Songwriting: Grammatical Poetic License?

Apropos of a recent discussion we’ve been having in comments sections on rather unrelated posts, here is a question to ponder:

Is there an extent—and, if so, what is the extent—to which poetic license is acceptable in the grammar department? If a song is theologically solid, can we forgive a lyric that doesn’t fit precisely on a standard English professor’s sentence diagram?

[polldaddy poll=4152887]

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38 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. It is distracting to me to have poor grammar. The message gets lost. If it is a comedy song, ok, but otherwise, I prefer good grammar.

  2. Are we talking about a song like “I Wonder as I Wander?” That’s ungrammatical, but once again, it’s a dialect. The writer reports to have heard a girl singing it, and struck by its beauty, to have asked her where it came from. She just said, “My mother taught it to me.”

    I think your poll needs to be more specific. Are we talking about folk songs that are technically ungrammatical as a matter of the dialect where they arose, or are we talking about modern stuff that’s just sloppy?

    • Ah, the perpetual “be more precise” question. I’m asking the broader overall question, not the specific instance question here. 🙂

      • Sorry, but in this case the differences actually matter. 🙂

  3. I would also say that once the grammatical problem progresses to the point where it is literally hard to unravel what the writer was trying to communicate, this is (to borrow a modern jargon term) an “issue.”

  4. Some styles such as country and blues warrant it.

    • Sure. So if you write a song with the word “ain’t,” you’re not being ignorant and sloppy, you’re deliberately giving it a certain dialectical spin for charm.

  5. In case anybody’s wondering, I haven’t voted yet. 😀

  6. NSF- as if anyone really needs to guess how you plan to vote…

    • Actually, I don’t think the poll is clear enough for me to cast a vote… yet. 😉

    • Nick – 😆 Spot on. 🙂

  7. It depends on whether the liberty taken makes the song better or worserer!

    • David – 😆 Spot on. 🙂

  8. I say that fitting onto a standard English professor’s diagram should not be the epic struggle everybody is making it out to be. 😆

    (Imagines the heroic songwriter, struggling to put great theology into grammatical sentences. It’s the battle of the ages, ladies and gentlemen…)

    In all seriousness, I have no problem with traditional songs using a dialect that is not strictly grammatical. I also think that, to a very mild extent, one can be slightly precise in poetry than one would be in prose (e.g. Daniel’s earlier example of “The Old Rugged Cross”). But a literally undiagrammable sentence is not a small liberty to take.

    Also, sentences that can’t be diagrammed aren’t the only way for a song to be ungrammatical. Your poll isn’t taking usage errors into account. Could a sentence with a usage error fit precisely onto an English professor’s diagram? Sure, you could have lots of cases where it could. But it’s still got a problem.

    • *slightly less precise

      • Usage errors are my biggest complaints in songwriting today.

      • Chris,
        Good one. I hope it was intentional.

  9. My question is this: what purpose does waxing eloquently about grammar serve? I read over and over your never ending debate regarding the second verse of ICA and your missing the trees f

    • Wow. You literally read it over and over? My sympathies. 😉

      I never once denied that ICA is filled with rich doctrine or that it’s a boon to the church in a sea of mediocre P & W songs, both of which I would heartily affirm. I was simply trying to say that if you’re trying to write something with the structure of a hymn, it’s a good idea, both practically and aesthetically, to give it grammatical order. For that matter, when you’re working to communicate anything in song, be it great theology or the virtues of nail clippers (but it’s even more important with theology), the song will be more effective if your thoughts are arranged clearly. Good intentions are not a substitute for technique. If you want your Christian song to be well-written, you want to combine equal doses of sound doctrine and good writing.

      I don’t think that’s unreasonable… is it?

  10. My question is this: what purpose does waxing eloquently about grammar serve? I read over and over your never ending debate regarding the second verse of ICA and your missing the trees fOr the forest, to borrow your phrase. The verse is obviously saying that the cross was the culmination of Christ’s earthly scorn. For all the talk of Soverign Grace Music being “new” hymns, they’re not hymns in the same vein as Crosby or Wesley. They do not follow the same “guidlines.” Certainly they bare resemblance to the style, but at the end of the day it’s still a CCM/P&W song.

    I’ve waited to comment simply because I’m trying to understand your relentless stance on grammatical correctness. I’ve spent the better part of my college and career in English and literature and I am truly struggling to understand your position. If the message of the song is conveyed properly using whatever language the writer chooses to use, what difference does it make if it is diagrammable or not?

    • Ah, I hate it when my comment gets submitted before I’m finished typing too!

