Everyone knows that bad grammar can make or break a piece of writing; in fact, it’s one of the fastest routes to sloppy, unprofessional-looking copy. But why is it that song lyrics don’t adhere to this rule? We happily sing along without realizing that some of our favorite tunes play loose with the laws of grammar.
Here are some examples:
“I feel good” James Brown (I feel well)
“I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” U2 (I still haven’t found for what I’m looking)
“I can’t get no satisfaction” The Rolling Stones (I can’t get any satisfaction)
“Who ‘ya gonna call? Ghostbusters” (Whom are you going to call?)
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” Bill Withers (There is no sunshine)
“The feeling is gone, only you and I” Ultravox, Vienna. (The feeling is gone, only you and me)
“The way I are” – Timbaland (The way I am)
“You and me could write a Bad Romance” – Lady Gaga (You and I)
“They said you was high class, that was just a lie” – Elvis (They said you were high class)
IF IT’S BAD GRAMMAR, WHY DON’T THESE LYRICS SOUND ODD?
The main thing to note is that it’s still possible to be understood even if your grammar is bad – it’s all about context. These lyrics aren’t trying to look professional or present a perfect view of the artist. The slight idiosyncrasies of their grammar patterns tells something about them.
When Elvis says ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound-dog’, his double-negative isn’t taken at face value, but rather understood in the context of his country drawl. His bad grammar also reflects his bad-boy reputation.
Furthermore, these lyrics weren’t written to be read off a piece of paper or a screen. The music and rhythm take precedence over the language; in the U2 example above, the ‘correct’ version may look right on the page, but just try singing it out loud – it doesn’t scan, and sounds awkward and stuffy. In other examples, the incorrect ‘You and I/you and me’ is used because ‘me’ and ‘I’ are very useful words for rhyming.
Brands have started to take the same approach in their ad copy – favoring an informal, punchy (if slightly grammatically incorrect) slogan over a longer, more awkward tagline. How about Apple’s “Think Different” or the famous “Got Milk?” campaign. ‘Do You Have Milk?” just doesn’t trip off the tongue. Again, it’s all about context – the voice you are speaking in, and who you’re speaking to (or should I say ‘To whom you’re speaking?). Bad grammar is not always bad for business.