Teachers at Work

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It's Only Rock and Roll

Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker has a simple lesson for her students: Don't learn grammar from rock stars. Here Margaret explains how rock and roll lyrics with non-standard English constructions can often lead students of grammar astray.

One reason it's hard to teach grammar and usage to college students is that so much language is played by ear. I can drill the rules into their heads — they can learn to identify dangling modifiers or the passive voice — but what they remember has everything to do with what they're used to hearing.

I realize that rock stars are not out to teach grammar. If Mick Jagger had yelled, "I can't get any satisfaction," it really wouldn't have the same punch. Elvis wouldn't be king if he'd said simply, "You are a hound dog." And when the Arctic Monkeys ask, "What do you know?" the answer is clearly "You don't know nothing!" When I was in a band, I wasn't thinking about proper usage while screaming that some jerk had done me wrong. But as a writing teacher, I think about it all the time.

Below are some examples of how rock and roll leads us grammatically astray, and tips on how to retune the internal radio.

Don't Let Bob Dylan Teach Transitive Verbs

"Lay, lady, lay."

He should have asked her to lie down. Lay/lie drives everyone nuts. Lay is transitive and lie is intransitive — transitive verbs take direct objects, intransitive verbs don't. It helps me to remember that transitive verbs transport something. So in the present tense you lie down, but you lay the paper down. The problem is that in the past tense, you lay down, and you laid the paper down. For a quick conjugation of these zany verbs, go here.

After yapping about the intricacies of lay/lie for too long, I wake my students up and tell them just to remember that in the present tense they lie down but lay something down. Done. Later I give them a quiz with words to use in sentences and here comes Bob Dylan with "Lay across my big brass bed." Or Eric Clapton singing, "Lay down Sally."

All these rocker guys want their women to lay down, but the question is, lay what? An egg? Perhaps if they would lay the blanket down, the ladies would lie down on it. Snow Patrol gets closer in "Chasing Cars" when the singer croons, "If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me?" Alas, it took him three tries.

Don't Learn the Subjunctive from The Mamas & the Papas

"I'd go for a walk, if I was in L.A."

The Mamas & the Papas aren't exactly the rock stars my students listen to, but when I get stuck on a grammar question, I conjure familiar phrases, too. Before I started teaching college writing, I was having trouble with the subjunctive mood, so I went to the sentences in my head, and there was "California Dreamin'" beckoning me to the dark side with "I'd go for a walk, if I was in L.A."

Papa should have sung, "if I were in L.A." because the subjunctive mood is required when expressing conditions contrary to fact. He is not in L.A. "If I was" is okay if it could be true, as in "If I was rude last night, forgive me." But in Prince's song, "If I Was Your Girlfriend," as cute as he is, he can never be your girlfriend, so he should have said, "if I were your girlfriend." Take it from Beyoncé (and now we're getting even further from rock) who gets it right in her song "If I Were a Boy." Confused yet? For more on the crankiest of the verb moods, go here.

Lynyrd Skynyrd Heads the Department of Redundancy Department

"Done killed the poor man dead."

My job as a writing teacher isn't to teach grammar per se but to help students write clear expository prose, which of course is much harder than just looking at rules. Many times what's wrong with a sentence isn't usage but some fuzziness that turns out to be redundancy. I often have the urge to take a fire hose to sentences and wash away words until only the meaning is left, shiny and obvious. When Beck says, "Where it's at" it's not the preposition at the end but the fact that "where" implies the unwanted "at" that gets that song the red-pen treatment. And when Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant howls, "Twenty years of rotgut whiskey done killed the poor man dead," we know that a man who is killed is indeed dead, too. (Like those roaches in the Raid commercial, but don't get me started on ads.)

Speaking of Skynyrd, here at the end of the article, I have the urge to hold my lighter up and dissect "Freebird," but I'll restrain. It's part of my internal radio. And back to the internal radios of my students: Last semester, after explaining the lay/lie problem almost every class, at the end of the year I asked them to write down an anonymous grammar question. The first one was, "What's the difference between lay and lie?"

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

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Monday March 16th 2009, 2:37 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
This is an excellent article: entertaining and informative. Where were her clear explanations when I was struggling with some of these slippery concepts? Her students are fortunate to have her.
Monday March 16th 2009, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Paul H. (Southampton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I must say I really enjoyed reading your article Margaret! If I were to return to my previous career as a primary school teacher then I would definitely use this lesson idea. As for Zant's "Twenty years of rotgut whiskey done killed the poor man dead," am I I correct in saying that we also have a lovely little piece of tautology on our hands?
Monday March 16th 2009, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Fortunate, indeed. I admire the fact that Margaret Parker uses songwriters' grammatical errors in order to help students learn correct usage, but in no way tries to belittle songwriters.

