Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

Creative Commons License
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

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:

  1. Between now and 11:59PM November 14, take an existing melody and write some new lyrics for it, explaining some area of English grammar.
  2. Post the lyrics in a comment, giving the title of the original song and your new title.
  3. If you wish, you can make a video of the song and link to it.
  4. Grammar topics can cover the same areas as existing songs about English grammar, or present topics that haven’t been put into song yet.
  5. 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.
  6. Don’t plagiarize!
  7. 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.
  8. 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!).
  9. 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.
  10. 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”.

6 Responses to “Let’s Hear Some New Grammar Songs!”

  1. The Preposition Song to Yankee Doodle Dandy

    Above Across Along Amid
    Among Around At Behind
    Beneath Beside Between Beyond
    By Down From In Inside Into
    Near On Onto Out Outside
    Over Past Through To Towards
    Under Up Upon Within
    After Before During Off
    Since Til Until
    For Like Of With

    • Neal said

      Ah, great! Our first contestant! I need some clarification, though. Is the tune “Yankee Doodle (Went to Town)”, the pre-Revolutionary song; or “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy”, aka “Yankee Doodle Boy”, written ~1904? The words seem to fit better to “Yankee Doodle”, which seems to be a popular choice for listing the prepositions, but I can’t seem to make the last three lines fit into it.

  2. Edward Vitasek said

    Passive Voice’s lament (Greensleeves)

    Alas, style guide, you do me wrong,
    To cast me off discourteously.
    For I have laboured oh so long,
    Made many a verb’s object subject.

    Transitives were all my joy
    Transitives were my delight,
    Transitives were my sleight of hand,
    I made many a verb’s object subject.

    Your usage blame not unto me,
    Oh, why did you abuse me so?
    Verbs’ Valency is all to me
    Your meaning is none of my business.

    Transitives were all my joy
    Transitives were my delight,
    Transitives were my sleight of hand,
    I made many a verb’s object subject.

    Alas, style guide, I have been wronged
    And cast off so discourtously
    For naught this service was performed:
    Many a verb’s object made subject

  3. Tom Lindner said

    Title: I-N-G
    (to the tune of “Heart and Soul”)

    it’s as easy as 123,
    turning verbs to nouns with you and me
    Try it yourself and you will see,
    Start with write,
    Now add the little three i-n-g
    Writing is what you see
    The verb is now a noun, a noun, a noun, a noun
    Lucky for thee, you have the little three.

  4. Neal said

    Thanks for entering, Jen, Edward, and Tom. I’ve selected my winners.

    In first place is definitely Edward, for a not-too-oversimplified song about the passive voice, with words that fit well in the chosen, well-known tune.

    Between Jen and Tom, I had trouble choosing. Jen’s preposition list fits well in the original tune (assuming that it’s “Yankee Doodle (Went to Town)” and not “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy”), but it doesn’t have all the prepositions (what about against, for example?) and one item is debatable (like). Also, there are already several arrangements of a list of prepositions to this tune.

    Tom’s song, which I assume goes with the standard “Heart and Soul” and not Huey Lewis and the News’ “Heart and Soul”, is a nice choice of topic, but I had a little trouble fitting some of the lines into the tune I knew. Also, the lyrics seem to imply that -ing turns verbs only into nouns, and not participles and gerunds. Finally, the simplicity of adding -ing overlooks the requirement to delete silent E, as in writing, or to double consonants after short vowels (e.g., stopping).

    For that reason, second place goes to Jen. Congratulations, Edward and Jen! Please email me your postal addresses so I can send your books. Tom, thanks again for entering. Now you’ve got “I-N-G, it’s as easy as 1-2-3” running through my head while I picture Tom Hanks dancing on a giant keyboard.

  5. David said

    To the tune of “Jingle Bells” (and inspired by your article “The Forgotten Helping Verbs”)

    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!

    Helping verbs, helping verbs,
    there are 8 forgot!
    Used (to) also helps the verb,
    have (to) and you ought.
    Having said, and I done said,
    and let as in Let’s go,
    Need in Need I say again?
    and dare in How dare you!

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