Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

Many songs feature will or would, and some feature can or could (which are the most common modal verbs in real life), but very few feature the other modal verbs. Don McLean’s American Pie has can, could, will and would scattered throughout:

I can remember  ~ I could make  ~ they’d be ~ I’d deliver ~ I couldn’t take ~ I can’t remember ~ this’ll be ~ can music save? ~ can you teach? ~ no angel could break ~ the music wouldn’t play


(If this is the first time you’ve heard the song, don’t worry if you can’t understand it. McLean deliberately wrote it to be obscure, and has never fully explained it, though other people have attempted.)

This song alternates between ‘now’ and “a long, long time ago” (really 12 years ago – he wrote the song in 1971, and it refers to the death of three famous singers in a plane crash in 1959). 

now, the future and always (non-past) “a long, long time ago” (past)
I can remember (I could remember)
(I can make) I could make
(they’ll be [they will be])  they’d be [they would be]
(I’ll deliver [I will deliver]) I’d deliver [I would deliver]
(I can’t take) I couldn’t take
I can’t remember (I couldn’t remember)
this’ll be [this will be]  (this’d be [this would be]) 
can music save? (could music save?)
can you teach? (could you teach?)
(no angel can break) no angel could break
(the music won’t play) the music wouldn’t play

All of the modal verbs have some features in common. They don’t have Vs or Ving forms, and all of them are followed by a main verb in its plain form (including be): this is > this will be. They form negatives and questions without do-support: I couldn’t take, I can’t remember, the music wouldn’t play, and can music save?, can you teach?

Will and would are often contracted: this’ll, they’d, I’d (and see a song by one of the men who died in that plane crash: That’ll be the day). Negative forms are often contracted: can’t, couldn’t, won’t (not willn’t), wouldn’t.

Of the other modal verbs, might, must and should are more common, and may and shall are less common. 

Passive voice
Passive voice is usually made with a form of verb be followed by V-pp form of a main verb. In the song:

my hands were clenched  ~ what was revealed  ~ not a word was spoken ~ the church bells were broken ~ the courtroom was adjourned ~ no verdict was returned [all past simple passive, with were/was]

Regular verbs have a past simple/past participle form ending in –ed (or –d or –ied): adjourned, returned, revealed, clenched. Irregular verbs have no patterns, and students must learn them individually. There are small groups of similar words: speak ~ spoke ~ spoken and break ~ broke ~ broken

The most typical use of passive voice is when there is someone or something performing an action, a verb describing that action, and someone or something being affected by the action. Passive voice puts the person or thing affected by the action first, to focus on him/her/it. The person or thing performing the action can be added after by, or can be omitted (as above), especially if we don’t know or don’t care who it is, or it is obvious who it is:

my hands were clenched by me (I am the only person who can clench my hands)
what was revealed by someone (we don’t know who)
not a word was spoken by someone (we don’t know who) or everyone
the church bells were broken by someone or something (who don’t know who or what)
the courtroom was adjourned by the judge (that’s who adjourns courtrooms)
no verdict was returned by the jury (that’s who returns verdicts)

This person or thing can become the subject of the corresponding active voice clause:

my hands were clenched by me > I clenched my hands
what was revealed by someone > what someone revealed
not a word was spoken by everyone > everyone spoke not a word*
the church bells were broken by someone > someone broke the church bells
the courtroom was adjourned by the judge > the judge adjourned the courtroom
no verdict was returned by the jury > the jury returned no verdict*

* These sentences are awkward because of the way we use no and not in different sentence patterns. In real life, it would be more natural to say no-one spoke a word and the jury didn’t return a verdict, but these, in turn, have awkward passive voice equivalents: ?a word was spoken by no-one and ?a verdict wasn’t returned by the jury

V-pps can also be used as adjectives, and sometimes it is difficult to decide whether a particular example is being used as passive voice or an adjective. Break describes an action leading to a resulting state:

Someone broke the window (action) > The window was broken by someone (action) > The window was broken (?action or resulting state) > a broken window (resulting state). 

One clue is if there is, or if we could add very, more or the most, which we can do to adjectives but not verbs:

*Someone very broke the window > *The window was very broken by someone > ?The window was very broken > a very broken window

(There is much more to be said about modal verbs and passive voice, but in this post I am sticking to the examples in the song.)

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