Grammar Paranoia and the Double Negative Dilemma

Hello, everybody. My name is Joanna, and I suffer from Grammar Paranoia.

I had a fit today. The potential error beamed out of the screen at me like a beacon, gloating at my lack of perspicacity. I immediately showed the typical first symptoms: increased heart rate, shivering, and battering my forehead with the palm of my hand. Then I broke out in a cold sweat. I dropped everything I was doing, and trawled through grammar guides, gnawing anxiously at my fingernails as my stomach did somersaults. Should I really have written “Me, Beyoncé and the hideous hag”? Wouldn’t “Beyoncé, the hideous Hag and I” have been better? (At least I hadn’t forgotten the comma that saves Beyoncé from being a hideous hag. Or does it?) Welcome to the mess I call my brain.

Grammar police

An example of what MM is capable of doing. (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

As I have already mentioned on this blog, I am a fully paid-up member of the Punctuation Police. I come out in spots and start muttering obscenities under my breath when I spot a greengrocer’s apostrophe. I tell shop owners in hushed tones that there is a spelling mistake “just here“, whilst my children burn up with embarrassment – they don’t understand that a spelling mistake is as embarrassing as having a bogey hanging out of your nostril. So when I find a mistake in my own writing, I chew off my own arms in despair.

The grammar guides were formal: “I” is used for a subject, and “ME” for an object. So why did my instinct say “ME”? Before my parents threw out the telly, the first BBC educational programme I used to watch as a child was called “You and Me“. Could the BBC have knowingly given their programme a name that was a grammatical minefield? Wouldn’t the Grammar Gestapo have screamed blue murder and burned their dictionaries in front of the BBC’s offices if it had been wrong?

My grammar paranoia turned into an internet hunt using the term “me and you”. It resulted in an impressive list of references to films, books and songs, including that great song, “Me and You and a Dog Named Blue“. I doubt it would have been a hit if he’d sung “You and I and a dog named Blue”. And what about Me and Mrs Jones? Would they still have had a “thing” going on if he’d waffled, “Mrs Jones and I are having a spiffing little fling” instead?

This set me off on a new track about the liberties that the music and film world take by breaking grammatical rules. One of these things is the extremely common double negative. There ain’t no getting rid of that dang double negative. No, siree.

When I switch on the radio and sashay my way around the kitchen, everything goes fine until that fateful moment when the singer spits out that double negative, and I spit my coffee over the hob. Puff Daddy drives me nuts with his eyebrow-raising title “Can’t nobody hold me down“. Nor will I waste any time listening to Justin Timberlake whimpering “I ain’t got no money, I ain’t got no car…” in his song “The way I are”. (I’m sure there must be some deep, philosophical explanation for that conjugation of the verb “to be” apart from it maybe rhyming with “car”, but I ain’t got no time to look, as Justin would say). And last but not least… tadaaaah… our friend Beyoncé. Not only is she the “most beautiful mother in the world”, but she achieves an absolute best of four negatives in her song “Get me bodied”. (Whatever that means. I’ve heard of disembodied, but not bodied). “I ain’t worried, doing me tonight, a little sweat ain’t never hurt nobody“. OK, we’ll take your word for it, Mrs B.

Beyonce Awesome Reaction

Beyoncé during her Olympic quadruple negative exploit (Photo credits: Giphy)

Yet modern-day singers are just continuing an age-old tradition – some of the best singers in history sang to us in double negatives. When Louis Armstrong warbled “I ain’t got nobody”, nobody got their grammar knickers in a twist about the fact that two negatives make a positive, so if he “didn’t have nobody”, he actually had somebody.

It’s too late for me. I’ve tried, tried and tried again, but when I hear Mick Jagger singing that he can’t get no satisfaction, I feel like washing his cavernous mouth out with soap and sending him to bed with a grammar book. If I’d been at Islington Green School when they asked the pupils to sing for Pink Floyd, I’m pretty sure that my mother would have tied me to a chair at home then hammered some sense into the authors with a heavy copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Imagine being a copy editor way back then and finding the lyrics of “Another Brick in the Wall” in your inbox. I would have needed a double dose of Xanax just to get over the opening line, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”. If Joe Bloggs had written these lyrics instead of Pink Floyd, his masterpiece of bad grammar would have been arrested and put in Pedant’s Prison on multiple charges of taking the English language in vain.

I’ve scratched my head a lot about this, and have decided that singers sacrifice good language use to achieve a familiar, “boy next-door who’s just fallen out of the pub and thrown up beside you on the pavement” style of speaking. So, snot fair. We bloggers ain’t got no right to artistic licence wiv grammar, but them singers duz.

I have gone back to my post and changed the title to something less worrying. I’m sure that Muphry’s Law will apply here, and someone will find at least one mistake somewhere in my diatribe about other people’s mistakes. So be it. A little humility ain’t never hurt nobody. Now I’m off for a little lie down – I ain’t got no energy left.

