(This is part 1 of a 2-part blog post examining the acceptable bending (and sometimes outright annihilation) of rules for grammar in lyrics. I will do my best to make my point in as unbiased a fashion as possible. If I call out your favorite artist for using poor grammar in their lyrics, it’s nothing personal. You can be certain many of my favorite artists are guilty of the same mistakes I’m going to point out in this post.)

When it comes to songs, strict grammar in lyrics usually does not apply. As I always tried to teach my students, these things need to be considered in context. A line from a song is not the same as a sentence from your master’s thesis. Songwriters have long taken liberties with the English language in their lyrics. But the vast majority of them follow the rules of English grammar—most of the time.

Does improper grammar in lyrics make it a bad method for language study?

I currently teach some musically talented high school students. In one of our classes, we study English lyrics from songs the students have chosen. Being interested in music, song lyrics are a natural, authentic way to expose the students to English. The students increase their vocabulary, strengthen their listening skills, and finally get to understand what their favorite songs are about. I’ve learned they often have no idea what the artist is singing about. 

When I first went through the list of submitted song suggestions, seeing a song by BTS surprised me. Of course, I’m well aware of the existence of BTS. I’m not a member of the A. R. M. Y. (don’t get me started on that abomination of an acronym—Adorable Representative MC for Youth )—Ugh! I don’t live under a rock either, so I’m well aware they’re taking the world by storm. I decided to listen to the song, assuming there would be a few words in English in the chorus. After all, it’s not unheard of for Korean singers to litter their lyrics with random English words.

Disco overload, I’m into that, I’m good to go

A image of a bundle of dynamite, representing the BTS hit of the same name
“So I’ma light it up like dynamite”

It turns out the whole song was written in English. If you’re a BTS fan, you know the song I’m talking about. Of course, I’m talking about their 2020 hit, “Dynamite.” It has been ranked as one of the top 10 songs of 2020 by several publications, including Billboard, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

I’m not here to bash BTS. I’m not here to bash their lyrics. Though the song is undeniably catchy, it’s not my cup of tea. I’m sure you’d disagree with many of my musical choices. That’s okay. We can still be friends.

I found several of the lyrics unorthodox. Ding dong, call me on my phone, Ice tea and a game of ping pong, huh. ‘Huh?’ is right! Even more striking were the grammatical errors I spotted. I know RM apparently achieved fluency in English using the sitcom, Friends, but BTS didn’t write the song. It was actually written by Jessica Agombar and David Stewart, with a few tweaks from BTS. None of the errors were egregious, but they ‘bumped’ me when I was going over the lyrics with my students in class.

  • Sing song when I’m walking homeSingin’ a song as I’m walking home (I could even live with sing a song when I’m walking home).
  • I’m diamond, you know I glow up → Apparently a reference to shining like a diamond. I’m not sure if ‘glow up’ here is in reference to the slang term meaning ‘To transform oneself in a significant way.
  • Whoever wanna come along → Whoever wants to come along

Is poor grammar in lyrics always down to non-native English speakers?

Before researching the writing of the song, I assumed BTS had written the song. The grammar errors in the lyrics appeared to be the typical kind made by non-native English speakers. But upon learning that two native English speakers wrote the song, I began to wonder. Were those the original lyrics? Or were they tweaks that BTS made themselves? Why omit the article ‘a’ in the first two examples? Why use wanna instead of wants to? Same number of syllables. Hmm…

An image of an uppercase and lowercase a representing article usage

I started paying more attention to the other songs my students had chosen. They were almost all from native English-speaking artists. I examined them to see what grammatical errors I could find. I don’t typically look at song lyrics with my proofreading hackles raised. But when I did, the errors started appearing.

Is Superman playin’ mind game with part-time lover?

I was thrilled to spot a classic selected by one of the students. But when I looked at the lyrics, one of the main lines from the chorus jumped out at me. Don’t want nothing to be wrong with part-time lover. Even typing that line, the appearance of those blue squiggly lines tells me there’s a problem. I can forgive the lack of a subject at the beginning of the line. I can even accept nothing instead of anything (I don’t want anything…). But I’m perplexed by Mr. Wonder’s choice to omit “my” before part-time lover. It wouldn’t have been hard to include the word ‘my’ rhythmically in the line. I’m perplexed by its omission, especially since my part-time lover appears elsewhere in the song.

A picture of a Lego Superman, representing the line, "Superman got nothing on me" from Charlie Puth's One Call Away
“Superman got nothing on me”

The next suggestion I looked at was both a new song and a new artist to me. The offending line wouldn’t have been hard to write correctly. The line Superman got nothing on me in Charlie Puth’s “One Call Away” could’ve been easily remedied with an ’s after Superman. Again, the flow wouldn’t have been affected. Another curious omission.

Moonchild was another new artist a student introduced me to. Their song, “The List,” begins with the line I hate you make me nervous. The meaning is still clear with the omission of ‘that.’ This one would’ve been harder to add rhythmically, so it gets a pass on creative grounds. But the song also contains the line Mind game just to let you go. Why mind game? Why singular? Google Docs wants to correct it to mind games. That’s the expression, isn’t it? Yet another odd choice.

Come on now, follow my lead—I may be crazy, don’t mind me

Further down the list, I recognized another song suggested by a different student. Definitely not a classic, at least for me. And not something I’ve got on a playlist, but a song I’m quite familiar with. I don’t listen to a lot of new music, but Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” got enough airplay that I’m familiar with it. The grammatical mistake that jumped out at me was the line We push and pull like a magnet do. Again, Google Docs is tapping me on the shoulder, urging me to correct that line—but I get this choice. It was a stylistic choice, designed to rhyme with you at the end of the previous line, and too at the end of the next line. Bending the rules, on purpose. The teacher approves. I’m sure Ed will sleep better tonight.

An image of a horseshoe magnet with north and south poles, representing the line, "We push and pull like a magnet do" in Ed Sheeran's Shape of You
“We push and pull like a magnet do”

I decided to look at some of his other songs to see if he made any other such choices, or if this was a one-off event. It was not. In “I Don’t Care,” we have the line We at a party we don’t wanna be at. Adding ’re wouldn’t add another syllable, so wouldn’t affect the rhythm of flow. Not sure about the choice to omit it here.

Like the example from Stevie Wonder, Ed Sheeran writes I don’t like nobody but you in the same song. Anybody has four syllables, compared to only three in nobody, so again, that choice makes sense rhythmically (though anyone would’ve worked too). I assume that was the rationale behind But ain’t nobody love you like I do in “Happier.”

Is incorrect grammar in lyrics always so bad?

I’d definitely call out a student for using ain’t in a written assignment. But I ain’t gonna give Ed grief over its use here. Nor would I expect him to sing But there isn’t anybody who’ll love you like I do. (Hmm…blog idea—ruin classic songs by rewriting the lyrics as a stodgy old English teacher—but I digress). Once more, I’m confused by I’m not fazed by all them lights and flashin’ cameras in “Beautiful People.” Would it have been so hard to sing I’m not fazed by all those lights and flashin’ cameras? Or I’m not fazed by all the lights and flashin’ cameras? What does using them add?

A final example from another song suggested by a student caught my attention. In “Sunday Morning,” Adam Levine of Maroon 5 sings Clouds are shrouding us in moments unforgettable. Grammatically speaking, of course the line should be Clouds are shrouding us in unforgettable moments. I’m certain you’ll agree with me that the original line is much more poetic and lyrical. Adam Levine gets a pass on the basis of poetic license.

And with that, I’ll leave poetic license for next week’s post. I’ll examine if it’s always a plausible excuse to ignore proper grammar in lyrics. What do you think?

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