      See my answer above. 🙂

      Oh by the way, not be snarky or anything, but… I think you meant “bear,” not “bare.” 😆

      And you’re right, they don’t have the same feel of a Crosby or a Wesley hymn. However, I would say that they come closer to a hymn-like flavor than some other songs you would find in the hymn-books, including Gaither songs (!)

    • I would also say that even if we waive the “hymn” requirement, CCM/P & W songs are generally better when written grammatically too. Ditto for gospel songs, pop songs, country songs, rock songs, etc.

      At the end of the day, all I can say is that something valuable has been lost. There’s a power that’s lacking in the songs of today, a lack of command over the English language. Tell the truth, it’s a problem in all genres. We’ve got a problem here that extends far beyond just one Christian song or Christian music in general. Nobody is exempt from it. And that problem is very simple: People are losing the ability to write well.

  11. Apparently my comment was submitted prior to my finished thought….

    What I get for typing on an iPhone I suppose.

  12. Daniel…you know from my previous conversations with you that I love your work…but for the sake of your wonderful website, PLEASE start posting topics that will not give this discussion another platform! Lol, I’m only slightly kidding! My head hurts.

    • In all fairness Mark, this discussion initially arose from a topic that wasn’t meant to give rise to it at all (a translation entry). It just sort of evolved in the comments section. I asked Daniel to define the word “timeless” and somehow it took off from there. 🙂

    • Mark,

      I would love it if this discussion settles it . . . but somehow I know that unless NSF’s viewpoint carries the day, the discussion will never end! I intend to stop posting about it after this one, and ask to NSF, I’m not the one to ask. 🙂

  13. Yes, apparently I meant bear. Chalk another to auto correct and rushing to type back.

    I agree…we are losing the ability to write in grammatically correct ways, but I would contend that the issue has more to do with the education realm and less to do with songwriting. If you submitted ICA to me as a literary writing assignment, I would flag it and we’d revise, only because in that context we’re talking structure compared to John Donne and other poets. However, in personal or communal songwriting I would argue the Getty’s probably weren’t writing with the intent of being in a collegiate text book in 100-150 years. If they were, then yes, by all means, your criticism would stand. But, as I suspect, they were aiming for a less formal goal, I would argue so long as the coherence is there, grammar is secondary to the purpose for which the song was composed: worship.

    Since this has been going on for who knows how long, have you or Daniel tried to contact them to get some clarification on that second verse??

    • I haven’t, since I don’t think it’s that big an issue.

      Would I avoid it in my songwriting? Yes, I trust I would and do. But would I quit listening to another songwriter’s otherwise solid song over a grammatically incorrect sentence?


      • Incidentally, Daniel’s lyrics are refreshing to me for precisely this reason. He communicates great doctrine, but he shows remarkable discipline at the same time. The result is engaging, thoughtful AND well-written lyrics. So far, I’ve never seen him sacrifice good grammar for another cause. 😀

    • I agree, it has everything to do with the education realm. That’s where it started. My point is that the problems arising in that realm are spilling over into the realm of songwriting. For example, how many songs have you heard that use the plural pronoun “their” with a singular antecedent? I’ve lost count. That’s a convention that started in the schools, and it’s spread everywhere since then. Any song using that convention could immediately be tagged as modern, because it’s so recent. That’s what I think it would be neat if songwriters could get away from—songs that give away their modern age.

      And you may be absolutely right that the Gettys were aiming for something less precise. But I think I made the point somewhere else that it seems like songwriters are doing just that, settling for lower goals. Of course I’m not going to stop listening to the song (and if Daniel was implying that, he’s wrong). All I’m saying, and all I’ve ever been saying, is that it sure would be nice to see some good old-fashioned writer’s discipline get back into the field.

      I’m not trying to “carry the day” here, if “carrying the day” means forcing everyone else to agree with me. That’s never going to happen. In this particular thread, I was continuing to elaborate first because the poll wasn’t set up that well in the first place and second because Nick said he was having trouble understanding my position. Hopefully my position is clear now. 🙂

  14. Now for my thoughts more directly on the issue at hand. We’ll see if NSF and I really agree or not. I am really curious; it isn’t foregone.

    I love literature, language, grammar, and vocabulary. One of the shocking things I like to put forward to make a point is that “rules were made to be broken.” I’ll just stick in right here that I voted the second option above.

    The point of language is communication. The point of poetry is primarily to communicate our emotions. Gospel songwriting does carry an obligation with it to be faithful to the truth of the gospel, but I’ll stick by my comments on its point being to communicate our emotions.

