Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ambiguous song lyrics’ Category

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2016

I’ve been thinking about “Uptown Funk,” the song b Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars that spent fully one quarter of the year 2015 at the top of the US Billboard chart. You’ve heard it, of course. There was no escaping it two years ago. But if you need a memory refresher, it went like this:

The hook consists of Mars singing (in this order) the five words don’t, believe, me, just, and watch. But which of the following three structures is the one that Mars has in mind?

  1. [If you] don’t believe me, just watch.
  2. {You] don’t believe me? Just watch.
  3. Don’t believe me; just watch.

We could answer the question easily with a look at the official sheet music, couldn’t we? Of course we could, but do you want the easy answer or the fun answer? That’s what I thought.

[If you] don’t believe me, just watch.

When I first heard the song, I interpreted the hook this way, without questioning it. I took it as a heavily elliptical conditional sentence, which has suppressed not only the if, but also the subject you. Kind of like how if you snooze, you lose became you snooze, you lose, and ultimately the telegraphic snooze you lose. Or maybe a better example would be Mess with the bull, get the horns, where the main clause get the horns has also lost its subject.

The more I thought about it, though, the less certain I was about this interpretation, because just watch is pretty clearly a command, but in all my comparable examples, the main clause was a declaration. You lose is a declaration. Even in Mess with the bull, get the horns, where there’s no explicit subject for get the horns, it’s clearly a statement. It doesn’t mean that if you mess with the bulls, you’re obligated to get the horns; it means you will get the horns.

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

That’s when it occurred to me that what I might be hearing was an elliptical yes/no question. These abbreviated questions can omit the auxiliary verb if it’s clear from the context (as in 1-4 below), or the auxiliary verb along with the subject, if the subject is you (see 5 and 6). Negative elliptical questions like this are interesting because in them, you omit the subject you while keeping the negated auxiliary verb, which has to be contracted (see 7-9).

  1. [Does] anybody want to play cards?
  2. [Has] everyone used the bathroom?
  3. [Is] Kim sitting here?
  4. *[Can] anyone give me a hand?
  5. [Do you] like it?
  6. *[Does anybody] want to play cards?
  7. [You] don’t believe me?
  8. *[You] do not believe me?
  9. *[You do] not believe me?

This question-plus-command structure is essentially an imperative conditional, functionally equivalent to If you don’t believe me, just watch. To comply with the command, you have a choice. You can believe Mars, thus negating the if clause, or you can watch him. You could even take the “trust but verify” option of doing both: believing him and watching him.

Don’t believe me; just watch.

Unless, of course, Mars had our third option in mind, and is saying, “Don’t take my word for it–see the evidence for yourself!” In this interpretation, Don’t believe me is neither an elliptical conditional missing an If you, nor an elliptical question missing just a you. Instead, it’s just an ordinary imperative, like the second clause. To comply with these two commands, you no longer have the option of simply believing Mars and being done with it. He’s ordering you not to do that, and to watch him as well.

So which is it?

During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Mars sings the DBMJW refrain a total of 18 times. Ruling out the first interpretation for the reasons I stated above, that leaves the question/command combination and the double command. Based on science, I conclude that the first through fourth utterances, the eleventh and twelfth, and the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth are question/command combinations, and the remaining instances are pairs of commands.

Don’t believe me … ?

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 2 Comments »

Sara Squint

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2014

In an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, I read an article about Sara Bareilles, a name I recognized from a music video that used to play on the overhead TVs at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym. The song was called “King of Anything,” and aside from having a good hook, it piqued my interest with the mismatch between its title and its lyrics. The title suggested “free-choice anything,” as in “I can do anything I want!” But in the song, it turns up in a line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to it.

However, this article wasn’t about “King of Anything.” It was about “Brave,” a song Bareilles released last year, and which was nominated for a Grammy. I found it, listened to it, and bought it. Not only is it a great tune with inspiring lyrics, but as a bonus, there is linguistic commentary to be made on it.

