Grammar in pop songs – Piano Man

If you know the song Piano Man, by Billy Joel, try to guess how many times the words ‘a’ and ‘the’ are used. If you don’t know it, watch it here and try to count.

During the week one of the topics in the textbook was a/an, the and (nothing), otherwise known as the articles of English. Theoretically the students have learned this long since, but the authors of the textbook saw fit to revise it, and it turned out that my students certainly needed reminding. After activities in the textbook and workbook, I gave them a worksheet I’ve created based on the song Skater Boy, sung by Avril Lavigne, which is full of people, places and things requiring articles (or not). After that I still had about 10 minutes, so I played them Piano Man, with the challenge to write down the noun phrases with ‘a’ and ‘the’. I did it too, and missed a few, some of which I don’t remember now, but one of which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Piano Man has 17 individual noun phrases with a and 10 with the, some of which are repeated, for a total of 26 as and 15 thes. While overall in English the outnumbers a by a factor of about three to one, it’s not really surprising that a is more common in this song, as he is introducing many people and things for the first time. If the song was longer, he might get around to talking about ‘the old man sitting next to me’, for example, again. (By comparison, Skater Boy has 14 as and eight thes, almost exactly the same ratio, for much the same reason.) (Piano Man and Skater Boy were two of the first songs I created worksheets for and used in class, in Korea.)

The full list for Piano Man is: a Saturday x2, an old man, a memory, a younger man’s clothes, a song x6, a melody x3, a friend of mine, a joke, a smile x2 (I had always heard the first occurrence (in verse 2) as ‘as the smile ran away from his face’, but Billy Joel’s official website says ‘a smile’. The other smile is the manager’s in verse 4.), a movie star, a real estate novelist, a wife, a drink, a pretty good crowd, a while, a carnival, a beer; the regular crowd, the piano man x3, the mood x3, the bar x2, the Navy, the waitress, the businessmen, the manager, the piano, the microphone

The one I remember missing is a while, probably because while is such an unusual noun. While ‘while’ means ‘a period or interval of time’, and we can have ‘a short while’ and ‘a long while’, we certainly don’t get ‘two whiles’ in the way we might get two of anything else on that first list.

The articles of English are notoriously difficult for a second language language learner. If their language doesn’t have articles, then they tend to leave them out in English. If their language has a more extensive article systems than English, then they tend to use too many. On the other hand, I suspect that native English speakers rarely even think about it. Even when we ‘choose our words with care’, a and the come pretty much automatically. Indeed, we really don’t notice them until they are either not there, or are wrong.


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