In part 1 of this 2-part post, I looked at some curious grammar ‘errors’ I encountered while reviewing some song lyrics. I was reviewing the lyrics in preparation to teach these songs to some high school students. Interestingly, BTS wasn’t the only Korean artist suggested by my students. Even more surprising was that the suggested artist didn’t record one song in English. In fact, it turns out this artist wrote and sang the entire album in English. Then did the same with their follow-up album. Anyone figured out who this could be?

The artist chosen by 2 different students in 2 different classes, was Baek Yerin. Their song choice was her cryptically named “0310“. As far as I can determine, Baek Yerin “…writes the lyrics to most of her songs.” (Feb 26, 2020, SnackFever.com) But while going over her lyrics, several grammar mistakes jumped out at me. They didn’t appear to be conscious choices. They appeared to be genuine grammatical mistakes by a non-native English speaker.

When non-native speaker pick up on your errors, you have a problem

To be clear—I am not belittling or mocking Baek Yerin for her English lyrics. Writing a song in your mother tongue is no easy task. Writing two entire albums in English is an accomplishment in and of itself. I am questioning her decision not to work with a native English speaker to avoid making simple grammar mistakes. In an article posted on Koreaboo, an English translation of a Korean netizen’s comment about Baek Yerin reads:

I really like Baek Yerin as an artist but this album is really disappointing. These songs are ruined because of her awkward English lyrics and it’s a waste. Baek Yerin is amazing at expressing herself through Korean lyrics but with awkward English lyrics, you don’t get the same vibe. To those of you saying ‘but her English is fine’ think about it…if people spell certain Korean words wrong, you get upset. You have to realize that her English is just not that good. I heard she learned it on her own but it’s weird. The album is just emotional. I can’t listen to ‘hate you’ because of the choppy lyrics.

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Here are some examples of these awkward lyrics from “0310”:

  • I hope that I could be seemed really fine with you leaving 
  • Suddenly, all the things seem complicated
  • Tell me how not to get hurted or broken 
A picture of a woman crying while looking at her phone, representing the line "I hope that I could be seemed really fine with you leaving 
Suddenly, all the things seem complicated
Tell me how not to get hurted or broken" from Baek Yerin's 0310

She also capitalizes the word “If” in the lyrics when it occurs in the middle of a sentence. Any native English speaker would’ve pointed out immediately that ‘hurted’ is not a word. Google Docs tells me that too. Is there a case to be made for poetic license? Perhaps, but not a very strong one.

To err is human—to push boundaries is divine

I stated in Part 1 that song lyrics should be considered in the appropriate context. It is not usually necessary for a proofreader to go over song lyrics. They’re raw. They’re emotional. They break the rules. But to break the rules, you need to know them first.

Will a jazz musician sometimes play a few notes out of key on purpose? Yup! Not by mistake, but intentionally—for effect. I liken that to Ed Sheeran singing, ‘like a magnet do’ instead of ‘like a magnet does’ for rhythm or cadence. I’m certain Ed knew that ‘like a magnet does’ was correct, but he made a conscious choice to ignore that rule.

A chalk board with the phrase, learn the rules, then break them, indicating you must understand English grammar rules before you can break them.

I don’t think we can say the same can about Baek Yerin’s grammatical errors in “0310.” Hurted is not a word. The past tense of hurt is obviously hurt. If she’d needed a two-syllable word so the line flowed, she could’ve turned hurt into ‘hu-urt.’ Or she could have chosen another 2-syllable synonym (wounded, injured, battered, crippled, etc).

An amateur musician that plays random notes out of key because they don’t know ‘the rules’ will sound awful. The experienced jazz musician doing it on purpose to create an effect will likely be deemed edgy or adventurous. Knowing the rules before you break ’em.

Why do you keep making it more wronger and more wronger?

I decided to examine her other songs, and I found many examples of such errors.

From “Mr. Gloomy,” where she capitalizes “It” in the middle of sentences throughout the song:

  • Every lovers remind me of you
  • Every nights are rough for me

From “Lovelovelove“:

  • If I ever have to leave / Where would I go? / Should I really have to leave?
  • Somewhere or anywhere that near by you
  • Make it more longer, make it more stronger
  • And I wish we’ll be together / When life makes us apart

From “Square“:

  • I have much memories of getting more weaker
  • Come on let’s drink and have / Very unmanageable day / Would you want me in babe?

Nothing is impossible IF you think differently—but you have to think

An image of the word impossible with and x over the prefix 'im', indicating that nothing is impossible

Copywriting is full of rule-breakers. You only need to look as far as the Addidas slogan “Impossible is nothing” or Apple’s “Think Different.” These weren’t honest mistakes. They were intentional choices. 

The choice to capitalize words like “If” and “It” in the middle of songs is very unusual. I tried to determine if she had particular reasons for doing so. Was she trying to draw attention to something? If so, I couldn’t discern what it was.

The famous poet, E. E. Cummings, was well-known for writing using only lowercase letters. Again, his choice to do so was exactly that—a choice. It wasn’t done because he didn’t know better. With a master’s degree from Harvard, one can assume he was quite aware of the proper use of capital and lowercase letters. He would also intentionally misspell words. Again, a conscious choice. It seems unlikely that capitalizing “If” or using ‘hurted’ were stylistic choices on Baek Yerin’s part.

Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a sign of intelligence

What does all this mean? I dunno. What I do know is that non-native speakers will be held to higher grammatical standards than native speakers (a topic I will cover in the future). It will be assumed the native speaker chose to break the rules, while the non-native speaker was ignorant of the rules. Though not always the case, it usually holds true.

I most certainly would not suggest that non-native songwriters run out and hire a native-speaking copy editor or proofreader. I would urge them to at least run their lyrics by a native speaker. Working in collaboration with a native English-speaking lyricist would be another great option. At the very least, spell-check your English lyrics. Google Docs or Grammarly would’ve caught “hurted’ and “If.” Intentionally breaking the rules is cool and edgy. Making grammar mistakes ’cause you were too cocky or lazy to check—not so much.

What do you think? Have I got a legitimate point, or am I being a grumpy old former English teacher? Leave a comment below!

(Featured picture: Music photo created by rawpixel.com – www.freepik.com)

One thought on “One person’s poetic license is another’s grammar mistake

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