Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
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.