Taylor Swift’s grammar marked down incorrectly

Taylor Swift

The Princeton Review has sniffed at the (misheard) lyrics of the pop star’s song Fifteen. But its ‘correction’ is more than five centuries out of date

One of the reliable pleasures of observing modern arguments over language is the schadenfreude of seeing the self-appointed prescriptive grammarians get things embarrassingly wrong. So it has turned out again, with the culprit this time being the Princeton Review (which helps US students prepare for college admission tests), and the people’s champion being none other than pop empress Taylor Swift.

In a Princeton test paper, a section headed “Grammar in Real Life” told students: “Pop lyrics are a great source of bad grammar. See if you can find the error in each of the following.” Taylor Swift’s song Fifteen was then cited as containing the line “Somebody tells you they love you, you got to believe ’em.” A fan posted her sad reaction online: “I was just having an amazing time studying for the SAT and now I feel attacked.” Then Swift herself responded on Tumblr: “Not the right lyrics at all pssshhhh. You had one job, test people. One job.”

The actual line, you see, was “Somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them.” The Princeton Review tweeted: “We own up to the lyric fail”, but then apparently forgot the old adage that when you are in a hole, you should probably stop digging. They went on to claim that the accurate lyric is still grammatically wrong, on the grounds that “somebody” can’t later be referred to as “them”. Publisher Rob Franek blustered: “If we look at the whole sentence, it starts off with ‘somebody,’ and ‘somebody,’ as you know, is a singular pronoun and if it’s singular, the rest of the sentence has to be singular.”

Oops, grammar fail! As any fule kno, “them” has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for ages. In fact since at least the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It seems that the Princeton Review would also mark down Samuel Richardson as a grammar-vandalising idiot, since that man wrote, in Pamela (1741): “Little did I think … to make a … Complaint against a Person very dear to you … but don’t let them be so proud … as to make them not care how they affront every body else.”

This use is so well established that the OED gives it uncritically as sense 4 of the word “them”: “In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: him or her.” (The lovely term “anaphoric”, by the way, means “referring to or standing for a preceding word or group of words”.) Thus Taylor Swift’s line from “somebody” to “them” is entirely unobjectionable. How, in any case, would the Princeton nincompoops prefer her to rewrite it? To choose either “him” or “her” would exclude half the singing-along audience, while “him or her” just wouldn’t scan.

There is as yet no word of solidarity from pop situationist Lady Gaga, who is also pilloried on the Princeton Review’s test for singing: “You and me could write a bad romance.” Right, right, it should be “you and I”. Except that people say “you and me” all the time, and pop-music lyrics are speech not writing. Plus, why not assume that Gaga is clever enough to be making a linguistic joke? After all, a “bad romance”, rather than a good one, probably would contain grammatical “errors” of the kind silly test-setters sniff at.

I don’t know: if this is what they are teaching American children these days, no wonder the kids prefer to educate themselves by listening to avant-garde dance records.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Steven Poole, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th March 2015 13.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010