Thursday 20 August 2009

On the world in which we live in

A correspondent, in the form of BBC Three Counties Radio, phones to ask one of the strangest questions I've had for some time. What do I make of a Paul McCartney line from the song 'Live and Let Die'? Apparently there's some discussion going on at the moment about whether the line is the world in which we live in or the world in which we're livin'. When asked recently, Paul himself couldn't recall which it was, though he thought the first of these versions 'wronger but cuter'. What did I think?

No question, as far as I'm concerned. It's the world in which we live in. Apart from the fact that this is the version in the published sheet music, I wouldn't expect a Scouser to reduce an -ing ending to -in. On the contrary, -ing is often said with the -g sounded as well, in that part of the world. While it's always possible to 'drop the g' in rapid colloquial speech, as it is in any accent, this is unlikely in the more forceful articulation of a song whose beat is relatively slow. I don't recall other Beatles songs with -ing endings - such as 'All My Loving' - reducing the final consonant.

Why did the issue arise at all? Presumably because some people couldn't tolerate the thought that such an ungrammatical construction was being used. Certainly it's ungrammatical; but it's not unnatural. That kind of prepositional doubling is common enough in speech when people start to use one construction and switch into another, especially when the construction involved (as here) is a usage shibboleth. Should one end a sentence with a preposition? Here we see that hoary issue in the choice between the world in which we live and the world we live in. People who have been sensitized to the issue are likely to begin with the first and then, when they reach the end of the sentence, realize that they need a preposition to make the sentence sound natural. Another example I heard recently is: I don't know to which hotel I'm going to. We've talked about anacoluthon before, in this blog, and here's another instance.

In the case of the song, the rhythm of the piece asks for unstressed syllables at both ends - imagine how it would sound if the line ended on live, with an elongated vowel - and that is what we get. Wronger and cuter it certainly is. When music calls, grammar bends.


Rick S said...

There's an even stronger reason for the dangling "in": an internal rhyme. The next line of the song is "Makes you give in and cry".

Chaa006 said...

I had a similar problem with a dangling "on" in a poem (Errantry) by J R R Tolkien (attributed elsewhere [1] to one William Elvin). The apparently offending quatrain reads

"He landed all in loneliness
where stonily the pebbles on
the running river Derrilyn
goes merrily for ever on."

where the final "on" is clearly required for metre and for euphony, yet seems at first sight to add nothing to the meaning. It was only after discussing the point with a friend (John Valentine) that I finally realised that the two "on"s play entirely different roles in the sentence.

Ross said...

There's a similar line in Metallica's 2008 song Broken, Beat and Scarred (even the title's grammatically wrong for the effect of the play on words)

"What don't kill you makes you more strong"

Which has caused a fair bit of discussion, but is simply there to fit the beat and the meter of the song. The singer and songwriter James Hetfield has quite rightly said that it's clumsy and wrong, but in the context of the song, nothing else would work.

DC said...

I don't find it clumsy at all, actually. It's got a good rhythm. A pity the writer felt it was wrong. It's not standard English, certainly, but it's perfectly normal in many regional dialects.

It isn't a parallel case to the McCartney example, though, as the repeated you is grammatical, even if the sentence were in standard English.

Anonymous said...

Try this one,

"Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses"


War Pigs by Black Sabbath

DC said...

This is a different kind of case. The problem here is to do with the limits of what counts as a rhyme. It's not like the original Beatles example.

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John Link said...

Here's a version Sir Paul might have used, one that I believe is both grammatical and appropriately rhythmical:

But if this ever changing world that we live in

What do you say?

John Link

Custom Home Detailing said...

What a post. Paul could not of said it better. I just wanted to finish so I could make a point of veiw. This really draws you in. Good writing. Good job.

kauto said...

As I am not a native English speaker I get to make a lot of mistakes and my daughter corrects them. I come along and try to make sense of things in your blog. I like the ending of your post, "when the music calls grammar bends"

Michael Schuster said...

I know I'm late to the party but I totally agree with rick on the "in" danging. Paul is a sick writer indeed.

download free movies online said...

Interesting. If songs all had to have perfect grammar, wouldn't that limit the creativity factor? While I tend to prefer proper grammar, in many cases it detracts from the artistry of the language.

federal pell grants said...

IMO unlike books, novels and blog posts music need not follow the rules of perfect grammar. Breaking the rules is what makes it creative and fun!

Scintilla said...

Wait. "All My Loving" *doesn't* reduce the consonants on "loving", "kissing", and "missing"? I've never heard the G sounds in those.

DC said...

There's no [g] pronounced, but, as I say, I wouldn't expect there to be. I do hear [ng] in the verses, but you're right, they do go for [n] in the refrain.