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Author Topic: Questionable English grammar in the lyrics of a popular song  (Read 164 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: March 19, 2017, 06:56:54 AM »

I don’t remember answering in this column this admittedly tough question asked by Forum member English Maiden some years back: “I’ve always wondered if this line in a well-known song is grammatically wrong: ‘All I hear is raindrops falling on the rooftop.’ That the noun ‘raindrops’ after the verb ‘is’ is plural makes me doubt the correctness of that line. Can we correct it by changing the singular verb ‘is’ to the plural ‘are,’ as in ‘All I hear are raindrops’?

“I also face the same issue with the pronoun ‘what.’ Oftentimes I’m unsure whether to use a singular or plural noun with it. Should I say, ‘What I enjoy watching most is horror movies’ or ‘What I enjoy watching most are horror movies’?”

This is the reply to English Maiden that I posted in my online English-usage forum:

Strictly speaking, there’s a subject-verb disagreement in that song lyric: “All I hear is raindrops falling on the rooftop.” The linking verb should take the plural form “are” because it refers to both the notionally plural pronoun “all” as subject and to the plural noun “raindrops” in the predicate.That sentence should then read as follows: “All I hear are raindrops falling on the rooftop.”

That this should be the case can easily be checked by putting the sentence in this inverted form: “Raindrops falling on the rooftop are all I hear.” In this form, it’s pretty obvious that the subject of the sentence is the noun phrase “raindrops falling on the rooftop,” where the head noun “raindrops” is doubtless plural, so the linking verb should be in the plural form “are.”

Having said that, I must acknowledge that the line in question comes from the lyrics of Canadian singer Tamia’s 2004 song “Officially Missing You” that goes this way:

All I hear is raindrops
Falling on the rooftop
Oh baby tell me why’d you have to go
Cause this pain I feel
It won’t go away
And today I’m officially missing you…

As we know, song lyric writers—like poets—sometimes need to take liberties with words and the language itself to achieve the tonality, cadence, and number of syllables they need for the lyrics of a song. For this purpose, they enjoy a literary license that allows them to take minor liberties with language for creativity’s sake, the better to make their creative works aesthetically enjoyable and entertaining. No point therefore in quibbling with the grammar violations they occasionally commit for the sake of creativity and euphony.

A few days afterwards, English Maiden sent me this postscript: “OK, thanks for your explanation, sir. I figured that out, too, and so I initially thought that the lyric was wrong. But then I realized that as a pronoun, ‘all’ can also mean ‘everything,’ as in ‘All is fine now.’ So, I'm thinking that if that’s the meaning intended by the writer of that song, then the line is grammatically correct because if we replace ‘all’ with ‘everything,’ then the verb ‘is’ perfectly agrees in number with the pronoun, as in that song: ‘Everything I hear is raindrops.’

English Maiden’s afterthought about this subject-verb agreement conundrum actually makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think it would be adequate to settle the matter. Much, much later, I came across a clearer, more practical way of resolving this subject-verb agreement peculiarity when sentences need to be inverted (http://tinyurl.com/j9b8afv). Here’s that rule of the thumb: When the subject and predicate of a sentence differs in number, the linking verb agrees with the number of the noun phrase to its left side. Thus, the normative “Raindrops falling on the rooftop are all I hear” inverts to “All I hear is raindrops falling on the rooftop.”

Isn’t that grammatical scheme neat? Try it on your “horror movies” sentence.

This essay, 1031st  in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the March 2, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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