First of all, there’s the Lehrer-worthy rhyme in the first verse:

You can be amazin’, you can turn a phrase in-
to a weapon or a drug.

Love that enjambment!

As you can tell from the title, the theme of this song is bravery, but it always appears (as in the title) as the adjective brave, even in this line, where Bareilles shamelessly turns brave into a noun:

Show me how big your brave is!

By itself that’s not worth a blog post, but since I’m blogging anyway, there it is. The main things I wanted to comment on were from the chorus, which goes like this:

Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave!

The first time she sings it, she leads into it smoothly from the last line of the previous verse, like this:

I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say

I was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, past. And what time is this sentence talking about? The future. So what kind of conditional is it? Remote: We’re talking about something that’s not likely. Since what would happen is the main clause of a remote conditional, we also expect a past tense in the if clause, to continue showing this remoteness. What we get, though, is say what you want to say, in the present tense: an open conditional. Why did Bareilles say that instead of said what you want to say? The students came up with several good answers:

  1. The way Bareilles does it, you get the repetition of say at the beginning and end of the line.
  2. It’s easier to put emphasis on say, with its open syllable, than on the closed syllable said.
  3. Maybe it’s a stand-alone sentence, not part of an if-clause. (This is definitely true for the later repetitions of the chorus; for here, it’s probably done for consistency.)
  4. In addition to all that, maybe she’s aiming for the semantic difference, starting with a phrasing showing that something is unlikely to happen, and then changing her mind and ending with more confidence that it can and will happen. (OK, that one was mine.)

Finally, let’s look at the Honestly in the chorus. It’s a squinting modifier! Or as I like to call these constructions, a forwards-backwards attachment ambiguity. Should we parse it as

And let the words fall out honestly

or as

Honestly, I want to see you be brave!

Both parses make sense. The song is about telling the truth, so you could easily take honestly as a manner adverb to modify let the words fall out. However, honestly also works as a sentential adverb, like frankly or seriously, so the second parse works, too. In fact, this is the first squinting ambiguity I’ve seen in which the adverb works as both a manner adverb and a sentential adverb.

So which one is it? You don’t get a clue from timing, because in the song there’s a pause both before and after honestly. Of the few written versions of the lyrics that I looked up, most don’t have punctuation there, but they do break the lines so that honestly goes with I want to see you be brave, so I suspect they’re going with the sentential-adverb parse. But honestly, I think the manner-adverb parse is better.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Conditionals, Music | Leave a Comment »

How Bad Girls Get

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2013

Last night I got to meet Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor and book author, whom I’ve mentioned in several blog posts. He was in town promoting his latest book, Yes, I Could Care Less, and had a reading and Q&A session at the home of his colleague Mark Allen. During the talk, Walsh mentioned the ambiguity in this line from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police (you can hear it at about 1:17 in the video at the end of this post):

You know how bad girls get.

I knew instantly what he meant. First, there’s the “Girls can become so bad!” reading:

Those girls can get so bad!

Then there’s the “Those bad girls–you know how they can be!” reading:

Bad girls; you know how they are.

I’m surprised I never got around to blogging about this line before, what with ambiguous song lyrics being a recurring theme here. Heck, I’ve even written about another ambiguity in a song by the Police somewhere here. Where is it? … Really, where is it? I know it’s here somewhere? Why isn’t it showing up in my search?

Oh yeah! It was the subject of my very first blog post, back on my brother’s blog, Agoraphilia! Back before I discovered how to put pictures in a blog post. Back before I made nifty syntax diagrams for you to read, and just used nested brackets. Wow.

But back to the current ambiguity. This one reminds me of a joke I read in a joke book back in second or third grade. It went like this:

Do you know how long cows should be milked?

