Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Ambiguous song lyrics’ Category

Gettin’ Down on the Farm

Posted by Neal on October 20, 2005

Doug and the rest of the first-graders went on a field trip to a farm today, and so all day I’ve had this song running through my head. It was a hit by Tim McGraw in 1995, and starts like this:

Every Friday night there’s a steady cloud of dust
That leads back to a field filled with pickup trucks.
Got old Hank cranking way up loud
Got coolers in the back,
Tailgates down.
There’s a big fire burnin’, but don’t be alarmed,
It’sjust country boys and girls gettin’ down on the farm.

The line country boys and girls gettin’ down on the farm is repeated in every verse and in the chorus, so when I first started hearing the song I figured the title must be something like, “Gettin’ Down on the Farm.” Later, I was surprised to find out that it was actually called “Down on the Farm.”

Hold on, now. That changes things. I had thought the down went with gettin’, as in “dancing, partying, and having fun in general.” But now they were telling me that the down goes with on the farm, just like it goes with on the corner in the similarly-titled song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, or with by the bay in the traditional kids’ song. In other words, where I thought I was hearing this:

[ [gettin’ down] [on the farm] ],

I was really hearing this:

[ gettin’ [down on the farm] ].

What they’re telling me is: It’s not that they country boys and girls are boogieing on the farm; they’re arriving at a state of being down on the farm. Is that what they’re telling me? Because the rest of the lyrics strongly suggest the “boogie” reading.

Or maybe the reading was supposed to be “country boys and girls getting down down on the farm,” and one of the downs was haplologized, the same as you might say, “Did you get everything you wanted to get done?” instead of “Did you get everything you wanted to get done done?” (Actually, I make sure to say both dones, but it sure does sound weird.)

Hey, thinking about all this has made me realize: You can also get down on a farm by going there and plucking a goose!

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 12 Comments »

She Caught My Eye, and I Put It Back

Posted by Neal on January 17, 2005

I took Doug to a birthday party at a roller-skating rink yesterday. It was his first time skating, and after five minutes on the floor he was crying, saying he wanted to go home, that he hated skating, that it was too hard, and his thighs hurt too much from all the splits he’d done. But finally, he agreed to try again, and by the end of the party he was having enough fun that he said he wanted his birthday party there, too.

Today his thighs are still sore, and my whole upper torso is sore from skating beside him in (what else?) skater’s position and heaving him upright when he started to fall. But at least he’s looking forward to going again sometime. In fact, we have to, because I left my skates there.

Anyway, while I was skating my mind naturally turned to Jim Croce’s “Roller Derby Queen.” And as always, I found myself dwelling on this line:

Well, I was just gettin’ ready to get my hat,
When she caught my eye, and I put it back

Man, don’t you hate when that happens?

But seriously, when I first heard that song, I listened to it two or three times before I finally resolved the bizarre anaphora, and realized that the it did not refer back to the most recently mentioned noun phrase–my eye–but to the one before that: my hat. Until then, I thought Jim Croce must have been making a joke about the idiom to catch someone’s eye. He’d been writing the song, trying to fill in the line after caught my eye, and thought to himself, “If to catch someone’s eye means to get their attention, then when they regain their composure, get back to whatever they were doing, that must be putting their eye back, ha ha.” Not a very funny joke, but that was the most sense I could make out of the line.

Now if Croce had said instead,

Well, I was just gettin’ ready to get my hat,
When she showed up, and I put it back

that would be no problem at all, since the only eligible antecedent for it here is my hat.

I’m sure there are people who have heard the song and immediately gotten both readings of the line, and quickly settled upon my hat as the intended antecedent for it. But what I wonder is whether there are people who heard the song and never once, even for a second, considered my eye as a possible antecedent–not because it just didn’t make sense, but because as part of an idiomatic phrase, it can’t be referred to anaphorically? If there are such people, I would hypothesize that for them, the following sentence would be ungrammatical, since it has the idiomatic meaning of caught my eye, and it referring back to my eye:

She caught my eye; yessir, she caught it as soon as she walked into the room.

Is there anyone out there for who (1) has heard this song before, (2) was never thrown off in the slightest by the hat/eye problem? If this is you, what’s your judgment on the example above?

P.S. There are a lot more literal visual interpretations of idioms where I got the eye-catching one, here.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 3 Comments »

We’re Three Kings

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2004

Our power still hadn’t come back on by the time we needed to pack for our trip to Texas to visit my parents. Even those who got their power back didn’t always get to keep it, as ice-encased trees continued to fall and take down power lines with them. So we decided Doug and I would come down here, while Adam and his mom stayed in Ohio, to make sure everything was OK when the power came back, and to be on hand in case the neighbor’s tree, which has been leaning toward our upstairs bathroom more each year, decided to come crashing in. That’s why I’m sitting here blogging in the dark while Doug sleeps, waiting for 2005 to arrive in this time zone after wishing my wife a long-distance happy new year in hers.

So while I’m here, here’s what I was going to say about another of the Christmas songs Doug and Adam sang in the church program, “We Three Kings.” Here are the first two lines:

We three kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar.

The first surprise I got when I read the lyric sheet was that all the time I’d been thinking it was we travel so far, I’d been dead wrong. TraVERSE Afar, that’s what it really was! I made sure Doug learned this little detail, and then at the rehearsal listened as all the other kids blithely sang, “We travel so far.” Oh, well. What can you expect when probably not a single one of them has ever heard the verb traverse? It’s even tough for me, since I’d always thought traverse was a transitive verb–you can’t just traverse, you have to traverse a field or something, like maybe a fountain, moor, or mountain. (I have a few more Christmas song folk etymologies to comment on before I’m done with that topic.)

