Wondering who did Frank think he was talking to?

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Biking home listening to an old Fresh Air podcast from my backlog, I was amused to hear the story of Frank Sinatra giving a grammaticality judgment. Sammy Cahn describes how Sinatra objected to his lyric for the song "The Last Dance."

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Here's the relevant bit of the transcript from the Fresh Air site:

CAHN: So when you speak, you would say they're wondering just when we will leave. You wouldn't say, they're wondering just when will we leave. So he said that one, just when we will leave. I said no, it isn't – hold it. I said they're wondering just when will we leave. But till we leave. He said what kind of cockamamie word is…


CAHN: I said no one speaks like that. I said no. I said no one speaks like that, but we aren't speaking, Frank, are we? We're singing, aren't we, Frank? And that's the only time we ever kind of good-naturedly quarreled about a line.

Apparently Cahn shared the judgment but justified the inversion on artistic grounds. Sinatra subsequently did it Cahn's way, not his way.

I also love Cahn's bisyllabic pronunciation of "aren't" here.

Postscript: Of course, embedded subject-aux inversion IS available in many dialects of English, unbeknownst to Sinatra or Cahn, and also to many generative syntacticians until the early 1990s. Rusty Barrett once gave a talk * in which he described trying to report the existence of embedded auxiliary inversion in his hometown's nonstandard dialect in his graduate syntax class — this after the instructor had (proudly) shown that the theory he was teaching entailed that embedded auxiliary inversion was impossible (good for accounting for Sinatra's English, e.g.). The instructor's (jocular) response to Rusty's data point was, "Well, you clearly aren't an English speaker." Possibly intended as a hyperbolic joke, the actual effect of the response was to exclude Rusty and his nonstandard grammar from participation in the development of the theory being constructed in class.

Of course shortly after that, embedded subject auxiliary inversion was discovered by the syntactic literature (in Hiberno English and Belfast English) and shown to have important theoretical implications. It also appears to be on the rise in informal standard American English, judging from my undergraduates' feedback. It COULD have been Rusty who brought those facts to the world's attention. But thanks to a type of cultural insensitivity peculiar to one flavor of linguistic subculture, and, worse, scientific incuriosity, it wasn't.

I've heard similar jokes, and even, to my shame, occasionally made them in my own classes. Strange and wonderful data that your theory can't account for can be uncomfortable to contemplate. All the more reason to treat it with respect, not denial. Correct response? Interest and gratitude.

*Rusty's talk was given at the 2008 Arizona Linguistics and Anthropology Symposium, and was fittingly titled, "Is it any way might you could tell me how come am I not an English speaker? Subject-auxiliary inversion and introspective methodologies in linguistics and anthropology." The handout for the talk linked to above is online, I have discovered, here. He gives an amazing set of data documenting the epistemic content of embedded aux inversion in Ozark English.


  1. Heidi Harley said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    And I adore 'cockamamie'. Why doesn't anyone say cockamamie any more?

  2. Rube said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    @Heidi Harley, from "The Big Bang Theory";

    Sheldon: I decided to take your advice and have arranged to go on a date with Amy Farrah Fowler.
    Penny: Oh, that's great! Have fun.
    Sheldon: Wait! You have to drive me.
    Penny: What?!
    Sheldon: You know I don't drive.
    Penny: Well, go ask Leonard!
    Sheldon: I did; he said, and I quote: "Ask Penny, it was her cockamamie idea."
    Penny: Leonard said "cockamamie"?
    Sheldon: Actually, I'm paraphrasing. Having been raised in a Christian household, I'm uncomfortable with the language he used. And to be honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with "cockamamie".

  3. Heidi Harley said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

    <3! Also looking at Google ngram viewer I may be well off in my assertion that cockamamie is on the way out; check it out -- no sign of a drop off: Cockamamie

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    Here in Scotland, 'cockamamie' is unheard of, embedded subject-auxiliary inversion is found in some contexts, and 'aren't' with two syllables is standard!

  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    I couldn't even see the point of what were you talking about, at first ;-)

  6. SK said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    The Twitter account "Pentametron", which automatically retweets rhyming tweets in iambic pentameter (and featured here a couple of weeks ago), also treats "aren't" as a two-syllable word: recent examples are "There aren't any shortcuts to success / Decodes symphonic version is a yes" and "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt / Why aren't I in California yet??????"

