The first two songs I used in an English language class were ‘Love of my life’ by Queen and ‘I do, I do, I do, I do, I do’ by Abba. At the time, ‘Love of my life’ was being used in an advertisement on Korean television. Looking at the words, I discerned some important grammatical features, and after some thinking realised that ‘I do …’ has many of the same features and thematic ideas, and is a musical contrast. It turned out that none of the students in that class had heard ‘Love of my life’ on that television advertisement, but they enjoyed the lesson anyway, and I’ve used it many times since.
The main grammatical feature is the use of the plain form and the plain present tense of verbs. For 99.99% of English verbs, these are the same, but are used in different ways. The first use of the plain form is as an imperative: do this, don’t do that. An imperative can be used with a wide variety of nuance, from a polite offer (‘Please – sit down’) through to a direct order (‘SIT DOWN!!!!’).
So we have:
love me, leave me, make your choice, believe me
These all have a direct object, but it is possible to have an imperative by itself:
wait, see (though perhaps ‘wait and see’ is one idiom rather than two separate imperatives)
A related phrase uses ‘let’s’ to make a suggestion:
let’s try it (compared to ‘try it’, which could mean ‘by yourself’. ‘let’s’ usually means ‘together’, but not necessarily; a nurse could say ‘let’s try it’ to a child patient. On the other hand, a policeman saying ‘Let’s go to the station and sort this out’ is probably not making a suggestion!)
Another pattern is adding an adverb (or two and/or a prepositional phrase) without or with a direct object:
come on, hurry back (‘come on’ works differently. It is a phrasal verb and has a meaning distinct from the separate meanings of its separate parts. ‘hurry back’ means ‘hurry’ + ‘back’; ‘come on’ does not mean ‘come’ + ‘on’.)
bring it (back) (home) (to me) (Notice that we can make ‘bring it’, ‘bring it back’ (the first time in the song), ‘bring it home’, ‘bring it to me’, ‘bring it back home’, ‘bring it back to me’, ‘bring it home to me’ and ‘bring it back home to me’ (the second time in the song (which, incidentally, is the only time in either song that anyone says ‘please’!)).)
Any of these patterns can also be negative:
don’t take it (away) (from me), don’t leave me
The plain present form is used in present simple tense with ‘I/you/we/they’:
I love you, you leave me, (you) desert me
So what’s the difference between the plain form and the plain present tense? ‘Love me’ v ‘I love you’, ‘leave me’ v ‘you leave me’. One difference is that the plain present form changes when the subject is ‘he/she/it’: ‘he love*s* you’, ‘she leave*s* me’. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, from which I am adopting most of my terminology, calls it the ‘3rd [person] sg [singular] present tense’. In class I often call it the ‘s-form’ or write ‘[V-s]’.)
In the song:
you don’t know what it means to me (compared to ‘you don’t know what you mean to me’)
So in negative statements, the main verb is actually in plain form, because it doesn’t change with ‘he/she/it’; rather, the auxiliary verb changes:
you don’t know (compared to ‘he doesn’t know’, not *‘he don’t knows’ or *‘he doesn’t knows’)
But the whole sentence is:
you don’t know what it means to me (compared to ‘he doesn’t know what it means to me’, ‘you don’t know what you mean to me’ and ‘he doesn’t know what you mean to me’ (technically, there are two clauses here, so they can each have their own pattern))
But there are also modal auxiliary verbs, which don’t have an s-form:
I can’t conceal it, (I) can’t deny it, we can’t make it (compared to *‘she can’ts conceal it’ or *‘she can’t conceals it’ or *‘she can’ts conceals it’ etc).
In English, questions often work in similar ways to negative statements:
don’t you see (it)? (compared to ‘doesn’t he see (it)?), can’t you feel it? can’t you see? (compared to ‘can’t she feel it?’ and ‘can’t she see?’).
One more use of the plain form of the verb is an the infinitive, with or without ‘to’. A ‘to-infinitive’ can be used to state a purpose or answer the question ‘why’?:
I will be there at your side (why?) to remind you how I still love you.
The last phrase here (‘how I still love you’) raises another important point. We can add words like ‘still’ or ‘now’ (in these songs) or ‘yet’ or ‘already’ without changing the basic grammar pattern.
I said that for 99.99% of English verbs, the plain form and plain present tense are the same. The .01% is important, and is the verb ‘be’. ‘Be‘ has more forms than any other English verbs, and we we can see the difference between ‘You be happy!‘ (plain form – imperative) and ‘You are happy!‘ (plain present tense – present simple), and between ‘I love you’ and ‘I am you’ and ‘I can’t love you’ and ‘I can’t be you’.
Lyrics by Freddie Mercury © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Lyrics by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson © Polar Music International AB
Used under the ‘fair dealing for the purpose of research or study’ provisions of section 40(1) of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).