Songwriter writing lyrics

Does Good Grammar Matter in a Song Lyric?

It’s not hard to find songs that use slang or grammatical and spelling “errors” in the title or lyric. Lots of “ain’t”, “gonna”, and also a lot of dropped g’s as in Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'”.

I occasionally get messages or emails from songwriters asking what I think of grammatical correctness in a song lyric; how important is it?

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My opinion is that a good song lyric always comes down to this: Does my lyric sound like it came from a conversation? In other words, does it sound natural? If it does, then the actual grammar is probably less important.

There are times when you’re writing a lyric that you might get concerned that your choice of words is sounding perhaps a bit stiff. I suppose if you’re using phrases like “with which”, “to impart”, or “whereas”, you’re probably writing something that needs to be reworded!

But even in those cases, it’s still going to come down to this: Does the lyric sound natural?

If you find yourself throwing in grammatical errors simply to make a song sound natural, you’re in danger of going too much the other way: writing a lyric that sounds forced and unnatural.

It’s not easy to find song lyrics that use grammatical errors, so that should tell us something. But there are some errors that we commonly use in conversational speech, and it probably doesn’t really matter much if we use them in a song lyric: “different than” (which is incorrect), over “different from.”

A famous discussion over grammar comes to us via Paul McCartney’s title song for the Bond movie, “Live and Let Die.” The original sheet music tells us that the fourth line of the song is:

in this ever-changing world in which we live in

That is, of course, grammatically incorrect, and you’ll now see lyric websites post the line as being: “…in this ever-changing world in which we’re living…”, which is correct. McCartney’s statement on that line is: “I don’t think about the lyric when I sing it. I think it’s ‘in which we’re living’, or it could be ‘in which we live in’, and that’s kind of, sort of, wronger but cuter.”

If you find yourself really worrying about grammar in your song lyrics, simply ask yourself if the line feels natural. If you’d say that line in casual conversation, and not worry that you said something embarrassingly incorrect, you’re probably just fine to put it in your song lyric.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. For the most part, I don’t let grammar bother me unless the songwriter uses it to form a tortured rhyme. For example, when Neil Diamond says “songs she brung to me” to rhyme with “songs she sung to me” … Cringe!

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