Find the answer below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Music | 5 Comments »

More Beatles Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on April 23, 2009

All the talk about Beatles lyrics a few posts ago reminded me of an ambiguity in one of their songs that I’ve wondered about for years. For my twelfth birthday, Mom and Dad gave me an LP of the anthology The Beatles: 1962-1966. I remember sitting in the easy chair in the den, reading the liner notes while I listened to the record. One of the tracks on disc 2 is “Michelle”, in which Paul McCartney addresses the exclusively Francophone object of his affection. The trouble is that McCartney doesn’t speak French, or at least not enough to have mastered the complicated syntax of je t’aime. Instead, he has to make do with the simple sentence “Michelle, ma belle” sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, which means “Michelle, ma belle [my pretty] are words that go together well”. Here, you can listen for yourself:

The French wasn’t a problem. I didn’t know it anyway, so I just went with it (although once I took French in high school I realized that where the liner notes had les mots it should be des mots). The line that stopped me was this one:

I will say the only words I know that you’ll understand.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Fillers and gaps, Lexical semantics, Music | 10 Comments »

Singing Long with the Beatles

Posted by Neal on April 7, 2009

As I was driving to the SALT conference last weekend, a song by the Beatles came up on my iPod. It was “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and as always, I found it disconcerting how Paul McCartney tries to sing gone to rhyme with sun in the line:

One day, you’ll look and find I’ve gone.
But tomorrow may rain so I’ll follow the sun.

He doesn’t sing it as [gɔn] (i.e. “gawn”) and forget about trying to rhyme it. Nor does he sing it as [gʌn] (“gun”) to rhyme with sun and forget about trying to be faithful to its pronunciation. He sings it somewhere in between, with a vowel that doesn’t sound quite like English. That disconcertion (disconcertation? disconcert?) is quickly pushed aside by the one that follows in For tomorrow may rain. “Tomorrow may rain”? Can you do that? The only subject I can have with rain is the dummy subject it, unless you’re saying something like “I’ll rain destruction on you!” Checking the CoCA, I see that occasionally the precipitation itself is the subject, as in “I don’t got enough problems dealing with the day-to-day shit that rains from the sky in Manhattan.” Usually it’s precipitation other than rainwater; the examples I saw also included blood and mirror shards. But no tomorrow will rain, yesterday rained or today’s raining. So when I hear the song, I keep trying to hear a very short it squeezed in there that maybe I just didn’t hear all the other times. This time, though, I just didn’t feeling up to doing that, so I jumped to the next song.

What do you know? It was another one by the Beatles. This time it was “From Me to You.” If you haven’t heard it (and even if you have, of course), it goes like this:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music, Phonetics and phonology, Syntax | 16 Comments »

All Over

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2009

While I was doing the grocery shopping today, I could tell by the music playing that Sunday afternoons were exactly when the grocery stores expected people my age to be shopping. They were playing “You Got It All” by a group called the Jets, whom I’ve never heard about since then. I’ve now learned that Britney Spears did a cover of it in 2000 on her Oops! I Did It Again album. This song that usually prompted me to change the station back when I heard it on the radio in the 1980s. It wasn’t just that it was slow and boring with an aimless melody, though that was most of the problem. It was that plus the fact that the song was apparently written by someone who thought it was classy to compare your new boyfriend to your old one — with lines like “You’re all that he’s not” and “Don’t let him worry you so.” Being compared to an old boyfriend, even favorably, makes me squirm.

The one redeeming feature of the song was the smile it gave me when circumstances conspired to make me listen to the chorus. Or at least, I think it was the chorus. Melodically, it was hard to distinguish it from the rest of the song, but the words were repeated. It went like this:

You’ve got it all over him.
You got me over him;
Honey, it’s true, there’s just you.
You must have been heaven-sent,
Hearing me call, you went out on a limb.
And you’re all that he’s not,
Just look what I got,
‘Cause you got it all over him.

“You got it all over him,” I would think. “And now he has to wipe it off!”

You got it all over him!
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Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 1 Comment »

I Love The

Posted by Neal on December 8, 2007

Since October, Doug and Adam’s piano teacher has been assigning them exclusively Christmas songs. Each week she’s assigned a couple more, and told them to keep playing the ones they’ve mastered so that they can play them at an informal recital. By now they have a repertoire of about a dozen songs each, but Doug strives to do his daily practice in the same amount of time as he took when he tackled his first two Christmas songs. He’s been treating us to “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Joy to the World” as fast as he can play them. As loud as he can, too. It’s even weirder when he plays his fast, loud versions of “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger.”