    Grammatical rules exist because, 99% of the time, they show us the most effective way to communicate. They help us organize our thoughts so that others can understand us (and we’re not sitting around wondering whether the world stopped scorning Christ when He was on the cross).
    They also affect the way people perceive us. I do understand some of my relatives when they use double negatives, but my opinion of their education is lowered. (If they were speaking Spanish, which missed that epoch of grammatical prudishness, it would be perfectly correct and not affect my opinion of them at all.) When my professor pointed her students to a website on American history which was riddled with grammatical errors, my opinion of her judgment was lowered, as well as my confidence in the material on the website.

    These are some of the reasons that it’s best to follow grammatical rules 99% of the time. However, “grammar was created for authors, not authors for grammar.” Someone who has mastered the English language engages with it. She has some emotions she’s trying to express and wants to put them in pure grammatical form. But “Oh what heavenly peace and divinest comfort it is, here by faith in Him to dwell” doesn’t do the job. She doesn’t feel that it communicates her emotions; it actually obscures the meaning. She tries all the grammatical possibilities, and finally makes the decision that her purpose is best accomplished with a shorter phrase, something like we would expect a soul to breathe when feeling those emotions. We never think to criticize her for it; in fact, most of us don’t realize there’s an “error” involved, because a master craftsman made a decision.

    Again, an old, white-haired gentleman was trying to communicate his spiritual experience and preserve it for his children. (The law prohibited him from learning to write it out or helping them learn to read it.) He didn’t have a mastery of all our grammatical rules, but he certainly knew how to command the dialect he used. When he said, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was,” he was even able to preserve for us the pathos of his grasp of deep spiritual truth, contrasted with the system that hobbled him and kept him from developing his intellect in the way his “superiors” respected. Again, his song was a success.

    A writer sat down this year and penned a song. He had his high school diploma, maybe even his bachelor’s degree, although the coursework had never demanded him to fully develop his potential. (I know; I just graduated from college in 2009.) Some hazy remembrance of “stream-of-consciousness technique” and an idea that poetry was about giving our emotions play gave him permission to just let the words spill out in a way that felt good. It requires a struggle to decipher the half-formed thought that was in his brain, and he didn’t really check it against theology, because his church movement doesn’t buy into the whole fundamentalism thing. He didn’t make real decisions about the grammar; it’s probably best to let it come out the way you feel, right? But if you listen to it along with the right musical arrangement, you really can connect with it on some level emotionally. Is this one a success or not? I was going to write it off, but I guess some people would disagree with me. (Disclaimer on this paragraph – I don’t have a specific song or author in mind; I really, truly don’t. I’m also aware that it’s a slight exaggeration.)

    To be cont’d … NSF, I’ll stop talking about your long-windedness now. 😀

    • Well if I’m following you correctly, I think you’re right. 🙂

      One thing though: “Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in him to dwell!” is an interjection, and it’s a perfectly acceptable grammatical category. There isn’t even a real error going on there. Actually, you can compare it with the sentence, “What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!” There’s no sense in which either writer is “cheating” or being grammatically sloppy there. Both thoughts are completed in a natural, linguistically correct fashion.

      Anyway, I think you’re making essentially the same point I was, which is that there’s a danger in saying, “Anything goes, and it’s all about the theology, and I knew what you meant anyway.” I think I understand what the second verse of ICA is trying to communicate. As Townsend wrote, he had a rough idea of taking the listener through the salvation story. Jesus was born, he was fully God and man, yet he was beaten and mocked by the ones he came to save, until finally, his redemptive work was completed on the cross, and God’s wrath was satisfied. Now obviously I just put that into prose, and it wouldn’t make a good song. But at the same time, it seems that there could have been a way to form the thought into something less “stream-of-consciousness” and more precise.

      If a writer figures grammar isn’t important because his audience will get the gist of what he’s trying to say anyway, that’s a sign of laziness.

      • I haven’t gone out and checked the rules on interjections, but I thought they ought to begin with “Oh” or “What” or were normally more identifiable.

        I guess what I was trying to say was, I thought you did let some true grammatical “irregularities” slip by when they brought them up in the last debate. My answer wouldn’t have been, “There’s a name for that; it has an understood subject or verb; or it isn’t really an error,” but rather that it was a justifiable decision by the songwriter because this was one of those cases where the rules don’t serve us well.

