagreement and a double negative rolled into one title), well … that don’t impress me much at all. That said, “It Doesn’t Mean Anything” probably wouldn’t have made Marx a late-’80s star.

Subject-verb agreement can be tricky, especially when we’re at the center of our own conjectural fantasy. “I was” should become “I were,” which k.d. lang must have realized when she wrote “If I Were You,” the opening track on her 1995 album All You Can Eat.

Two different songs, same grammatical mistake. It’s one that people make all the time — using the adjective “personal” when the adverb “personally” is needed. “Don’t Take It Personal” should be “Don’t Take It Personally,” since “personal” is a modifier that requires a noun playing back-up, as in Evelyn “Champagne” King’s 1985 single “Your Personal Touch.” At least Karla Bonoff got it right on her 1982 hit: “I’m bringing it to you, personally … personally … personally, yeah.”

Both wonderful ’90s songs by talented Brits, but what musical difference would it have made if they’d sung “You’ve Gotta Love Someone” and “You’ve Gotta Be” instead? At least Elton corrected his grammar for the choir-backed outro, which is the best part of the song, partly because the front-end emphasis of “You’ve got to love someone” packs such an emotional punch.

When I first heard this 2006 twist on the old “You and I”/“You and Me” pop standby, I cheered at both its musical and lyrical inventiveness. The world certainly didn’t need yet another “You and I”/“You and Me.” But as any good English student knows, age may come before beauty, but “Me,” like “I,” always comes after “You” … or “U.” That rule applies to everyone, including you and me.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”