Ah, yes, “Away in a Manger.” The song I played a crummy rendition of on the xylophone in front of my second grade class. Source of “till morning is night”. And come to think of it, source of another misheard lyric. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Diachronic | 2 Comments »

Hating All But the Right Folks

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2007

We’re fifteen days into February, so no matter whether you’re counting lines on a calendar page or individual days, we’re now into the third week of February. You know what that means: It’s National Brotherhood Week!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Ellipsis, Music | 5 Comments »

Hatless Syntax

Posted by Neal on February 10, 2007

I checked the iTunes store again, as I do every month or so, and this time they were there! Apple must have finally managed to cut a deal and get them on board. So at last, I was able to download both hits from, you guessed it, Men Without Hats.

Now that I’ve played them a few times, two thing have happened. One is that the hook from “Pop Goes the World” has begun to play in a repeating loop in my head, and will probably have to be purged by an application of “The Preamble” or “Can’t Behave”. The other is that I have noticed anew some unusual syntax from “The Safety Dance”. No, I’m not going to talk about the ambiguity of You can leave your friends behind, funny though it is. I’m referring to this line:

We can go where we want to,
A place where they will never find.

Nice example of an adverbial fused relative in the first line: The phrase where we want to [go] looks like an adverbial relative clause, suitable for modifying a noun, as in the park where we want to go. Semantically, however, it acts like a prepositional phrase, something like “to the place where we want to go”. But even that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. What gets to me is the second line, A place where they will never find. A place where they will never find? Never find what? Us? Then say it: a place where they will never find us!

Oh, but wait. That would be too many syllables, and it wouldn’t rhyme with friends behind. OK, then why not replace where with that, for a place that they will never find? You’d change the meaning a little bit, but not too much: It would be the place itself, not the people who go to it, that they would never find. But a place where they will never find just doesn’t work.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Fused relatives, Music, Relative clauses | 3 Comments »

Who’s Naughty and Nice?

Posted by Neal on December 17, 2006

I’ve started to get a few more hits on my posts on Christmas songs, so I’ll write about one that I never got around to last year or the year before. In “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the second verse goes like this:

He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.

An intriguing ambiguity. We could take and to be coordinating two embedded questions, one of which has been abbreviated by ellipsis to appear only as nice; that is,

… [who’s naughty] and [who’s nice].

More interestingly, and could just be coordinating two ordinary adjectives inside a single embedded question, like this:

… who’s [naughty and nice].

Of course, this reading is entailed by the first one. If you identify the set of naughty people, and also identify the set of nice people (i.e. find out who’s naughty and who’s nice), then the intersection of those sets will give you the people who are both naughty and nice, whether you intended to find that out or not. Conversely, if you set out to identify just the set of people who are both naughty and nice, you pretty much have to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice in order to obtain your two sets to intersect. Or you could outsource the job, and have someone else find out who’s naughty and who’s nice and just tell you who has both qualities. However, the song gives the clear impression that this is a job Santa does personally, so I think him finding out who’s both naughty and nice is for all intents and purposes the same as him finding out who’s naughty and who’s nice. So if the two are extensionally the same, why focus on intersection of the sets of naughty people and nice people?

The implication seems to be that Santa is less interested in the purely naughty or the purely nice than in those who are both. But why would this be the case? I think Calvin puts it best, in this cartoon from p. 30 of Bill Watterson’s Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat:

I wish Santa would publish the guidelines he uses for determining a kid’s goodness. …Does he consider the kid’s natural predisposition? I mean, if some sickeningly wholesome nerd likes being good, it’s easy for him to meet the standards! There’s no challenge!

Heck, anyone can be good if he wants to be! The true test of one’s mettle is being good when one has an innate inclination towards evil.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Ellipsis | 5 Comments »