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I would be deeply grateful if you answer my question. I'm currently writing my thesis about standard and non-standard English grammar and the main problem of my work is why artists make grammar "mistakes" in their songs.

Below you can find some examples which I've found. I shily encourage you to explain me how you see this, especially I would be really grateful if some native speakers answered my questions, but of course all answers are welcome.

  1. Justin Timberlake – What goes around: My heart bleeded
  2. Adele – Rumor has it: It don’t mean
  3. Adele – Hello: It don’t matter
  4. The Rolling Stones – Satisfaction: I can’t get no satisfaction
  5. Pink Floyd – Another Brick In The Wall: We don’t need no education
  6. Florida – My house: What we is
  7. (no example, kept to keep numbers equal over edits)
  8. The Police – every little thing she does is magic: Everything she do just turns me on
  9. Elvis Presley – Hound dog: When they said you was high classed
  10. Eric Carmen – hungry eyes: I feel the magic between you and I
  11. Red Hot Chili Peppers – snow (hey oh): Listen _ what I say
  12. The Beatles – come together: He come grooving up slowly/he _ one holly roller/he just do what he please
  13. Katy Perry – dark horse: She eat your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer/she turn cold as freezer
  14. Miley Cyrus – wrecking ball: I just closed my eyes and swung, left me crashing in a blazing fall (no subject)
  15. Justin Bieber – boyfriend: If I was your boyfriend
  16. James Brown – I feel good: I feel good (an adjective used instead of a adverb)
  17. Timbaland – the way I are: I are
  18. X Ambassadors – unsteady: Cause this house don’t feel like home
  19. Machine Guy & Camilla Cabello – bad things: I’m insane, but you _ the same
  20. Gwen Stefani – rich girl: If I was a rich girl
  21. Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters: Who you gonna call? (instead of Whom are you going to call?)
  22. Tina Turner – what’s love got to do with it: What’s love got to do with it (instead of what does love have to do with it)
  23. Bruno Mars – grenade: Should’ve known you was trouble from the first kiss
  24. Justin Timberlake – Can’t stop the feeling: And ain’t nobody leaving soon / I don’t need no reason
  25. Lady Gaga – bad romance: You and me could write a bad romance
  26. Meghan Trainor – me too: If I was you, I’d wanna be me to
  27. Justin Bieber – love yourself: My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone
  28. Sam Smith - lay me down: Can I lay by your side (difference between lay and lie, it is pronounced as /leɪ/ (lay) but it should be /laɪ/ (lie) – AmE)
  29. Bruno Mars – when I was your man: It don’t sound the same
  30. Justin Bieber – intentions: You don’t need no filter
  31. Sam Smith – unholy: Mommy don’t know daddy’s getting hot
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    Regardless, in most of these instances though the lyrics are grammatical, just not in the standard prestige varieties of English. The lyrics are instead written in various vernacular varieties where these formations are perfectly grammatical
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 4 at 13:26
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    Several even are grammatical in informal standard English. 10, 15, 16, 20, 22, 25 are all unlikely to raise an eyebrow in anything except the most formal speech or formal writing
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 4 at 13:30
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    @Tristan Linguists study poetry and song lyrics all the time. And we learn a lot from them! I don't think that is the problem with this question. :) [see my answer] Commented Apr 4 at 14:18
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    I doubt even prescriptivists consider I feel good to be a mistake. What they typically proscribe is using feel good when feel well is also an option. James Brown isn't singing about his health condition.
    – Nardog
    Commented Apr 4 at 15:03
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    As the answers have already said, those examples are all grammatical in the variant of English used in the song (often intermingled with more ‘standard’ English). Actually ungrammatical lyrics are rare in songs by native speakers. One I know of is from Clannad’s Of This Land: “How soulful those words that confuses the way” – as far as I know, there are no dialectal features relevant to Clannad (who are from Donegal, Ireland) that would license singular confuses after the very clearly plural subject those words, and personally I’ve always found it very jarring. Commented Apr 5 at 18:08

4 Answers 4

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Here's one linguist's take on this. The following four points appear in order of INCREASING importance.

First of all, song writers and poets consciously and unconsciously play with the grammar and vocabulary of a language when they write to derive various effects. The results of this playing with the language are not usually considered 'grammar mistakes'. This does not apply to the Original Poster's excerpts, but could include, for example, lyrics such as:

  • Unbreak my heart

Secondly, many of the examples given are perfectly grammatical in standard Englishes! There is nothing ungrammatical in standard English with any of the following:

  • left me crashing in a blazing fall
  • if I was a rich girl
  • I feel good
  • What's love got to do with it
  • What has love got to do with it
  • you and me could write a bad romance (coordination blocks case assignment)
  • I feel the magic between you and I (ditto, plus see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)

Thirdly, virtually all of these other lyrics have been written in a non-prestige variety of English. What you urgently need to understand is that non-standard and non-prestige does not mean inferior or wrong or bad. These other varieties of English are just different and usually more localised, geographically. More often than not these varieties have older and less newfangled words and grammar. For example, invariant ain't and negative concord (e.g. I don't want no trouble, where the quantifier no agrees in polarity with the preceding don't) are both features of all nonstandard dialects of English, because this is how English originally was. These dialects don't have the changes to the auxiliary system or to the way negation works that occurred, entirely by accident, in standard English. All these lyrics are perfectly grammatical in the varieties of English that they were written in.

