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Lyricists have tense all their own: improper perfect

It's been awhile since we've used these pages to address the problem of bad grammar in pop music. Some years ago we chided some of rock 'n' roll's finest _ Bo Diddley, the Doors, er, Helen Reddy _ for mangling the English language.

It's time again. To question not who we love, but whom.

To ponder, if, indeed, we'll then love one another till the stars fall from the sky _ but for you and me, Mr. Morrison, not you and I.

However, Ms. Reddy, it is you and I that are against the world. Or, sometimes it feels like it, hmmm?

Is there a way for rock 'n' roll and the English language to coexist in peace?

Not if you want good rhymes, apparently. Many of the grammar gaffes in popular songs are obviously done for artistic purposes _ substituting "you and I" for "you and me" because it fits a rhyme scheme, that sort of thing. Some "bad" grammar in music is colloquial or street talk, which is often the case with hip-hop and country music.

Other mistakes apparently are made from ignorance.

Class, the rules of English are not so tricky. When you consider that so many young people in other countries are fluent in several languages and we can't even master our own, it's sad.

I blame the radio.

And little vixens like Avril Lavigne who take liberties with the language, wantonly interspersing numerals into song titles as if she's the new Prince. What's this Sk8ter Boi nonsense? I can forgive the number 8 or the "boy" misspelling, but not both, not from a new star who hasn't yet earned my love.

It took time, and oodles of talent, for Prince to earn his funky song titles using numbers and his own kooky lexicon: I Would Die 4 U, Take Me With U, Anotherloverholenyohead.

Granted, when it comes to moods and tenses and all that jazz, our native tongue grows complex.

Should we malign Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys for not choosing the correct verb in I'm Not Scared? Tennant sings, "If I was you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do."

A grammarian, or anyone who speaks proper English, will tell you that "was" should be a "were."

Repeat: "If I were you."

Here's why: The verb is in the subjunctive mood, meaning Tennant is using it to express a wish, or something that's not his reality. That's the boring explanation.

But here's a rock 'n' roll grammar lesson for you big guys who consider yourselves unsophisticates, rebels. Pay attention. Grammar is easy. And, it's SEXY!

The subjunctive verb, you see, is all about fantasy. Simply play some air guitar. Go ahead, wrap your hairy fingers around the invisible neck of that Fender.

Now, repeat after me:

"Dude, if I were a guitarist, I'd wail like Hendrix!"

Say "were." Because it's a fantasy.

Fantasy No. 2, perhaps among friends, enjoying beers at your local bar:

"Dude, if Jenna Jameson were my wife, she'd have to write another book right after our honeymoon!" (followed by hand slaps).

In short, always use "were," not "was," when you are totally making junk up.

Tennant, a former music writer, should know about subjunctive verbs. Yet, he messes it up again in the title of the song If There Was Love, which the Boys wrote for Liza Minnelli.

Contrast Tennant's gaffes with the brilliant Noel Coward songs of the 1930s (and some in later decades) that pine for love, including If Love Were All, or Frank Loesser's If I Were a Bell (from Guys & Dolls), or, more recently, Michael Penn's 1989 hit No Myth, with its clever chorus:

What if I were Romeo in black jeans?

What if I were Heathcliff, it's no myth

Maybe she's just looking for

Someone to dance with.

And he gets extra points for referencing both Shakespeare and Emily Bronte.

But, back to the slackers. How about Stevie Wonder? This man for decades has been manipulating English, with beautiful, if awkward, results. Wonder doesn't use bad grammar, really, he just ignores normal rules of syntax. Wonder puts words in any ol' order to get good rhymes. Call it "poetic license."

From I Wish:

Looking back on when I

was a nappy headed boy

Then my only worry

was for Christmas what would be my toy

That last line really stretches it, worrying "about what I was getting for Christmas" wouldn't have rhymed.

Neo-funkster Lenny Kravitz is a huge fan of Wonder's. He lists Wonder's Innervisions as one of his favorite albums. It shouldn't surprise us that Kravitz cribs from the Wonder "creative" way of writing, with less than wondrous results.

On I Build This Garden for Us, from Let Love Rule, Kravitz's 1989 debut, he writes this couplet:

We'll live each day in peace

in hope that we will one day reach

the rest of the world

when they are ready to be teached.

In all my life, I've never been "teached" anything.

Do you suppose I just haven't been ready?

Michael Jackson has a lot of peculiarities, but let us confine this discussion to his relationship with language. Clearly he didn't learn much when he sang about his ABC's with his brothers in the Jackson 5, because as soon as he went solo with 1979's Off the Wall, he sang utter nonsense. Just listen to Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough:

Touch me and I feel on fire

Ain't nothin' like a love desire

I'm melting like hot candle wax

Sensation, lovely here we're at.

Sigh. Where do we begin? "Feel on fire," or the use of "ain't," or the faux sentence at the end?

Things didn't improve with 1982's Thriller. The title of Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' alone sends chills down the grammarian spine. Not to mention the song's opening line:

I took my baby to the doctor

with a fever, but nothing he found.

I'm sorry, who's got the fever here?

Michael? His baby? The doctor?

Try again, Mr. Jackson. Be precise.

Jackson's former father-in-law, Elvis Presley, may have been the king of rock 'n' roll, but he was no prince of grammar. In our last rant, we mentioned Presley's hit Love Me Tender, which would have been titled Love Me Tenderly if the song's writer had paid attention to the rule about adverbs ending in -ly.

Enough time has passed that we can now nag Presley about the tunes Treat Me Nice, which should have been Treat Me Nicely, and All Shook Up, which should have been, technically, All Shaken Up, or, preferably, All Shaken.

What of the horrendously titled I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine?

Lest we forget Hound Dog, which begins with this bit of egregious English:

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog . . .

Good grief! That line alone must have had grammar teachers of the 1950s "cryin' all the time."

However, can you imagine Elvis shaking his pelvis while trying to sing the grammatically correct, "You cry so frequently, as if you were a hound dog?"

Heck, no.

Which is all to say, grammar is always important.

But when it comes to pop music, sometimes the improper is perfect, too.

Gina Vivinetto can be reached at (727) 893-8565 or