  7. John Roth said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    I'm kind of with Ben – I had to look at it and think about it to figure out what the problem was, and I thought I spoke Standard English. Finally I got it. If you repunctuate:

    they're wondering: "just when will they leave."

    seems to be perfectly grammatical, while

    they're wondering just when will they leave

    doesn't seem grammatical.

    I suppose posing it as an embedded utterance brings it back up to being a top-level clause.

  8. chh said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    Could this be something other than aux-inversion? When I see this it looks to me like pronominal context shift, which seems to happen a lot in American songwriting.

    To me it's like, "They're wondering, 'just when will we leave'", where the 'we' is from the point of view of the speaker of the whole sentence, not the speaker of the embedded quote.

    There's a ton of this kind of context shift in songs, but I don't know if it's been discussed on LL before.

    Kelis-Milkshake "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they're like, 'it's better than yours'" (Where I guess the boys are telling Kelis that her Milkshake is better than the Milkshake of the person she's singing to)

    Jesse McCartney-Leavin' "Why don't you tell him that I'm leavin' never looking back again" (where he's imploring this lady to tell her boyfriend that *she's* leaving, not McCartney.)

  9. Matt said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    Yeah, but it's not "they're wondering just when will they leave", it's "they're wondering just when will we leave." And the referents of "they" and "we" are different, so it can't be simple quoted speech.

    (I agree that it feels very quoted-speechy, though. A kind of half-direct quotation in which the syntax of the embedded utterance is retained, but the pronouns are changed as they would be in indirect quotation.)

  10. Matt said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    chh, that's really interesting — the lines from Kelis and Cahn are totally grammatical to me (as is the Meek Mill line quoted at the linked Yale site), but the "that" in the McCartney line makes it unacceptable for me (if "I" is to refer to the singee and not the singer of the song as you say).

    But it doesn't seem to be limited to songwriting — Google Books has an example from the 1889 congressional record (they claim):

    Q. What did you say to Mr. Seaton ?
    A. I asked him would he please be so kind as to let me have a ticket, that I wished to have them out with me; I thought I was long enough boarding.

    Sometimes it gets punctuated as a quotation even though it clearly can't be one, as in this example from 2013:

    Previously, I was a Corrections Officer, so, I asked him, “Would he consider that type of job?” and he said, “yes”.

    (Here the "he" is the addressee, not a third party.)

  11. chh said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

    Matt, those are great examples, and (I think) much closer to the form of the Cahn song than what I gave. I suppose it could really be that or it could be inversion and I don't know if there's a way to tell. It just stood out to me as a pronoun indexing thing rather than an aux-inversion thing.

    I think some of the normal languages to talk about with respect to context/indexical shift are ASL and Amharic (aside from these weird English examples). I don't know if you saw any of that stuff but it's kind of fun. It's fascinating when it does pop up in English, and you're right, it's clearly not just in songs.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 5:34 am

    Both forms of the sentence are fine with me (SoAmE) with a little difference in emphasis – 'just when will we leave' is a little more emphatic.

    Heidi Harley: My intuition about 'cockamamie' is similar to your initial reaction. It sounds so much like something my mother would say in the middle of the last century. And, I don't think I have heard it in years.

  13. scav said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 11:21 am


    Jane Austen used to do that (now very unusual) quote-marks around indirect speech thing. I can't find an example right now. I have occasionally wondered if it was just her, or common practice at that time.

  14. Mick O said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    I used to get so cranky when that Cee-Lo song "F You" was being played everywhere. "Who is he singing to?" I would plead to passersby. They thought I was frightfully askew. "Get over it," they told me. "It's just lyrics."

  15. Jason Eisner said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    @Rube @Heidi Harley

    Sheldon: I did; he said, and I quote: "Ask Penny, it was her cockamamie idea."
    Penny: Leonard said "cockamamie"?
    Sheldon: Actually, I'm paraphrasing. Having been raised in a Christian household, I'm uncomfortable with the language he used. And to be honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with "cockamamie".

    But if he'd been raised in a Jewish household … my kids are growing up with that word, as my wife and I both did. I think my mental lexicon stores it in the Yiddish section, somewhere near farblunget. