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Between You and I

July 3, 2008 | 23 Comments

Post to the Host:
The English Majors must cringe when you make up lyrics containing phrases such
as "between you and I" for the sake of a rhyme with "die." Grammar should not be
sacrificed so easily.

Clarice K.

You mean we ought to sing "It Doesn't Mean A Thing If It Doesn't Have That Swing"? "It Isn't Necessarily So"? The lyric of "Let Them Talk" wasn't written by me, however—it was written by Little Willie John, an R&B singer from Detroit who had a lot more to worry about than getting his pronouns straight. He was the guy who wrote "Fever" which Peggy Lee made into a huge hit and he was a crazy drunk who went to prison and died there at a young age, and when an old English major like me sings "Let Them Talk" it's sort of a thrill, frankly, when I come to the "between you and I"—I love it, love it, love it. I wouldn't write the song that way but I'm so glad that he did. It's a great song and there is no way around those lines: "Let them whisper for they know not/What lies between you and I./I'm going to go on loving you/Until the day I die." To change it to "between you and me...for all eternity"—makes it something less.


And so for Clarice, I recommend the Stan Freeberg routine on the cleaning up of "Old Man River" from Showboat, where Mr. Freeberg finally ends up singing "He must know something but he does not say anything".

I agree with Garrison. Sometimes the "wrong" pronoun sounds better. Years ago I wrote this haiku:

yellow leaf /
beneath windshield wiper-- /
who do I pay?

Robert Bly visited Alma College (in Michigan) and asked me to read that poem twice during his reading. Afterward, an English professor colleague asked me, "Why didn't you use 'whom'?" I said that "whom" sounds too formal for the poem.

GK - right on!! Clarice is a litle uptight about things that aren't really that important. Your reply was "nice" without telling her to lighten up!!

It's not just grammar that suffers in a song. A great song by Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues," has a line in it that goes "but that train keeps a rolling on down to San Antone." Great lyric but definitely geographically challenged in my opinion. And listening to a lot of hymns in Church, I often wonder if a lyric here or there doctrinally passes muster. But the songs are good and so you just have to go with the flow.

I'm looking forward to catching the Rhubarb Tour in Santa Barbara in August. My wife and I are going to build a mini 3 day vacation around it. We saw your show there once before and it'll be a wonderful evening indeed.

See you then (literally.)

I actually became a lot *less* picky about grammar after I took a couple linguistics courses during my M.A. English majors have many more interesting things to worry about than that.

You're confusing basic incorrect grammar with acceptable and often charming vernacular. In this case you are wrong. Hammerstein's "Ole Man River" is a good example of a master of the language writing for his character in a theatrical role but never compromising with grammar or rhyme if the situation did not demand it. Clarice is correct and your defense of Little Willie John is shallow misdirection that is beneath you. You seldom disappoint me but in this case you have.

Chris LeDoux has a song on his 20 geatest hits called Five Dollar Fine, I think that is appropriate for this situation, it goes like this:

We have a five dollar fine for whin'in
We tell you that when you come in,
and if it ain't in your mind,
to have a good time,
you'all come back and see us again

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I was delighted by your response to Ms. Clarice K.'s letter concerning her distress over 'improper' grammer. I confess that I also get riled up over grammer, but I'm on the other side of the street from Ms. K. I believe that the primary intent of language is to communicate and so grammer should often be descriptive rather than strictly proscriptive. We have a former English teacher in our office that proofs our correspondence. My occupation, like most, has its own nomenclature and acronyms, so I'm forever crossing swords with this well intentioned co-worker. Oh but to get her to just loosen up a bit. My Saturday afternoon's are planned around your show. Thank you, thank you, thank you for consistently presenting such wonderful entertainment.
Best regards,
Foster W.

The English language gets brutalized and mauled so much in almost every movie that is made, that a little phrase such as "between you and I" in a song is a very minor matter indeed.

