Everyone knows that incorrect grammar can make or break a piece of writing; in fact, it’s one of the fastest routes to sloppy, unprofessional-looking copy. A 2013 study found that 59% of British consumers would be put off using a company if there were grammar mistakes in its marketing materials. But why is it that song lyrics don’t adhere to this rule? We happily sing along without realising that some of our favourite tunes play fast and 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. Should be 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)
SO IF THEY’RE WRONG, WHY DON’T THESE LYRICS SOUND ODD TO US?
The main thing to note is that it’s possible to be understood, even if your grammar isn’t perfect – 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 tell us something about them. When Elvis says ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound-dog’, we don’t take his double-negative at face value, but rather understand it in the context of his curled-lip country drawl. At the time, his rock n roll music was a dangerous force, undermining a wholesome 50s American society. Parents didn’t want their kids to listen to his music, and not just because they were worried about their English grades. His bad grammar 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 the rhythm takes 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 – favouring an informal, punchy (if slightly grammatically incorrect) slogan over a longer, more awkward strapline. 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.