It Ain’t We, Babe

BBXPtI7CQAEQVqYReasons abound for why I’m glad I don’t have a teenager prepping for the SAT at the moment. But the latest word, from the pop star Taylor Swift, on the Princeton Review’s practice test tripled my relief at having passed that hurdle. The test introduces a section titled Grammar in Real Life with the following prompt: “Pop lyrics are a great source of bad grammar. See if you can find the error in each of the following.” The lyrics that follow are by Swift, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston, and Lady Gaga. (I find it curious that they chose an all-female shame slate here, but we’ll let that pass for the moment.)

Taylor Swift’s offending lyric is “Somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them.” Apparently the Princeton Review misquoted the line, prompting a series of tweets and the resulting publicity, but the “offense” remains the same.

What offense? you might ask. Might it be the elision of the word If from the beginning of the sentence? The collapsing of are going to into gonna? Nope. Third time’s the charm: it’s the use of them to refer to a singular pronoun. As the Princeton Review publisher Rob Franek put it in his defense: “If we look at the whole sentence, it starts off with ‘somebody,’ and ‘somebody,’ as you know, is a singular pronoun and if it’s singular, the rest of the sentence has to be singular.”

Never mind that the wording of the defense is itself confusing—what, exactly, does Franek mean by the rest of the sentence? Would a sentence like “When somebody tells me he loves M&Ms, M&Ms appear on his desk” be incorrect because M&Ms is a plural noun and appear a plural verb form? We know what Franek’s after.

But first, he’s wrong. However persnickety you may be about pronoun agreement, too much consensus exists regarding singular “they” to label it a grammar error.

Second, even if we were to grant the so-called error, what happened to poetic license? I don’t know Swift’s reasons for using they, but I would not be surprised to learn she was trying to write a song that would be relevant to both male and female listeners, and singular they gave her a means by which to leave the sex of the avowed lover up to the listener’s imagination. Poets and songwriters do this all the time, and for the Princeton Review to label such license “error” is to rob aspiring students of the freedom to play with language. Would we really want to “correct” No, no, no, it ain’t me babe to No, no, no, it isn’t I, babe? How about When the stars fall from the sky/For you and I?

And let us not pretend that only contemporary pop stars take such license. For years — nay, even now — the last line of T.S. Eliot’s brilliant poem “The Hollow Men” has bugged me:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

To my parallel-loving mind, it should be either Not with a bang but with a whimper—or, if that won’t do, move the modifier: With not a bang but a whimper. But neither of those so-called solutions will do at all. The first messes with the dactylic meter that makes the line great (NOT with a BANG but a WHIMper). The second places the stress in altogether the wrong place (WITH not a BANG but a WHIMper). So, obviously, Eliot had his reasons, and those excellent reasons overrode niggling details of syntax, and I love the poem.

The same applies, I think, to the other examples on the practice test. Katy Perry’s “In another life, I would make you stay, so I don’t have to say you were the one that got away” replaces the “proper” wouldn’t with don’t, which both works better rhythmically and emphasizes the present action of the speaker. (For my money, I’d replace the one that with the one who, but since the test only allows for one error per sentence, I suspect they’re not considering that diction choice.) Whitney Houston’s “It’s the second time around for you and I” does not, like the Doors’s lyric, bend for a rhyme, but the two iterations of me in the line that follows (“And believe me it’s confusing me”) give reason enough to choose I for the first line, whether or not you concur with its use as a prepositional object. Finally, Lady Gaga’s “You and me could write a bad romance” gains its low-down mood in part from that slangy start, and I find I like the m-echo of me and romance better than I would the internal rhyme of I and write, were she to formalize the lyric.

Intelligent people might disagree about these choices. But labeling them bad grammar in an effort at relevance for young test-takers? That’s bad pedagogy, and poor assessment.

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