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Mondegreens: When Lionel Richie Sings About Pants.

The other day I was singing along to the radio in the kitchen as I scraped the collateral damage from Bigfoot’s latest calcinated culinary catastrophe off the hob. I knew the words of this love song by heart – it had stayed at number one for weeks on end when I was I teenager. Romantic. Heart-breaking. Nostalgic. Sad… or it was, until my out-of-tune rendition ended in peals of hysterical laughter just seconds into the song.  I’d crooned that fatal line along with the love-sick Lionel Richie:  “I sometimes see your pants outside my door….. Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?

English: Title card from the Three Stooges sho...

Sing a Song of Six Pants, a pocket full of rye…  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meet the Mondegreen, official name for the misheard lyric – a kind of mischievous musical Babel fish that transforms Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” into something my ear finds more appropriate for my brain. “I sometimes see you pass outside my door” thus becomes a kinky new game in which unknown beauties leave their pants outside strangers’ doors. (As we have already discussed in a previous post, although a pair of pants left outside an American door could appear strange but innocuous, a pair of pants left outside a British door could be seen as either bizarre or an open invitation for a spot of rumpy-pumpy.)

I feel so sorry for lyricists who spend months scratching their heads and searching the depths of their souls for meaningful lyrics, only to discover that the bog-standard citizen mishears the song and transforms it into something ridiculous which prevails throughout musical history.

Lionel Ritchie is far from being the only singer-song writer who has suffered from my selective hearing. I have a few favourites that I systematically massacre, even if I have learned the right words now; in fact, the popular “wrong” versions are sometimes so good that I think the composers should have come around to reality a long time ago and changed the lyrics.

Here are a few of them:

Dancing Queen, by Abba, rocked my youth, and it is a mondegreen classic. I still sing it enthusiastically: “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen”.  I remember thinking as a child that it must be so goddamn satisfying to kick a dancing queen, particularly if you’re a tomboy wallflower who was born with two left feet, like me. Boy, I could just feel that beat on the tangerine (or trampoline, depending on who you listen to). Of course, everyone remembers Abba’s great song about Indian take-aways, right? It starts off with “Chicken tikka, tell me what’s wrong….

Black samba kick

See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen… (Photo credit: jumfer)

Bob Dylan: Blowing in the Wind. You discover some surprising things in songs. For example, did you know that Bob Dylan isn’t just a singer? He is also a naturalist, on a par with Richard Attenborough. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourselves in his song “Blowing in the wind”: “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.” See?

Starship: We built this city on rock and roll. Another big favourite that combined cookery, music and urban construction. Come on, hands up… who bopped around school discos singing themselves hoarse with “We built this city…. ta, ta… We built this city on saaaussage rolls, we built this city, we built this city on sauuusssaaaage ro-holls“?

Toto: Africa. I felt very sorry for Toto back in ’82. I couldn’t work out whether he’d  left his brains or blessed the drains down in Africa, but neither sound too appealing to me.

Phil Collins. King of the romantico-depressive genre, Phil did manage to come up with some more refreshing lines. We discovered that he is a secret lover of the winter season in his chart-topping “In the Air Tonight” when he declared: “I’ve been waiting for this snowman for all my life, oh yeah….” I do however have a soft spot for his great song, “Every time you go away,” presumably dedicated to the butcher who is desperately in love with his customer: “Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you.

Tetra Pak® - Housewife at the dairy counter in...

Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you… (Photo credit: Tetra Pak)

Black Sabbath: Paranoid. Mondegreens have also got some singer-songwriters in trouble – Ozzy Osbourne actually had to put things straight when the group was accused of singing “I tell you to end your life” in the song “Paranoid”, when the text actually said « I tell you to enjoy life ».

The Beatles.  Ok, don’t be shy. Hands up if you sang “she has a chicken to ride“. The Beatles’ attempt to get the great British public singing in French also failed dismally, with many of my school friends happily crooning “Sunday monkey play piano song, play piano song” instead of “Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble” in “Michelle”. I was surprised by “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” until I realised that “the girl with colitis goes by” is actually ” the girl with kaleidoscope eyes“.

Soon we’ll be able to sing Christmas songs, and I can’t wait for my favourite festive mondegreens, like “Olive, the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names”. Those memories will hit me again, like when school assembly sang  “sleeep in heeeavenly peasssss,” and I imagined Jesus kipping in a plateful of Christmas vegetable trimmings, covered with bacon blankets. “Later on, we’ll perspire, as we dream by the fire….” Roll on Christmas!

What are your favourite mondegreens? If you’re not asleep already, I’ll leave you with the all-time mondegreen classic by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Happy bopping around your office/kitchen/camping car…. and watch out for those pants outside the door.