The second surprise I got was from the punctuation. I’d always thought the are was an auxiliary verb, which combined with bearing gifts in the next line to form the present progressive verb phrase are bearing gifts. Sure, it was awkward having that big pause after are at the end of the line, when in ordinary speech it and bearing would be run smoothly together. But it was the only way I could parse the sentence. Now, though, I see that the first line is supposed to be a clause all by itself. Are isn’t a helping verb, it’s the main verb! The first line isn’t saying anything about what the three kings are doing; it’s just saying that they are three kings! Just like you’d say, “Barney a dinosaur is,” or “Doug and Adam my sons are,” right? And the bearing gifts in the next line is just a reduced adverbial clause, more or less equivalent to “As we bear gifts.” Sheesh, I never would have gotten that, and that’s saying something for a guy who wonders how you can ride a sleighing song.

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

I Ride the Songs

Posted by Neal on December 15, 2004

Now for some more ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas edition. Here’s a line from “Jingle Bells” that always makes me think for a second or two:

Bells on bobtail ring,
making spirits bright.
What fun it is to ride and sing
a sleighing song tonight!

How exactly does one ride a song?, I wonder. Oh, wait, it’s not:

[ride] and [sing] a sleighing song,


[ride] and [sing a sleighing song]!

That’s hard to get, man: a coordination that looks like it ends nice and neat at the end of a line, but really has the second coordinate stretching all the way to the end of the next line!

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Coordination | 8 Comments »

Twelve Days, 364 Gifts

Posted by Neal on December 5, 2004

I’ll file this one under Ambiguous Song Lyrics. They’re not ambiguous, but there are nonetheless two understandings of them. The question is: By the 12th day of Christmas, how many gifts has the singer’s true love given him or her? Most illustrations I see for the twelfth day show one partridge in a pear tree, two turtledoves, etc.

But the lyrics unambiguously state otherwise. For example, the second verse goes, “On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.” It does NOT say, “By the second day of Christmas, my true love had given to me…”; it says, “On the second day, my true love gave“! So, without doing any kind of grammar tricks, or deliberately choosing the less likely of two readings (since after all, only one is possible), we have to accept that on the twelfth day of Christmas, the singer has received:

  • 12*1 = 12 drummers drumming
  • 11*2 = 22 pipers piping
  • 10*3 = 30 lords a-leaping
  • 9*4 = 36 ladies dancing
  • 8*5 = 40 maids a-milking
  • 7*6 = 42 swans a-swimming
  • 6*7 = 42 geese a-laying
  • 5*8 = 40 golden rings
  • 4*9 = 36 calling birds
  • 3*10 = 30 French hens
  • 2*11 = 22 turtledoves
  • 1*12 = 12 partridges in pear trees

This gives a total of 2*(12 + 22 + 30 + 36 + 40 + 42) = 364 gifts. Implausible, yes, but only a little bit more than the 78-gift total you get by ignoring the repetitions. Ten lords a-leaping or 30 lords a-leaping, either way it’s pretty bizarre.

And with that said, here’s a big, “You’re so literal!” nod of approval to PNC Bank, which each year calculates the total cost of these gifts in current dollars, and it does so with the total of 364. Stay literal, guys!

Finally, in the further interest of literalness, enjoy this debunking of the purported Christian symbolism behind the twelve 364 gifts, courtesy of

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, You're so literal! | 13 Comments »

Update: Do Your Best at What You Do the Best

Posted by Neal on July 28, 2004

Several VC readers responded to my post about the hook:

Everybody does what they do best the best

in a children’s song (“The Mighty Worm,” on Ralph’s World: Peggy’s Pie Parlor). Maestro and Russ Petti noted the existence of a reasonable, non-tautologous, fifth reading of the line. It’s that whatever activity is your personal best, that’s the one that you tend to work hardest and most enthusiastically at, and do to the best of your abilities. more

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Kids' entertainment, Music | Leave a Comment »

Being the Worst at What you Do Best

Posted by Neal on July 18, 2004

I was listening to one of our many kids’ CDs in the car the other day. That’s (many (kids’ CDs)), not ((many kids’) CDs), BTW. Anyway, it was from the Ralph’s World series, and the first track is a really catchy song that starts off like this:

Everybody does what they do best the best.

I usually dwell on this line during the rest of the song, and end up thinking about it several times in the few days after I play the CD. No, it’s not the plural they with the singular everybody antecedent that gets to me—I got over that grammar issue years and years ago. What I think about is the 4-way ambiguity in this line, with two readings that are tautologies and two that are probably not true, but are interesting to think about. Allow me to explain… more

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Kids' entertainment, Music | 1 Comment »

God Done Shed His Grace on Thee

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2004

Read Geoff Pullum’s post on this slightly altered line from “America the Beautiful” as sung by Ray Charles. I noticed the alteration in this line, too, when I heard the song a year or two ago: It’s just the kind of thing I had in mind when I said I tended to get distracted by syntactic or semantic oddities in a song. GP’s analysis is dead on.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music | 1 Comment »

More Ambiguous Song Lyrics

Posted by Neal on June 1, 2004

I remember a one-liner from one of Rodney Dangerfield’s old routines. It went like this:

Even in high school, I got no respect. A girl called me up and said, “Why don’t you come on over? There’s nobody home.” I went over. There was nobody home!

I was reminded of it when I went with my cousin and Glen to see Shrek 2 while I was in Austin last week. The dance number at the end of the movie was “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and one line went:

She’ll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Music, You're so literal! | Comments Off on More Ambiguous Song Lyrics

What Don’t You Know?

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2004

Another item from last week’s visit to Austin:

During my sister’s graduation ceremony, at one point in the program a woman sang “Colors of the Wind” from the movie Pocahontas. The first verse ends with these lines:

But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger,
you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.


Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Kids' entertainment, Music | Comments Off on What Don’t You Know?