Somebody IS Watching You. (Grammar Geeks.)

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I’m not one of those grammar fascists who corrects other people’s speech. I don’t point out when a speaker should use “whom” instead of “who.”

Or at least, I don’t do it that often, and not to people’s faces. That would just be obnoxious. (I’m not saying I haven’t done it in the past.) I feel that people coming up with language on the fly should be given more latitude than if they were writing it down, where it had a chance to be analyzed. Colloquialisms are okay when they are uttered and forgotten, when they don’t exist for longer than the seven seconds of a listener’s short-term aural memory. If you use “me” instead of “I” in conversation, I probably won’t chastise you—although, for my amusement, I can and will imagine you talking with a Jamaican accent. If you say, “Me and John are going to get a beer,” my mind will superimpose dredlocks on you and play, “Me gwan to get a Red Stripe, mon.”

When you’re writing, on the other hand, you have the chance to look over your work and make it as clear and correct as it can be. So there I hold you to a higher standard. That includes speechwriting, copywriting, and songwriting.

Song lyrics in particular are played over and over and memorized, so if you make a mistake in a song, it’s out there in pop culture forever. For example, I love Nine Inch Nails, but it’s a little grating every time I listen to “We’re in This Together” and hear “Watching fate / as it flows / down the path / we have chose.” (I like to redeem the songwriter by imagining that he voiced the “n” in “chosen” too quietly for our ears. Hey, it could happen.)

→ Aside: “You and me / We’re in this together” is no problem because “You and me” stands on its own; the subject of the abbreviated “are” in the second line is appropriately “we.”

→ → Further aside: Not only is “You and me” acceptable, it’s improper to use the subject form of a personal pronoun when there’s no verb. If you’re labeling a photo of yourself, label it “Me.” Even if you want to say where you were, stick with the object form. “Me at the lake.” Even if you want to say something about what you were doing, avoid the temptation to make yourself into a subject (“I”), if it’s something like “Me having a good time at the lake.” That “having” may look like a verb: it derives from “have,” a verb, but once you add “ing,” it’s a participle, in this case a gerund—a type of noun—and actually functions more like a preposition (i.e., “Me in a state of having fun…”). (See earlier entry.)

Back to grammatical errors in lyrics. I’m sure you can think of more examples. One I’d like to use is from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” because it seems so central to the song: “You and me could write a bad romance.” One that’s less obvious is from Rockwell’s 1983 No. 2 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me,” where Michael Jackson sings the chorus: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me.” Wait, what’s wrong with that? (“Don’t tell me that ‘me’ should be ‘I,'” you may be thinking.) Well…

… It’s true that in most cases, the meaning of such language is clear. And, for that reason, it’s common. But, according to the grammar guides, the problem is that using “like” to draw a comparison requires that you follow the word “like” with an object. In most cases, a noun does fine. “I feel like vomiting” (gerund) is fine, as is “I feel like an animal” or even “I feel like somebody’s pet.” It’s when you want to get more complicated and include a verb in the comparison that you run into this problem, because “like” is only qualified to set up a simple comparison. If you use “like,” an educated reader expects to find a noun or noun phrase. In the sentence “I feel like he treats me like a dog,” the second “like” is great, but the first isn’t. In this case, what should you do?

Well, you might take out “like” or change “like” to “that”: “I feel (that) he treats me like a dog.” However, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (5.220), “feel” is “weak when used as a substitute for think or believe.” You may say that “feel” here isn’t really synonymous with “think” or “believe,” but I feel it’s fair to read it that way. Not only is “feel” in this sense weak, but personally, I think it’s overused. No, your best move is follow the advice in CMS 5.181 and change “like” to “as” or “as if.” This moves the word “feel” away from meaning “think/believe” and back into a more subjective emotional realm, a realm of hypotheticals. “As if” (“as though” is also good) clearly and rightly communicates that what we feel to be true may not necessarily be true. Sometimes feelings are best illustrated in ways that are clearly impossible, after all. To describe how hot someone felt, we might write, “He felt as if the sun was hovering right overhead.” “He felt the sun was hovering right overhead” sounds too factual. (Note that when you use “as if,” you don’t need to use the subjunctive mood. You don’t need to write, “Why are you looking at me as if I were crazy?” Better to write, “…as if I am crazy?” If anyone cares to argue this, go ahead.)

Even if you feel something and it’s true, using “as if” doesn’t hurt, because there’s always that possibility that it’s not true. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. What’s more important than the truth is the feeling, and you’ve nailed that.

More lyrics:
“And it feels like heaven is so far away”—the Offspring


One Comment on “Somebody IS Watching You. (Grammar Geeks.)”

  1. Joe says:

    I geekishly enjoyed that.

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