In 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.Email this Post