        I hate it when I’m told I can’t do something because “there’s a rule that a paragraph has to have more than one sentence.” Once in a great while, there is a dramatic buildup, and the climax deserves to be marked all by itself, in one sentence, with a line break before and after. Perhaps I am too lax in deciding it deserves that drama. But it’s not wrong because there’s a rule against it; there’s a rule against it because it’s usually wrong. And yet I do believe in “grammatical situational ethics,” sorry! 🙂 It’s like one of my high school textbooks told me – Yes, there is a place for sentence fragments, and that’s why you can say “So-and-so used one,” but you’re not yet educated enough to decide to use one. In other words, we must at least master following the rules before we can hope to break them appropriately. That is what’s missing, I think, in many writers today.

        Anyway, I’m having fun, but I got to the party late, so I’ll try not to draw it out.

      • Well I think that could apply anywhere. For example, I would never in a million years recommend that wannabe poets try writing free verse. It’s a great way to spoil whatever poetic talent you may have. C. S. Lewis advised a young girl against it by saying that writing free verse just leads you to write worse prose than you normally would, except broken up into sentences.

        Nonetheless, a few poets do have a gift for free verse. T. S. Eliot in particular comes to mind—a very strange poet, and not all his work was created equal, but a tremendously gifted one. Yet occasionally he’ll begin writing with a very strict poetic format in the middle of his free verse poem. For several stanzas, he consistently maintains a complicated scanning pattern while consistently finding rhymes for a difficult rhyme scheme. It wasn’t like he didn’t know how to write a conventional poem. He could “follow the rules” just as well as anybody else. It just so happened that he chose to write in free verse most of the time.

      • *broken up into lines, I meant to say

        They might not even be sentences!

  15. Another thought that came up repeatedly was “discipline.” I talked a lot in the last comment about grammatical sloppiness, but it’s not something that grates on me normally in SG. The worst thing that I hear all the time would probably be thinking “trod” is in the present tense and is necessary to rhyme with “God.”

    But there are songs in SG that … simply … Need More Work. I am shrinking from naming specific songs. But once in a while – really, all too frequently – one comes out that has a great hook, a great idea, great melody, and great potential. But I think that the author just got so excited about it that he rushed it out to publish without holding it and really seeing if it worked.

    Let’s go back in time a little bit and avoid stepping on someone’s toes. Take “The Cross in the Middle Should Have Been Mine” by Ronnie Hinson, recorded by the Florida Boys. My dad loved this song and wanted to sing it, but the second verse falls flat. He heard the story on the Gospel Greats, and he knows why. (Of course, it was held up there as the triumph of songwriting genius, but unfortunately “genius is 99% perspiration.”) Ronnie had written the first verse and chorus of the song, and it was truly in line to be one of his masterpieces. But he pitched it to the FB while they were recording, and they wanted to do it. Right then. So he went out to eat, wrote the second verse on the back of a napkin, took it back to the recording studio, and they cut it.

    I remember hearing another, mid-tier group talk on the Gospel Greats about how they needed one more up-tempo song for their album, so they wrote it that night in the studio (or the motel room, or something like that). Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember what it was. I just think that happens too much.

    The sad thing is that these groups are actually proud of these stories and feel that it shows how God is giving them music. They don’t seem to understand that truly great music doesn’t usually happen that way.

    • Now there you’re moving into the more general realm of songs that just feel “slapped together” for one reason or another (maybe grammar, maybe a different reason). Again, completely agree with you there too.

      I’ll go back in time and pick one that seems to fit that category for me: “The Night Before Easter.” Now hold the rotten tomatoes—it’s a good song. But it just doesn’t… CLICK. Starts off great, but by the end, the melody is rushed and confusing, there’s something about a little boy who’s crying and then stops, and it all has to do with Jesus, and it’s all just kind of messy.

      Great songs can come in short time windows. The lyrics to “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” were written in this way. Read this story from the writer himself:

      “My hymn was com­posed in the manse of In­ne­lan [Ar­gyle­shire, Scot­land] on the ev­en­ing of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s mar­ri­age, and the rest of the fam­i­ly were stay­ing over­night in Glas­gow. Some­thing hap­pened to me, which was known only to my­self, and which caused me the most se­vere men­tal suf­fer­ing. The hymn was the fruit of that suf­fer­ing. It was the quick­est bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the im­press­ion of hav­ing it dic­tat­ed to me by some in­ward voice ra­ther than of work­ing it out my­self. I am quite sure that the whole work was com­plet­ed in five min­utes, and equal­ly sure that it ne­ver re­ceived at my hands any re­touch­ing or cor­rect­ion. I have no na­tur­al gift of rhy­thm. All the other vers­es I have ever writ­ten are man­u­fact­ured ar­ti­cles; this came like a day­spring from on high.”

      But those are the exceptions. Not the norms.

      • I would say that was true inspiration!