Fourthly, and most importantly: A 'non-standard' variety of a language is not the standard variety with grammar mistakes. It is just a different variety. All the different varieties of a language have their own intricate and complex mathematical rules, in other words their own grammar. <-- That bit is a fundamental part of Linguistics 101. Absolutely do not get this wrong in a thesis, if you are writing one.

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I would like to add to @Aracuaria's answer, that most of the examples cited differ prosodically from the "standard" form, and thus they can be a great tool for fitting the semantic meaning into the syllable-count and rhythm constraints.

  • using "don't" for third person singular, allows one to express the same meaning as "doesn't" using one less syllable. In the example you cited from Adele's "Hello", that line continues "But it don't matter, it clearly doesn't tear you apart anymore"; so it's not like this song is written in a register of English with no verb conjugation, just that a stylistic choice was made to make the line fit the meter.

  • in the Rolling Stones song, saying "I can't get any satisfaction" would also require an extra syllable

  • having both "you and me" and "you and I" as part of your inventory helps to build a wider variety of rhymes

  • etc.

I don't think these kind of choices can be arbitrary, but there are some common ones, like "don't" for "doesn't", or employing negative concord. Perhaps they are inspired or based on other varieties of English, or perhaps it's largely coincidental and they just form a stylistic group of alternatives. Unfortunately I'm not knowledgeable enough on this subject.

In older poems, I often see "o'er", employed as a one-syllable alternative to "over", but it seems to have fallen out of fashion. However, AFAIK, this form was purely literary and not part of any English dialect.

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I'd quibble that I don't see any error in some of your examples. Like, what's wrong with "If I was your boyfriend"? I don't know the song so maybe you mean there's a problem with the larger context. And "I feel good" is completely correct. No, the songwriter should most certainly NOT have said "I feel well". He is not trying to say that he is good at feeling, but that he feels that his present condition is good. The structure is the same as if one said, "I feel happy" or "The car is red". It's perfectly correct to say . But that said, most of your examples certainly are grammatically incorrect, so ...

There are many possible reasons, including:

  1. It's a mistake. The songwriter didn't realize his sentence was grammatically incorrect. But let's gloss over that one.

  2. The songwriter is trying to relate how a "character" in his song would speak, which may not be totally proper English. Like if a song was about a gangster threatening to kill someone, I wouldn't expect him to say, "You silly person! Your behavior upsets me greatly." It would sound like a joke. In your examples, "We don't need no education" probably falls in this category. Sure, an educated person would say, "We don't need any education." But the whole point is that the person saying this doesn't care about education.

  3. For emphasis. "I don't get no satisfaction" is more forceful than "I don't get any satisfaction."

  4. To achieve a certain rhyme or rhythm. A songwriter may chose the "wrong" word because it rhymes with the word he just used on the previous line. Or he may choose a longer or shorter word to get the desired number of syllables on each line.

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There are several ideas that must be considered when evaluating the different varieties of grammar usage in song-writing. There are reasons---and sometimes there are unreasonable causes---for this seemingly disparaging use of English vernacular.

  • First, there is poetic license. Just as there is an occasional leap into freedom in poetry and prose, so songwriters do engage in an occasional departure from the standard English syntax. Poetic license can be engaged in if the rest of the work is able to come up to the level of excellence.
  • Some reason for misuse of grammar may be attributed to the level of education, or lack thereof, of the songwriter. Instead of remaining true to standardized English, some depart, not realizing their faux pas, and think that what they write is acceptable.
  • Some departure from the "norm" is deliberately done for special effect. The form of a word(s) may provide an emphasis that the norm would not. This special effect is often the reason the song is a hit. It provided a hook on which the rest of the song hangs.
  • As mentioned in other answers, the local dialect of the songwriter, or of their audience, has a lot of influence on the wording of the song. In that particular locale, such wording is not just common, but is required! A wording that would be normal somewhere else would be an insult there! The patois reigns supreme in order for the people to relate.
  • Genre must also be kept in mind. Some styles of writing are appropriate in only certain genres, but would be way out of place in another genre. A hymn may use "o'er" (or a patriotic anthem), but it would be inappropriate for a modern pop song.
  • And we must not leave out the cultural climate of the time in which the song was written. At a time when society was coalescing into a tight-knit society for the purpose of survival, standardization would be important. But during times of unrest--rebellion, perhaps--wording would depart from the norm... deliberately, to emphasize the attitude and beliefs of the revolting crowds. Acid rock, cop-killer, grunge music would care less about what the English teacher would demand in class.
  • Individualization also be considered as a reason for particular wording. In America there is a push for individual identity. Egos often reign supreme over the puppet crowds. A singer may wish to have a special, particular style of verbiage that identifies him as unique, God's gift to humanity! A word style that sets him apart in the history of music. (Compare e.e. cummings in prose.)

There are a lot of things to consider when trying to gauge the depth of reasoning behind musical grammar! Indeed, some wording is the result of mistakes. But some is deliberate rebellion against standardization, or rather than rebelling (a harsh term), some wording is simply a standing up for the culture of the singer and his local audience.

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