February 27, 2008

Correcting the King?

So (as Nathan Bierma points out — see Arnold Zwicky's latest post) Martha Brockenbrough corrects The King on his grammar, because "All Shook Up" contains a past participle that exhibits non-standard English verb morphology? Just when you think the soi-disant grammar sourpusses can't get much dopier, there they go again. Well, I hope Elvis got due credit for the beautiful proper grammar of the last word in "Now and Then There's A Fool Such As I" (the nominative case on the pronoun I is one possibility in formal-style Standard English for a pronoun functioning as a predicative complement, you see). Of course, Grumpy Martha will also want to correct there's to there is in that title (prescriptive grammarians unfailingly confuse any element of informal style with a lapse into grammatical incorrectness). Some other redacted Elvis Presley songs that would be on Martha's Elvis playlist:

  • Treat Me Nicely
  • Do Not
  • Love Me Tenderly
  • I Cannot Help Falling in Love
  • Do You Not Think It Is Time?
  • I Do Not Care If The Sun Does Not Shine
  • It Is Not Any Big Thing (But It Is Growing)
  • Is That Not Loving You, Baby?

Hey, this is a fun game. And it takes my mind off thinking about the grammar loonies — the whining pedants who imagine that all informal usage should be made formal, and no infinitives must ever be split, and everybody who uses non-standard American dialects in any context needs to straighten up and fly right. (All right, all right, fly correctly.)

[Added later] Just to be scrupulously fair (the above is mainly just kidding around, of course), here is what Martha Brockenbrough actually wrote about Elvis:

Lest we fall into the trap of insisting that all artists follow the rules, I'll admit that there are plenty of times when rule-breaking makes for great songwriting.

I'm tempted to give Elvis a hall pass, and not just because I don't want corpses in study hall. "All Shook Up," frankly, sounds better than "All Shaken Up." Although you could make a case for "All Mixed Up," because it keeps the same meter as the original song, there's something about the word "shook" that contributes to the feeling of chaos that Elvis is feeling. He's so mixed up he can't get the grammar right, which is perhaps the same thing that happened to those movie parents who "shrunk" their kids.

It's true that she did not actually say that Elvis should be condemned; she was, magnanimously, "tempted" to give him a hall pass. But it looks like she truly does think that "All Mixed Up" would have been a preferable choice on the part of the songwriter! I think this is someone whose appreciation of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll is limited to at most two out of the three.

By the way (since I'm being nibbled to death by ducks here, getting bombarded with emails from reputable scholars who should be ashamed of themselves for pompously explaining to me that it was Otis Blackwell who wrote "All Shook Up", not Elvis Aron Presley) could I just remind you that that I am perfectly well aware that Presley was not a songwriter? Could we just recall that I am a lifelong rock 'n' roll devotee and was a professional rock musician for five years before I found out that being a grammarian is even more fun than that, huh? Of course Martha Brockenbrough doesn't mean Presley, she means the writer of the song. But on that I have to defend her: she's using metonymy. When we say the kettle is boiling, we don't mean it; the water is boiling. But we refer to the container instead, using one to represent the other. That's metonymy. And likewise we attribute to singers the words of the songs they sing. Same thing. Get a clue, you linguistics professors (you know who you are) who have been writing me plonking emails about songwriting credits. I know these things. [Sigh.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 27, 2008 08:20 AM