She got me thinking of examples where the lyricist got it right first time:

"Lay your head upon my pillow" is a line from "For the Good Times" by Kris Kristofferson. But he errs a few lines later by writing "Hear the whisper of the raindrops blowing soft against the window". But the correct form "softly" wouldn't have fit with the metre. He could have written "blowing softly on the window" but his version sounds better.

"If I were a carpenter" - A Tim Hardin song first recorded by Bobby Darin but made more famous by the Johnny & June Cash version.

And of course "If I were a rich man" from "Fiddler on the Roof".
Monday March 16th 2009, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Philip W.
Great article! I had the good fortune of growing up in a household that stressed correct grammar. My mother was an English teacher, so, we were constantly being corrected. When I would take an English test in high school, and even college, I would use one basic rule that my mother taught me: "If it sounds wrong, then it probably is." This rule helped me make straight A's in English. Of course, this rule doesn't work if you were in a family that spoke incorrect English. I was fortunate. You only realize this years later. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
Monday March 16th 2009, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Another example of 'correct' song lyrics (though not with verbs) is Tea For Two... That's one that uses the objective pronoun instead of the nominative!

I cringe listening to football games as quarterbacks lay passes every which way! They are also 'laying' on the field frequently. There surely orter be a usage packet for colour commentators! I think basketball players do similar things.

Maybe I should forego listening to the commentators and just watch! That, however, would not help those still trying to keep expository writing alive and well.
Monday March 16th 2009, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was a fun article. However, the lay/lie construction — at least here in Northern California — is a dead horse. I never hear anybody say "lie" anymore — and I've been watching for it.

"I'm going to go lay down," is what I say myself.

I think lay/lie should be relegated to the grammatical ash heap, along with the use of "I" in the predicate nominative position.

"Who's going to go to the store?"

Nobody would or should answer "I." It sounds pretentious, or even wrong.

I think that you have to be really prescriptive about grammar to enforce "I" and "lie."
Monday March 16th 2009, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
What a great article you have written. I rejoice that someone still does believe that there are rules in English grammar. I rejoice also that someone believes students should be taught what the rules are, and made aware of the errors in written work.
Don, in Northern California, it pains me to tell you that I also live there and continue in my old fashioned ways. I use "lie" frequently because I, like so many of my age, grew up in a home where proper spelling and grammar were considered an important part of being an educated "lady." I confess my "lady" ID may not be 100% accurate today, but in my learning years it was my father's expectation.
Maybe we have accepted lazy ways and no one would answer "I" as the response to who might be going to the store. The answer in the old days was, "I am." We also learned early that my mother's response to the question, "Where is my jacket at?" was always the same. "Just before the at." As a writer, I have made frequent use of broken rules, but I was schooled in the adage that first you learn the rules, then you learn how to break them. I have grown children whose writing skills are average for their ages. These are bright people whose intellect is too often hidden in poorly written articles and letters. Let's give some respect to proper use of our language. It's not a difficult challenge and it says a lot about who you are.
Monday March 16th 2009, 2:34 PM
Comment by: Judith Ida B. (Pittsburgh, PA)
This is a fantastic article. I wish I'd seen this during my classwork phase of my MFA, Not Just my thesis. But as it is, thanks to your article, It will save my editor and advisor time rather than going over these mistakes with me. I'm going to pass the article along to my advisor so other students can benefit. Thanks.
Monday March 16th 2009, 8:11 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Your points are well taken, Marian....
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 12:01 AM
Comment by: Mo (Wanganui New Zealand)
great article and i feel even better now knowing i don't have to teach english. poetry perhaps, so i would have the freedom to wander if not in daffodils, at least having a susanne to take me down to her place by the river or seeing young girls with their bare arms on. for that reason teaching visual art is so much easier even with the addition of written language and the variety of texts brought to the table.
Wednesday March 18th 2009, 7:48 AM
Comment by: maddestG
virtual thesaurus
virse tual the saurus...
verse tool the source...

revealing the governing inspiration, the embedded thumbprint of original author...
Saturday April 4th 2009, 7:15 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Your article was inspiring!
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Tom S. (Portland, OR)
Can we pile correction on correction here? The line from The Mamas & the Papas is "I'd be safe and warm if I was in LA," not "I'd go for a walk if I was in LA."

Sure, the lack of subjunctive takes liberties, but the poetry of the line relies on a scan that emphasizes "safe" and "warm," not "for" and "walk."

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