Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

May 16, 2015

Following my recent defence of double negatives, I wrote further about a particular form of multiple negation that has been popular for many centuries. In Litotes is no small matter, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I describe this figure of speech as:

less rare than you might think – indeed, it is anything but uncommon. Litotes is used in all sorts of language varieties and contexts, from high-flown rhetoric to everyday small talk. We might reply to the greeting ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain.’ . . .

Litotes shows up in some familiar phrases and idioms. If we think someone should be able to do or understand something, we can say it’s not rocket science. If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know in no uncertain terms – a phrase that conveys the force of our disapproval. So as well as understatement, litotes can also be used for emphasis.

The post looks at other forms of litotes, such as the common not un-X construction, cites some familiar examples from pop culture, and considers its functions and range of meaning.

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With pop culture on the brain, I then tackled a famous (and somewhat infamous) song lyric at which I’ve often wondered at. The line I’m interested in occurs at 0:18 and 2:06 in the video below:

The question is whether McCartney sings: this ever-changing world in which we live in, or …in which we’re livin’. In my Macmillan post This ever-changing language in which we live in, I note that the latter interpretation

would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural.’

Read the rest for more analysis and conjecture, including McCartney’s own ambivalence when queried about it. For older posts, see my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


Is you is or is you ain’t bad grammar?

June 19, 2012

In a post at Lingua Franca a few months ago, Geoffrey Pullum made a useful distinction between Normal and Formal styles of English. He says “proper use of English is not defined by relentless use of Formal”, a fact that eludes those for whom correct English is coterminous with formal standard English.

Unaware that correctness, far from being absolute, can vary with register, dialect and context, people end up taking against innocuous usages and non-existent errors that then impair their enjoyment of language. Their appreciation of music suffers too, because they hold song lyrics to the same restrictive standards as elevated writing.

Certain lyrics are ungrammatical: I don’t dispute that. But people flip out over double negatives, omitted subjunctives, reflexive pronouns and the playful disregard of formal subject-verb agreement as though these implied illiteracy, laziness, stupidity or recklessness. Never mind dialectal sensitivity: not even poetic licence gets a look-in here.

The common but notoriously non-standard word ain’t occurs frequently in song lyrics and is often singled out for criticism, be it light-heartedly ironic or stern and cranky:

I dislike hearing the word ain’t in a song and sometimes an otherwise beautiful piece of music just grates when that word is used. Having been a teacher I guess to me it’s the grand daddy of bad grammer [sic].

But ain’t isn’t really a grammatical issue. Bad grammar and non-standard language, though commonly conflated, are not the same thing, as I said in a discussion on Grammar Girl’s blog last year. Bad grammar means something like “Goed us town.” I don’t think that’s grammatical in any variety of English, though we might hear goed from a child who has temporarily regularised a strong verb.

There are rules of syntax and morphology that we pick up as infants and observe automatically, and there are “rules” – generally style or usage guidelines – that we’re taught later and that may be worth heeding in certain settings. But to many people, bad grammar and grammar errors simply mean any set of conventions in English that differ from the formal standard (or from their interpretation of it).

In short: informal ≠ incorrect, and non-standard ≠ sub-standard. A particular kind of English – formal written style – is socially privileged, and sometimes it’s exalted at the expense of common sense or courtesy. Ignorance of these nuances means irrational peeves thrive, and people make a habit of collecting and hating everyday usages that don’t fit their narrow sense of what’s acceptable.

English is replete with styles, dialects and sublanguages that are fully context-appropriate, and grammatical in their own right. They’re not what you’d use in a business letter or ceremonial speech, but why would they be? Different domains of expression have their own norms: it’s presumptuous and preposterous to impose one set on all others.

Songwriters draw on genre conventions and their own dialects, both of which they may play with and subvert. Insisting on formal standard English all the time is like prescribing formal attire 24/7. It’s like saying E. E. Cummings ought to fix his formatting, or demanding that jazz obey 2/4 time. No wonder peevers can’t get no satisfaction.

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λ♥[love] (Linguistics Love Song)

May 14, 2011

λ♥[love] is written and sung by Christine Collins, a writer and self-described time traveller [Doctor Who fan] from the U.S. She describes it as “a convenient, terminology-dropping, non-gender-specific love song for all your linguist-seducing needs”.

The song will be of particular interest to linguists, but its winning melody and sweet delivery give it broad appeal. The lyrics offer a similar strain of ambiguity as my Grammar Day haiku, but it’s a far more laudable use of the technique.

Lyrics are below the fold, with a few explanatory links. I’ve changed the breaks between some lines / in order to enhance the rhymes.

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Walls of books and waves of ambient guitar

March 3, 2010

Things have been quiet here over the last few weeks. Offline activities took precedence: among other things, I moved house, which meant transporting more books, boxes and kipple than I can quickly organise. But I’m overdue a clear-out. Sifting through the mountains of matter, I’ve segregated several boxes of clothes and bric-a-brac destined for delivery to the local charity shops, and I’ve built parts 1–6 of a temporary wall of books. Now to figure out how to stack or stash the remaining 85% without barricading my bed.

The new place is a little further from the seashore, but still just a few minutes’ walk away. There are more trees outside, which means more birds, which means more birdsong — a welcome soundtrack to most activities, including unpacking. Until the return of what passes for normal service, then, here are three performances of something structured far more carefully and subtly than my budding book wall: Steve Reich’s minimalist electro-ambient beauty Electric Counterpoint, part 1:

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Link love: jazz

April 3, 2009

As the weekend slopes in, it would be unseemly to assail my readers with another lump of linguistics, so I have decided to add music to this blog. I begin with jazz. Strictly speaking, one of the following songs is more bossa nova than jazz, and one or two others are more funk or fusion. On the other hand they are all jazzy enough, except perhaps for one, and jazz does not speak strictly.

To those of you who are not jazz fans, but might be, fear not: nothing below is too squeaky, frenetic or outré. Most of the songs are old but still sound fresh, even the Four Freshmen’s; if you want something new, skip to the last song. All of the videos bar one are hosted on YouTube, and a few are embedded in the blog. There are also links to the musicians’ home pages or online biographies.

Swing me to the jazz