Artistic expression should never be sacrificed so easily in the name of rigid grammatical rules. Imagine how different so many songs, novels, movies and plays would be if their creators were confined to an unbendable box of textbook grammar. That is one incredibly boring world that I do not want to live in.

Little Willie would have done way better to word it how HE talks, and not like a pretentious idiot, trying to be part of the la-de-dah set.

"Between you and I" sounds ridiculous, and good song or no, it suffers from the comprimised wording meretriciously put there to grab the easy rhyme.

I cringe every time I hear it.

Oh, no it doesn't!!!! Cringe, cringe, cringe, cringe, cringe.

At least change it to "Between you and me, I don't want to dee!"
I could manage not to cringe, thinking perhaps, that I was in dear old Ireland or up on the moors of Scotland. But "Between you and I" has no redemption at all. It just makes me cringe, cringe, cringe, cringe, cringe.


the best defense of the idiomatic turn might be: poetic license. all english majors, minors and wannabees should be familiar with the many such turns of phrase as they read poetry of the last 300 years

It's a song, people, not the 9th grade English class. Language flexes and grows. Love it for its evolving ability to express our thoughts, and don't try to lock it up with rules which are no more than passing guidelines.

Thanks for the response. I'm a retired English teacher, and the example I used with students was Mick Jagger, strutting around the stage yelling, "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction" or "I Can Get No Satisfaction." Either way, it ain't got that swing.


Frankly, I would *love* to hear you sing "It Doesn't Mean A Thing If It Doesn't Have That Swing" but maybe that's just me. (I know, it should be that's just I, but give me a break.)

To commenter Foster W.: I believe you meant grammar and afternoons, and I won't even mention what you did to that infinitive.

To commenter Caliope B.: Compromised.

Bad spelling bugs me almost as much as "between you and I" and between you and I, "between you and I" is a symptom of the total failure of American public education.

Garrison, Garrison, we can't live with you and we can't live without you.

Bob Brague

I think it was Churchill who responded to a person who had complained about his grammar: "That is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put!"

Marcia Gilbreath (English Major, English Teacher, Poetry Lover -- with all its grammatical idiosyncracies)

Thanks to Clarice for making the valid point.
No thanks to those so willing to see language continue to go
in a handbasket. Were our dictionaries more heeded
and written PREscriptively, there'd be better grounds for some
loseness in many forums; but with DEscriptive dictionaries,
one has the irony of the books following those who couldn't
care less--and those who care, bereft support. Yeah, one can
make some sort of communication by grunts and ..., but I don't
want to stoop to that. It's heading now to basicly an utterance
of "like, ya know what I mean", all context sensitive and useless.


Now I have one more thing to be thankful for. I'm thankful that I don't know Ms. Clarice. Life can be really boring as it is. I am an English major who had difficulty breaking the rules of grammar until I discovered that the best way to really communicate with people sometimes involved breaking the little 'rules' of English. Ain't that so? Ron Swisher, author and sometimes Cowboy Poet.

I believe songs should not be under the same rules as poetry or prose. Songs and stories used to be passed on orally and when they're subjected to such grammatical exactitude they can lose that natural flow.

It's commonly called 'poetic license.'
It's perfectly acceptable.
Read ol' Willy's stuff.

I agree with Kathy. Poetic license, for Pete's sake. Life must be miserable when you feel the need to dissect every phrase or sentence you hear or read to determine it gramatical correctness. Big deal, don't lose any sleep over it. There are many more things in life to worry about.

Lighten up, folks! Garrison, keep on doing what you're doing!

Tom H.

This reminds me of bantering among a group of seasoned proofreaders -- when is it "different than," over "different from"? Or a greeting card depicting an old gent wearing a tommy helmet and sitting on a load of sandbags, vowing he will "hole up" until the rest of the world takes the English language seriously. Although I agree we must preserve the language, as mortals we should allow other shades to brighten our black-and-white world of grammar. Judging from this exchange, there will always be some who carry the torch to future generations (my grandchildren will), so we're safe....

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