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Songwriters – Should You Use Good Grammar When Writing Your Lyrics?
Using good grammar
Unless you have a good reason to deviate from typical grammar rules, you probably shouldn’t. There are some songs that come to mind with such bad grammar that it’s hard to listen to the lyrics.
One such song is “More Than Words” by Extreme. The song opens with the line, “I’d say ‘I love you’ are not the words I want to hear from you. If you had written this sentence in a high school paper, your English teacher would still be slapping you today… and rightly so. Something like “I don’t love you, that’s not what I want to hear from you” would have made a lot more sense grammatically, especially since it’s the opening line of the song and sets the bar for what’s to come.
What comes next doesn’t get much better. Another line in the poem states, “You have to do more than words to make it real.” I don’t even know how to fix it. But you can see what a rough listen it makes for.
I don’t want to knock Extreme because I really like the song “More Than Words”. However, better grammar would be nice here because there is no reason for bad grammar other than simply not knowing any better.
Using bad grammar
After reading what I just wrote, you might think that it’s never appropriate to stick to the rules of grammar when writing a song, but that’s not the case at all.
As a singer, you are essentially a character in your own story. Different characters speak in different ways. For example, in Amy Winehouse’s song “Rehab” she sings the line “I ain’t got no time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine.” Obviously, using the word “ain’t” is not grammatically correct, but in the context of this song, it’s fine. Fits Amy Winehouse’s “character” in this song. He’s rough and rough around the edges, so of course he’d use the word “no” if he didn’t want something. Makes sense.
A similar thing happens in the title track of Winehouse’s song “Me and Mr. Jones.” Of course, from a grammatical point of view, the line is incorrect. However, putting the “I” first is a common mistake that Winehouse’s character is likely to employ. Also, if he had used correct grammar, the song would have been called “Mr. Jones and Me”, and Counting Crows already had a big hit with that line.
That’s not to say that Winehouse doesn’t have grammatical issues in other lines of her songs, as we saw in the Extreme example. However, in the cases we’ve talked about here, it doesn’t bother me because that’s just how your character would talk.
The same idea applies to lines like “I can’t get satisfaction.” Of course, this line is a grammatical nightmare, but it’s okay because it fits Mick Jagger’s edgy character. We expect your character to speak like this. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Eminem to use proper grammar in his songs.
Because of this, you shouldn’t have to go through all the songs and try to transcribe the lines that use made-up words likewill” obsession “I want“, because people actually say these things in North American English. That’s fine. Most of the time, the lyrics sound conversational, as these “fake” words do. In many cases, it would sound really weird to hear “I’m going, like hearing “I’ll be” because that reformulated phrase has become so common. Singing is an exaggerated form of speech, so ideally you want to sing your ideas in the same way you speak your ideas.
Also, it would be wise to know the difference between “your”, “you’re”, “there”, “they”, “them”, etc. between, but since we only hear songs, it won’t. you write a word if someone doesn’t look at your written words. In this case, it would be helpful to know when to use them so that you look like you know what you’re talking about.
One last note
As you can see, bad grammar can occasionally be okay when writing songs (but don’t tell your English teacher I said that!). If you find yourself bending typical grammar rules just to make one of your rhymes work, you’re using bad grammar for the wrong reason. If you’re doing it because that’s how your character would talk to someone, it’s probably fine.
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