It was about the twelfth time listening to the latest overplayed song on the radio (perfectly timed with the unraveling of a non-relationship relationship and the changing of seasons) that I realized the problem with Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” That. Once I heard it, I couldn’t unhear it. It should be who.* This mistake is made frequently in everyday life, casually and off the cuff. Even in academia, I constantly correct this very error when grading my students’ papers. Deciphering the use of that vs. which and that vs. who causes much trepidation for my blossoming scholars.
Then I got to thinking about the importance of grammar in my life. Correcting grammar is problematic in many social circumstances for two reasons: it makes the corrected feel incompetent or chided, and it makes the corrector seem a pompous curmudgeon to all who bear witness to the scene. Linguistics have become a mark of the elitist. But as a writer, it seems crucial to be corrected when I make mistakes with language and syntax. Even punctuation seems such a small feat, but it can change the entire meaning of a sentence, the way it is read, and thus, the way the reader translates its essence. Language is not a privilege; it is necessity. The complex modulation of breathing. So it would benefit us to consider it with such seriousness.
Think about how different the history of music would be, for example, if we allowed laziness of language from the beginning of time the way that we do now: our entire understanding of Whitney Houston completely changes if “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” had the line “…somebody that loves me”. When we get to the break of “somebody whooooo, somebody whoooo” we simply would not have that part of the song. And without it, perhaps we don’t have the song. And without that song, what version of Whitney Houston do we really have at all?
So, comrades, grab your magnifying glasses and your old, dusty copies of The Elements of Style (no one makes grammar fun the way Strunk and White can) and prepare for the thrill of a lifetime. You’ll find song in structure of sentences and proficiency of language. These tiny markings may seem insignificant, but the power of arrangement and depth of complexity change the way we see and feel everything around us. Somebody who you used to know. If the suffering and pain were profound enough to write the song, write it correctly. Mostly, I hope you unrequited lovers all turn next time to J Alfred Prufrock for comfort in your lonesome—no one begs or croons quite like him (especially in the three dimensionality of Modernism compared to the lame, muted idea of emotion in post-911 American pop-music). [Ed.’s note: yea-heaahh.]
Oh and if you wanna dance with somebody, you wanna feel the heat with somebody…:
*the ongoing debate between who and whom is long and endless. Somebody “whom” I used to know would just be too pretentious, so the coin fell to the colloquial for this top-40 hit. In addition, whom has fallen out of favor on both sides of the Atlantic in the mode of flexibility that characterizes the English language.