Let’s Hear Some New Grammar Songs!
Posted by Neal on November 8, 2011
“You know there’s a helping verb song, right?” Doug asked. “One of Mrs. M’s students wrote it years ago. Mrs. M. taught it to us in fifth grade, and now we all remember all the helping verbs.”
“Really?” I asked. I’m teaching a college ESL class this fall, and had noticed that choosing the right helping verb was a problem in many of the students’ written sentences. Doug had asked how the class was going, so I’d told him. Doug then obliged me by singing the song, to the tune of the chorus of “Jingle Bells”, into my phone’s microphone:
Helping verbs, helping verbs, there are 23!
Am, is, are, was and were, being, been, and be,
Have, has, had, do, does, did, will, would, shall and should.
There are five more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, could!
I figured I could play it for the class, but later, I got a better idea and looked for the song on YouTube. I found at least half a dozen versions, so I’m not sure I believe Mrs. M’s student really did write it. But it’s possible that someone right here in our town was the source of the meme, so I’ll withhold judgment. This video is the one I played for the class:
They loved it, and had me play it several times. I hope it helps them, and I’m not going to say anything to these students about how this song (and various other grammar resources) always leave out the verb having, as in Not having finished his homework, Doug wasn’t allowed to go play with his friends. It doesn’t help to form any of the verb tenses, active or passive voice, so why inflict this complication on English learners at this level? (I did tell Doug and Adam about it, though.)
My students told me I should use more music in the class, so I tried to figure out some way of putting into a song the rules about which main verb forms go with which helping verbs. I eventually settled on “Red River Valley” (or as I was introduced to it in summer camp, “When It’s Hog-Killing Time in Nebraska”). Here’s what I came up with:
Helping verbs need to go with a main verb.
But which form of the main verb is right?
Use the plain form with all of your modals:
Can, could, shall, should, will, would, must, may, and might.
Use the plain form with do, does, and did, too.
Use the past participle with have, has, had.
Use the -ing form with all of your be verbs.
When you know your verb forms you’ll be glad.
Those two verses, including that rather lame last line, were all I wanted to give my class. (If someone has a better last line, I’ll take it!) But I felt compelled to write a final verse, lest someone take the first two verses too much to heart, and be afraid to use past participles with be when they’re more advanced. So here’s verse 3:
This last verse tells about a complication.
Sometimes past participles can go with forms of be.
When they do, it’s a big change in meaning.
Who’s performing the action is key.
Helping Verbs and Main Verbs by Neal Whitman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.youtube.com.
It occurred to me that teachers could probably use some other grammar points put into popular song formats, and that’s what brings me to the latest Grammar Girl book giveaway contest that I promised in my last post. The rules:
- Between now and 11:59PM November 14, take an existing melody and write some new lyrics for it, explaining some area of English grammar.
- Post the lyrics in a comment, giving the title of the original song and your new title.
- If you wish, you can make a video of the song and link to it.
- Grammar topics can cover the same areas as existing songs about English grammar, or present topics that haven’t been put into song yet.
- Be linguistically responsible. Prescriptive rules are OK (they’re what this contest is about), but make sure they’re in line with what good writers actually do when writing in standard English. For example, saying that the third-person singular present tense is formed with an -s or -es suffix is OK, but saying that whose is only for animate or human referents is not.
- Don’t plagiarize!
- Don’t give me something you already published, on the Internet or elsewhere. I want this contest to generate some new and hopefully useful teaching resources.
- I’ll wait until it’s November 15 all over the world to make the cutoff, and the writers of the two best songs (in my judgment) will each receive a copy of Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart (thanks to Mignon Fogarty for providing them!).
- As far as I’m concerned, you retain all rights to your song, but in the spirit of making new teaching resources available, I hope you’ll put them under a Creative Commons license, as I did with mine.
- All other things equal, I will give preference to:
- Songs whose melodies that are in the public domain.
- Songs linked to a video.
So let’s hear your grammar songs! If you need some inspiration, allow me to suggest “The Forgotten Helping Verb”.