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 shouldn’t. 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 still be slapping you to this day… and rightfully so. Something like “‘I love you’ isn’t what I want to hear from you” would have made much more sense, from a grammatical standpoint, especially since it’s the opening line of the song and is setting a standard for what’s to come.
What comes after that doesn’t get much better. Another line within that verse states “More than words is all you have to do to make it real.” I’m not even sure how to fix that one. But you can see how it makes for a rough listen.
I don’t mean 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 there’s 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 it’s never okay to stay from the rules of grammar when writing a song, but that’s not the case at all.
As a singer, you’re 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 the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine.” Obviously, using the word “ain’t” isn’t considered grammatically appropriate, but in the context of this song, it’s fine. It fits the Amy Winehouse “character” in this song. She’s gritty and rough around the edges so of course she’d use the word “ain’t” when she doesn’t want to do something. It makes sense.
A similar thing happens in the title line of Winehouse’s song “Me and Mr. Jones.” Sure, from a grammatical standpoint, the line is incorrect. However, putting “me” first is a common mistake that Winehouse’s 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.
That’s not to say that Winehouse doesn’t have her share 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 doesn’t bother me, because it’s just how her character would speak.
The same idea applies to lines like “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Sure, that line is a grammatical nightmare, but it’s okay because it fits Mick Jagger’s edgy character. We expect his character to speak that way. In the same way, I wouldn’t expect Eminem to use proper grammar in his songs.
For that reason, you shouldn’t be going through all of your songs trying to rewrite any lines you have that use made up words like “gonna,” or “wanna,” because people DO actually say those things in North American English. It’s okay. Most of the times lyrics are meant to sound conversational, as those “fake” words do. In a lot of cases it would actually sound weirder to hear “I’m going to” that it would to hear “I’m gonna” because that morphed phrase has become such common place. Singing is an exaggerated form of speech, so ideally you’d want to sing your ideas in the same way you would say your ideas.
Also, knowing the difference between “your,” “you’re,” “there,” “they’re,” “their,” etc., would be wise too, but since we only hear songs this one won’t even come up for you when writing lyrics, unless someone’s 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 you’re talking about.
As you can see, bad grammar can occasionally be okay to use when you’re writing songs (but don’t 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, you’re using bad grammar for the wrong reason. If you’re doing it because it’s how your character would speak to someone, then it’s probably okay.