Songwriters – Should You Use Good Grammar When Writing Your Lyrics?

Using Good Grammar

Unless you have a good reason to stray from the typical rules of grammar, you probably shouldnt. There are a few songs I can think of with grammar so bad it makes the lyrics hard to listen to.

One of those songs is More Than Words, by Extreme. The song opens with the line Saying I love you is not the words I want to hear from you. If you had written that sentence in a high school paper, your English teacher would nevertheless be slapping you to this day… and rightfully so. Something like I love you isnt what I want to hear from you would have made much more sense, from a grammatical standpoint, especially since its the opening line of the song and is setting a standard for whats to come.

What comes after that doesnt get much better. Another line within that verse states More than words is all you have to do to make it real. Im not already sure how to fix that one. But you can see how it makes for a rough listen.

I dont average to beat up on Extreme, because I do love the song More Than Words. However, better grammar would have been a nice touch here, since theres no reason for the poor grammar other than simply not knowing any better.

Using Bad Grammar

Reading what I just wrote may make you think its never okay to stay from the rules of grammar when writing a song, but thats not the case at all.

As a singer, youre essentially a character in your own story. Different characters speak in different ways. For example, in Amy Winehouses song, Rehab, she sings the line I aint got the time and if my daddy thinks Im fine. clearly, using the information aint isnt considered grammatically appropriate, but in the context of this song, its fine. It fits the Amy Winehouse character in this song. Shes gritty and rough around the edges so of course shed use the information aint when she doesnt want to do something. It makes sense.

A similar thing happens in the title line of Winehouses song Me and Mr. Jones. Sure, from a grammatical standpoint, the line is incorrect. However, putting me first is a shared mistake that Winehouses character would probably use. Plus, had she used correct grammar, the song would have been called Mr. Jones and Me, and Counting Crows already had a big hit with that line.

Thats not to say that Winehouse doesnt have her proportion of grammatical issues during other lines in her songs, in the same way we saw in the Extreme example. However, in the instances we talked about here, it doesnt bother me, because its just how her character would speak.

The same idea applies to lines like I cant get no satisfaction. Sure, that line is a grammatical nightmare, but its okay because it fits Mick Jaggers edgy character. We expect his character to speak that way. In the same way, I wouldnt expect Eminem to use proper grammar in his songs.

For that reason, you shouldnt be going by all of your songs trying to rewrite any lines you have that use made up words like gonna, or wanna, because people DO truly say those things in North American English. Its okay. Most of the times lyrics are meant to sound conversational, as those fake words do. In a lot of situations it would truly sound weirder to hear Im going to that it would to hear Im gonna because that morphed phrase has become such shared place. Singing is an exaggerated form of speech, so ideally youd want to sing your ideas in the same way you would say your ideas.

Also, knowing the difference between your, youre, there, theyre, their, etc., would be wise too, but since we only hear songs this one wont already come up for you when writing lyrics, unless someones looking at your written out words. In that case it would be helpful to know when to use each of these, so you look like you know what youre talking about.

Last observe

As you can see, bad grammar can sometimes be okay to use when youre writing songs (but dont tell your English teacher I told you that!). If you find yourself twisting the typical rules of grammar just to make one of your rhymes work, youre using bad grammar for the wrong reason. If youre doing it because its how your character would speak to someone, then its probably okay.

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