New Word Order

So. I’ve been reading Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the hat and Look, I made a hat, two big thick book of song lyrics interspersed with explanations, annotations, comments and criticisms. In both books Sondheim points out failings in his own lyrics, and in those of other lyricists.

For example, here’s a verse from ‘How long has this been going on?’ by Ira Gershwin.

’Neath the stars,
At bazaars,
Often I’ve had to caress men.
Five or ten
Dollars, then
I’d collect from all those yes-men.
Don’t be sad;
I must add
That they meant no more than

This is what Stephen Sondheim has to say:

In his insatiable need to rhyme, Gershwin surrenders sense (How often are charity bazaars conducted outdoors at night); stress (“Often I’ve had to caress men”) and syntax (by “Five or ten / Dollars, then / I’d collect …” he means “Then I’d collect five or ten dollars”).

That last syntactical convolution comes under the heading of what might be called songwriters’ syntax, the chief symptom of which is subject-object reversal (for example, “Into Heaven I’m hurled” from the song above), a practice common in poetry, mostly pre-twentieth century poetry; but one which makes a contemporary conversational lyric sound anachronistic and draws attention to the lyricist.

I find myself cheering as I read the last point. This is one of my own bugbears: screwing up the natural word order of a lyric or a poem in order to get a rhyme. But, you might ask ‘what’s the big deal with word order?’

The short answer is it goes against sense and natural syntax (the reasons Sondheim gives). Here is my longer, more teachy answer.

In some languages word order is quite flexible – think of the slav languages or latin – where one of five or six grammatical cases helps the listener or speaker understand which noun is the subject of the verb and which the object. We could show that in a sort of grammar in english by writing:

man bites dog


do-man bites to-dog

where the ‘to’ prefix indicates the object (accusative case) and ‘do’ indicates the subject (nominative case) and bites is the verb. Once we have these prefixes we can set those words in any order:

do-man bites to-dog

to-dog bites do-man.

The order doesn’t matter as the prefixes tell us how the nouns and verbs are related to each other. (And if we wanted to extend things further we would add a with prefix – instrumental case: with-teeth to-dog bites do-man.)

But we don’t have those prefixes in english. All we have is the order of the words, the simplest block being subject-verb-object, which means in english man bites dog is news while dog bites man is simply life (old joke, I know). As a result, messing with the word order risks messing with the sense. Have a look at some of these:

I have dismissed him happy in his mind,
May evil from his foe him never find

Forward a message did to Sam they bring

He told what said to him his murdered son.

(All taken from Alexander Rogers’ 1907 translation of The Sha-namah of Fardusi, which has glories like these on almost every page.)

It’s possible to understand what each example means, but it’s an effort (and in Rogers’ case there’s about 500 pages to get through). So why does anyone do this to language? The clue is in that first example: find-mind. It’s the rhyme.

The writer’s need to rhyme (back to Ira Gershwin) becomes more important than respecting the natural order of the words. On the surface, song-writer’s syntax is lazy; two minutes’ thought might have fixed the line (but as A E Housman observed, thought is difficult and two minutes is a long time). But looking at it deeper, what we see is a sign of the unsuitability of english for rhyming. On that controversial thought I’ll stop.