You and me just don’t agree

Driving through a part of the outstate where my car picks up a fleeting sg radio signal for a few minutes, I caught the Isaacs “Heroes” this afternoon and some other numbers before the station disintegrated into fuzz. During the Isaacs, I heard one of those ungrammatical lines that just grate on me: “And those who sacrifice to raise a child that’s not their own.” Child that? NO! Things that … people who. This happens all the time in countless songs, most famously and often in sg during the song “Thank God I’m Free,” the line: “like a blind man THAT God gave back his sight.” When a group I played for was recording this line in the studio, I was slouching on a couch in the corner studying for a French exam (I had just started college), and I absolutely lifted outta my seat when I heard this … yelling: “BLIND MAN WHO! BLIND MAN WHO!” (The group owner was not pleased that I was sucking up precious billable minutes prattling on about relative pronouns, but the group sang the line correctly in the end).For people who view language as a tool, like a spade or crowbar used to accomplish necessary tasks, these grammatical infelicities probably don’t matter much. But for anyone with an affection for the aesthetic and moral component that inheres in language, this who-that sort of thing is a high crime of sloppiness. At its worst it ultimately reduces people to the same linguistic status as … well, a crowbar or a spade. Or, as the high priest of grammar, H.W. Fowler, puts it: To apply “that” to people “is perhaps felt to be a sort of slight, depriving them of their humanity.” In the benign cases, grammatical imprecision for no defensible stylistic reason bespeaks carelessness that reflects a little shabbily on the writer. The more egregious offenses are those contortions and misappropriations of grammar that lyricists and artists use because they’re too lazy to rewrite the line. Thus Paula Cole (a pop singer) sings

So open up your morning light
And say a little prayer for I
You know that if we are to stay alive
And see the peace in every eye…

Here, “say a little prayer for I” (AHHHH! It drives me crazy just to type and look at that) has intentionally been rendered ungrammatical (it should be “for me”) so it will rhyme with “eye.” Honestly. And this is hit music. Please. You don’t have to know the difference between subjective pronouns (”I,” “you,” “he” … things that occupy subject positions in the sentence - i.e. “he shoots and scores”) and objective pronouns (”me,” “him,” “her” … things that occupy object positions in sentences - i.e. “say a little prayer for me”) to know that interchanging the two in order to achieve a pedestrian rhyme is a slatternly way to write. On the other hand, I appreciate stylized if not exactly proper pronunciation: “There’s a land where meeelk and honey flow.” Or “though we may ahhhn errrth Lee treasures, untold …” In these cases, the grammatical integrity of the lyrics remain intact while the artists are able to imbue the words with the stamp of authenticity. Language is a vehicle, but that doesn’t mean it must be a jalopy.

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