Sunday, August 5, 2012

Grammatical Gotye?

A lot of elements go into writing good lyrics. Finding the right words to express what you mean. Matching the syllables to the beats. Avoiding cliches. And, of course, impeccable grammar.

Wait. Grammar?

Yes, according to Joe Hadsall. He wrote a whole article about how the title of "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye is grammatically incorrect. He cites the Associated Press Stylebook, which states that "who" should be used when it stands in for a human being. For instance:

I bought a drum machine that didn't cost a lot of money.

But ...

I listened to a drummer who plays with a local band.

Therefore, says Hadsall, the song title should be "Somebody Who I Used to Know."

Gawd. Where to begin?

So much of lyrics depends on how the words sound. Does "I can't get no satisfaction" work better if you eliminate the double negative? How about Beyonce's line "Don't be mad once you see that he want it" Is "Single Ladies" better if she fixes the subject-verb disagreement?

"Fixing" the Stones example would be more obviously wrong. The rhythm gets thrown off if you change the line to "I can't get any satisfaction," whereas it would still scan correctly if Beyonce were to sing "Don't be mad once you see that he wants it." But "want it" (actually pronounced "wannit" in the song) is easier to sing and more pleasing to hear.

It's possible that Hadsall would concede those points. He does make allowances for creative expression. He just isn't willing to make them for Gotye.

... songwriters take creative, musical license with grammar when coming up with unique turns of phrase, and I'm OK with that. But "Somebody That I Used to Know" is so boring and bland that it should really be grammatically correct -- because grammar is boring and bland.

Nope. I'm lukewarm on this tune myself, and I still have to disagree. When faced with the prospect of breaking a rule, songwriters do not and should not base their decision on how good they think the song is. They base their decision on whether breaking the rule makes the song better. By that standard, Gotye made the right choice. "Somebody who I used to know" doesn't flow as well.

Listen, I care about grammar too. I care more than the average person. Writers pay me to correct their grammar. But this guy is just wrong.

[Late update 11/4/2013: Hadsall actually argued that the title should be "Somebody WHOM I Used to Know." I should've caught that. I probably didn't because, while "whom" is grammatically correct here, it sounds just awful.]

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Hat tip to Jeremiah Tucker, whose article Songwriting should always trump grammar alerted me to the original post.


Brian McDonald said...

I can see how a person might get fixated on one element of a song that's wrong. I mean, there's a Sarah MacLachlan song where she pronounces "escape" more like "excape", and it drives me nuts when I hear it.

But you know, if the song itself is bland and forgettable, it actually makes LESS sense to me to get butthurt about the grammar. I know bloggers must blog, but man, set your goals a bit higher.

limr said...

The other thing to mention is that the use of "that" instead of "who" is not incorrect. The 'who' is only required in a non-restrictive relative clause:

Correct: Nancy, who lives next to me, is a bitch.

Incorrect: Nancy, that lives next to me, is a bitch.

The clause is non-restrictive because it is not needed to restrict the noun we are describing. Her name already does that.

However, if the clause is restrictive - necessary to restrict or identify the exact noun - then there is flexibility in the relative pronoun used.

Correct: The man who stole my car last year is now my boyfriend.

Also correct: The man that stole my car last year is now my boyfriend.

Both relative pronouns are grammatically correct, though 'that' is more appropriate for informal context.

So no - it doesn't matter that Gotye used 'that' instead of 'who' - but not because grammar doesn't matter, but because he didn't break any _grammar_ rules, just formal _style_ rules.

Anonymous said...

The other point is that "can't get no" is a colloquialism. These are nasty little thing that have sneaked their way into the language and are considered acceptable. The use of a double negative is just fine to put emphasis on the negative. Consider:

"I can't seem to find any meat."
"Sorry to hear that."

"I can't get no meat!"
"Geez man! You can't get no meat? That's terrible! What can I do to help?"

cinderkeys said...

Brian: Oh, sure. It nearly ruined "I Don't Want to Wait" for me when I realized Paula Cole was singing "And say a little prayer for *I*." But that sounded stupid! The only reason for it was to rhyme, and it wasn't even a good rhyme. "Somebody *that* I used to know" just isn't that egregious (or, as limr pointed out, even really wrong).

Limr: Good point, and I'm annoyed with myself for not making it first. :) Who vs. that is a style thingie, and not one you have to stick with if you're not adhering to a style guide. How many of us run every sentence we speak past Associated Press or Chicago style?

... Which dovetails nicely with Anon's point. Colloquialisms are expected in songs.

john Wenger said...

"I don't get no satisfaction" is stylistic all right, because it self consciously copies the American black patois. It is therefore being used for effect, i.e. The Rolling Stones are declaring themselves hip by using hipster speak. After all, by stretching the get, they could have said, "I don't ghe/et, satisfaction," or they could have said, "I don't get any satisfaction," pronouncing the any very quickly. But it wouldn't have the same effect. In other words, they are flaunting their lack of grammar to get the effect they want.

On the other hand, why "I listened to a drummer that plays with a local band" is superior to "I listened to a drummer who plays with a local band" is beyond me. And using phrases such as "between you and I" in order to make a rhyme should be a capital offense. Every time I hear something like that, I shout over the radio using "me." It was a dark day when the Supreme Court outlawed whipping.

cinderkeys said...

Good points. I'd turn a blind eye to "between you and I" if you needed the "I" for a rhyme.

"Say a little prayer for I" still makes me twitch, though.