This ever-changing language in which we live in

Posted by on May 11, 2015

© PhotoDisc / Getty Images / Steve ColeIn a recent post on double negatives I said we make allowances for non-standard grammar in song lyrics – or most of us do, most of the time. But some lines still give us pause. One source of frequent dispute is the Paul and Linda McCartney song ‘Live and Let Die’, famously used in a James Bond film. In the original Wings version, McCartney sings:

But if this ever-changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry

Or does he? There’s obviously a superfluous in there. Maybe the lyric is:

But if this ever-changing world in which we’re livin’
Makes you give in and cry

That would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘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’ – this is known as anacoluthon.

In the Washington Post in 2009, Paul Farhi asked McCartney himself about the line, and the singer seemed genuinely unsure:

“It’s kind of ambivalent, isn’t it?… Um… I think it’s ‘in which we’re living.’” He starts to sing to himself: “‘In this ever changing world….’ It’s funny. There’s too many ‘ins.’ I’m not sure. I’d have to have actually look [sic]. I don’t think about the lyric when I sing it. I think it’s ‘in which we’re living.’ ‘In which we’re living.’ Or it could be ‘in which we live in.’ And that’s kind of, sort of, wronger but cuter. That’s kind of interesting.”

It certainly is. McCartney, upon noticing the problem, still feels it’s artistically defensible – and it is. As Crystal put it: ‘When music calls, grammar bends.’ Song lyrics are often redundant, and they operate under different grammatical conditions from standard English. Redundancy is built into the structure of language, and English-speakers have been adding superfluous prepositions for centuries.

But the debate continues. If the ambiguity were trivial it would attract less interest, but because the more probable interpretation is ungrammatical (or at least conspicuously redundant), and because McCartney and the song are so well known, it provokes regular disagreement.

Many people consider bad grammar – or what they think is bad grammar – to be a sign of poor character or the imminent end of civilisation. But many words and constructions in standard English arose from mistakes, so we needn’t be too strict about it – especially in the less formal contexts in which we find ourselves in.

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Comments (8)
  • If we consider McCartney’s lyric writing to be pretty much accentual verse, then “live in” works better, giving the line four heavily stressed syllables (ever, world, live, in).

    Posted by Mark Wilk Moloney on 11th May, 2015
  • Mark: Whatever about dropping the first in, which is conceivable but less rhythmically satisfying (to my ears anyway), dropping the second in is definitely not an option. Despite the line’s formal wrongness I’m quite happy to give it a pass; it’s even almost endearing.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 11th May, 2015
  • When I first heard “Live and Let Die,” it sounded as if there were an extra “in” at the end there. Then I though, nah, can’t be…must be “livin’.” Now that I see that The Man himself isn’t sure (though I really don’t understand how he can’t know what he SINGS, never mind what the actual words are), who am I to make assumptions! When I sing along, I say “livin’.”
    IIRC, altho I can’t just now think of which song it is, there may be a John (Cougar) Mellencamp song with similar issue.

    Posted by thebluebird11 on 18th May, 2015
  • Bluebird: The interview with McCartney is illuminating even as it leaves the question unresolved. I guess it’s a form of can’t see the wood for the trees – when you’re that close to something, it can be difficult to know it the way a third-party observer can. Much as we’re not the best judges of our own language usage, so singers might not be the most accurate assessors of what they sing.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 19th May, 2015
  • Hi Stan, I think this sort of thing happens in relative clauses quite frequently. I had a look in a big corpus via Skylight and found lots of hits, eg ‘Every Security Specialist is carefully selected for the environment in which they will be working in’. and ‘Council tax should have nothing to do with what people are prepared to pay for the house in which they are living in.’
    The same happens with other prepositions like ‘to’ and ‘for’, eg ‘The Home Office have changed the forms and the address to which all applications are sent to.’ and ‘If you choose to decline this offer, we shall be happy to refund the cost of the unobtainable items for which you have paid for.’ Note that these are written contexts, so it’s not a case of changing course mid-utterance as David Crystal says happens in speech.
    Relative clauses are problematic in English in different ways, for example the ‘redundant’ pronoun, eg ‘he was using this weird oscillating thing which you can vaguely hear it…’ As I’m sure you must have written about, maybe on this blog.

    Posted by gill francis on 19th May, 2015
  • McCartney doesn’t much care about the exact content of lyrics: he is all about singability, period, as in the notorious case of “Yesterday”, which began life as “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs”. (A friend of mine used to sing it with the line “I’m not half the man I used to be” an octave too high and in falsetto voice.)

    Posted by John Cowan on 19th May, 2015
  • Gill: That’s really interesting – and it proves, as you say, that it’s often not about changing direction mid-utterance. As regards redundancy it reminds me a little of how we say things like ‘the reason is because’, and even ‘the reason why is because’, as though intuiting that the more basic structure (‘the reason is that’) doesn’t sufficiently convey the intended meaning.
    In your examples, maybe the earlier preposition is motivated by the traditional syntactical ‘rule’ of avoiding preposition-stranding, or by the sheen of formality it lends, but by the time the clause is nearing completion the same preposition is felt to belong naturally there, or felt to be necessary. (I haven’t yet read what you emailed me about this, so it will be interesting to compare.)

    John: That’s true too. Melody wins out over lyrical sense for a lot of singers. Sometimes I even avoid finding out the lyrics to songs I like because I expect they’ll add nothing and might even diminish the experience.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 20th May, 2015
  • […] Stan Carey (May 11, 2015). ‘This ever-changing language in which we live in’. Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Retrieved from: macmillandictionaryblog.com […]

    Posted by This ever-changing language in which we live in | Jackk Journal on 29th May, 2015
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