Melodious discord and the generation gap.

Life without music is as difficult to imagine as fish without chips, a bath without bubbles or Die Hard without Bruce Willis. Music is my equivalent of Mary Poppin’s spoonful of sugar, and I can often be seen using my broom as a guitar as I do the housework, singing myself hoarse along with Billy Idol on my headphones. So it was par for the course that I was chirping along loudly to 1980’s classics on my way down the motorway to pick up Bigfoot and his chosen counterpart from the lycée last week (more about Bigfoot here).

On the return trip, I flipped the radio back on just in time for Bananarama’s “Venus”. “Yeah!!!” I enthused as I turned the volume up. “Have you heard any Bananarama before, guys?” I was greeted by an uncomfortable silence, and glanced into the rearview mirror. Concerned glances were being exchanged between sixteen-year-old Bigfoot and his chosen counterpart, who then flashed an embarrassed smile at the gear stick and said “Urrr, no….” before they both collapsed into giggles. “Don’t laugh, or I’ll start singing. And I know all the words,” I threatened. They obviously took me seriously, as they then asked for NRJ – a radio station for brainless French teens in need of a lobotomy. I know, I’m a bad loser.

As Bigfoot and his chosen counterpart guffawed on the back seat, I got thinking about my music idols when I was their age. The Cure, The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, the Eurythmics. Go on, admit it, you’re nodding your head in recognition, aren’t you? My parents must have found it difficult not to smile at my conviction that any group called The Psychedelic Furs, Adam and the Ants or Fanny could produce anything even remotely interesting, let alone be able to take Robert Smith seriously with his pointed boots, powdered white face and sullen pout, his blackened eyes glaring out from beneath his back-combed bush of jet-black hair.

Robert Smith is a prominent proponent of the b...

Robert Smith, the dreamboy I would never have dared take home to mum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realised that like my parents, I suffer from musical and cultural angst when I listen to the rubbish that spews out of Bigfoot’s headphones, and despair that my children may never discover real music. I clutched my steering wheel in horror as it dawned on me that the wheel of life had turned and I had become my parents. They had always said it would happen. Those famous last words rang in my head: “You’ll understand when you have your own”.

When we got home, the boys were keen to show me how wrong I am about modern-day music. They pulled out my laptop and within seconds, an example of something they considered “cool” was on the screen. What I can only qualify as electronic noise was accompanied by a video of tattooed men who were making an admirable effort to dance in unlaced boots and trousers that were at least three sizes too big for them.

Obviously suspicious of Newton’s conclusions on gravity, they were carefully weighed down with heavy chains that made them look more like abandoned pit bulls lifting their legs against fire hydrants in the Bronx than singers. Shuffling around the screen, they shook their arms like overexcited primates and stared threateningly into the camera through white sunglasses with empty frames as big as manhole covers. One by one, they all took turns at stabbing accusing fingers at the camera lens as they did their best to fit as much bad language as they could into one sentence.

He's a GOOD Boy

A modern-day rapper ready for YouTube glory (Photo credit: Gregory Jordan).

Just when I was about to do a runner for the kettle, a pop star mother of two gyrated into sight. My jaw hit the kitchen work surface. Her hair has been bleached since her relatively innocent teenaged debut, and was scraped into a yellow poney-tail on top of her head. She started shaking her booty with the tattooed lads, and I must say she did a very good job of staying upright in her high-heeled, studded sandals. I was, however, a little nonplussed by the rest of her outfit: my resident teenaged Fashion Police would never let me go out in a jacket that didn’t cover the important bits, to say nothing of a leather skirt that apparently had a dual personality and took itself for a curtain pelmet.

The torture session drew to a close. “So, Mum, what do you think?” I stared into my offspring’s enthusiastic eyes, and put down my mug of tea to give my verdict. “Firstly, I don’t call that music, it’s noise. Now let’s see. The lyrics. Ummm…” I dug out the few words I’d scribbled on the back of a supermarket receipt. “Molly’s here, we don’t fight fair/My buzz big, like Lightyear/ Get a grip shorty, you can’t stand here. Well, kids, I’d say the song’s about as deep as the author’s belly button, and has as much impact as a strategically placed Smartie on the great railway track of life. Now, would you like my opinion on mothers of small children parading on internet, wearing nothing more than leather underwear, a pair of tights and high-heeled sandals? If I picked you up at school like that, I’d get arrested before I had the fun of seeing your faces!”

Cue rolling teenage eyeballs. “Now, kids. Let’s talk business. About that CD we’re burning for the car trip. We’re going to start with Queen, The Rolling Stones, the Police and Billy Idol, then if you’ve survived the shock of listening to real music we’ll move on to The Cure, Blondie, The Who and Madness”. I didn’t tell them that if they put up a fight, I’ll let P.F out of his cage with his complete collection of Beethoven. So there.