March 27, 2015
Taylor Swift: grammar queen
by Zeljka Marosevic
The Princeton Review and Taylor Swift are never ever ever getting back together. The split came after it was revealed that Princeton Review, which preps students for college admissions tests, used Swift’s lyrics to illustrate bad grammar.
As Steven Poole writes in the Guardian:
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.”
The use of Swift’s lyrics came to the attention of Taylor herself when a fan posted a picture of the exam paper on Tumblr, stating:
“I was just having an amazing time studying for the SAT and now I feel attacked.”
Taylor, being her beautiful and kind self did not use the opportunity, as many of us more fallible human beings would have done, to query someone who claims to have “an amazing time” studying for an exam. Instead, she took down Princeton Review, writing on Tumblr:
Not the right lyrics at all pssshhhh
You had one job, test people.
[line breaks Taylor’s own.]
The actual line, of course, is “Somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them.”
But Princeton Review did not back down. In the same tweet in which they owned up for their mistake, they faulted Swift again:
@billboard Oops! We own up to the lyric fail. We <3 @taylorswift13, but somebody/them = points off on the SAT.
— The Princeton Review (@ThePrincetonRev) March 23, 2015
Then, speaking to MTV News, the Princeton Review’s publisher Rob Franek elaborated:
I want to make sure that folks know that we’re big Taylor Swift fans and that we apologize for the misrepresentation in the lyrics…. I appreciate her response, but the question on the grammar still holds true…. 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.
Except, this isn’t right either. The Guardian’s Steven Poole came to the rescue of both Taylor Swift and good grammar, pointing out:
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.”
To conclude, not only is Swift completely right, but she is also a lovely and inclusive songwriter who aims to represent all of our fragile hearts:
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.
Swift put it best in an eloquent hashtag on her Tumblr: “#ACCUSE ME OF ANYTHING BUT DO NOT ATTACK MY GRAMMAR.”
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.