The Sound of Syntax

If you’re someone who would love to improve your grammar but are haunted by the memory of difficult or dull English classes as a child, perhaps having to learn the rules by rote or, even worse, not getting any instruction at all, then David Marsh, author of For Who the Bell Tolls, is here to make you think again. Communicating in clear English is important for us all and learning about how to use grammar correctly doesn’t have to be boring. It can, in fact, be as enjoyable as listening to the lyrics of a favourite song. Below, David gives us a rundown of his top ten examples of syntax in song writing.


David Marsh writes …

A grasp of syntax – the structure of sentences – can help you to communicate clearly, whether you are writing a love letter, an email to your boss, or a tweet. Like oxygen, you may not know much about it but syntax is everywhere: in EastEnders and Eminem, pudding recipes and porn movies, in Facebook status updates and football commentaries. In She Loves You. And just as there’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung, there’s nothing about syntax that you can’t learn by listening to pop music. So here’s a playlist with a difference: the sounds of syntax.

She Loves You | The Beatles

“She loves you” is a neat little sentence that illustrates the point about word order in English, which is normally subject-verb-object (sometimes written SVO). A sentence is the main unit of expression in most languages. If it makes sense, and has a main verb in it, it’s a sentence. It can be a statement (Dogs die in hot cars), a question (Do you believe in magic?), an instruction (Blame it on the boogie) or an exclamation (Godspeed You, Black Emperor!).

Me Myself and I | De La Soul

The first-person pronoun personified: objective, reflexive, subjective. And a great video. It’s set in a classroom and De La Soul (a trio) have great fun playing on the fact that the title might refer to three people or one.

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic | The Police

Although the subject of a sentence will typically be a noun or pronoun, it doesn’t have to be. In this case, the subject is a five-word clause, the verb is “is”, and the sentence is completed by the complement: magic.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik | Red Hot Chili Peppers

Not a Rorschach inkblot test, but the Peppers’ nouns of choice. Many words fit into more than one word class. Take sex: it can take the form of a noun, as here; a verb, as in I Wanna Sex You Up; or an adjective, Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine). And that is before taking into account closely related words: Sexual Healing, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak, and many more. Don’t say syntax isn’t sexy.

The Sound of Silence | Simon & Garfunkel

Determiners – an uninspiring name – are said to “determine” the noun. Whatever that means. The most common and best known are a, the indefinite article, and the, the definite article. The difference can be quite subtle. “The sound of silence” is an oxymoron, an apparent contradiction, but by choosing the definite article Paul Simon gave the phrase a specific impact that the vaguer “a sound of silence” would have lacked.

Wake Up and Make Love With Me | Ian Dury and the Blockheads

“Wake up” and “make love”, like “eat”, “shoot”, and “leave”, are verbs. At school we were told verbs are “doing” words. As they don’t always do all that much, they are also known as “actions and states”. If a sentence or clause hasn’t got a verb, it isn’t a sentence or clause, whatever it may claim.

I Got You (I Feel Good) | James Brown

Purists might object to “I feel good – I knew that I would” on the grounds that the adjective “good” should strictly be the adverb “well”. Such people have got no soul. James Brown was cool and if he felt good, it’s fine by me.

(They Long to Be) Close to You | The Carpenters

Prepositions are little words such as at, for, in, after, from, to, among and between that show the relationship between other words in a sentence. They can be short phrases, such as close to you or on top of spaghetti. Sometimes they are missed out altogether, as in “they protested the verdict”, which I wish to protest against very strongly.

There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis | Kirsty MacColl

This title is a sentence that contains four noun phrases, four verb phrases, and a prepositional phrase that in turn contains one of the noun phrases, which in its turn contains an adjectival phrase. All this and an example of something called “existential there”. Oh, and there are two relative clauses. Plus a couple of determiners. Yes, the more you get into phrase-structure grammar, the more fun you can have. The syntax reflects the fact that even if the language is colloquial, the structure is sophisticated.

Wow | Kate Bush

“Wow!”, “OMG!” and the like are known as interjections. Old novels would sometimes use the verb “ejaculate” with them, as in: “Oops!” he ejaculated. My mates and I found this hilarious at school.


This is an edited extract from For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection. David Marsh is the production editor of the Guardian, which he joined in 1996. He edits the newspaper’s style guide and Mind Your Language blog.

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