Take Your Grammar to Alabama

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Scott Gardner

For many years now I’ve been supplementing an English lesson on “Honesty” with a song from the 90s called “Been Caught Stealing.” The song, by a band called Jane’s Addiction, is sung from the viewpoint of a rebellious youth who enjoys stealing things from local shops. Once during a presentation on teaching English with music I handed out the lyrics of “Stealing” as part of a sample worksheet. Almost immediately a teacher in the audience raised her voice to say that the song was inappropriate as language learning material. 

“I could never use this song with my kids,” she said. When I asked why, she replied, “Just look at these lyrics. The first line of the song—‘I’ve been caught stealing once, when I was five’—that’s an egregious misuse of the present perfect. He can’t say he ‘has been’ caught stealing, and then pinpoint a time that it happened in the same sentence. My students try to do that all the time, and I’m not going to validate that kind of error by playing examples of it in a so-called ‘authentic’ English song!” 

Of course I was relieved to hear that her objection was based on grammar and not on the moral ramifications of teaching English through songs about shoplifting. But it got me thinking: Maybe I need to be more responsible with the songs I use in class. I went to my lesson plan pool (I affectionately call it my “lesson crib”) and reluctantly began sifting out favorite tunes by the likes of Napalm Death, Bongwater, and the Carpenters (everyone knows that “Won’t Last a Day Without You” is about alcohol addiction, right?). 

Still, I didn’t want to overdo it. Otherwise I’d be stuck teaching “Honesty” with Billy Joel songs or some other such nonsense. I struck upon a suitable compromise in the form of a musical genre which is, almost paradoxically, both more direct in its general linguistic attack and at the same time more roundabout with its innuendo. That genre is American country music. 

Country music is a great choice for a lot—er, for a whole caboose-load—of reasons. First, it is music that, somehow, regardless of subject matter, meets with the approval of your mother. The rebels you hear about in country music are far more preferable to those in, say, a punk song, for reasons no one can really explain. Johnny Cash can sing “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” but your parents would still rather have him joining the family at dinner than “No Future” Johnny Rotten. 

Second, country songs like to take normal everyday English phrases and push them to their semantic limits: “Work your fingers to the bone and what do you get? Bony fingers!” Or take this classic song about a man who falls in love with the recorded phone message from his local cable TV provider: 

“Tell me what it takes, Woman. Don’t be cold.” 
“Your call means a lot to us. Please hold.” 
“I need you, Darling. Stay with me and support me.” 
“A representative will be with you shortly.” 

If you find that using country lyrics in their entirety for language practice is too risky, you can stick with just the song titles, which offer plenty of linguistic uniqueness you can throw at students: 

Tumbling Tumbleweeds (redundancy) 
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue? (noun/verb agreement) 
Stand by Your Man; Take This Job and Shove It (directives) 
You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly (sentence complements and optional use of that

And if the vocab/grammar oddities in real titles don’t quite meet your needs, you can always make up more blatant titles of your own: 

Having Told You You Had a Dangling Participle, Would You Hold It Against Me? 
Sleeping Singular in a Plural Bed 
Mamas, Don’t Let Your Phrases Grow Up to be Compounds 
Before He Conjugates 
Droppin My Gs over You 
All My Reflexives Find Themselves in Texas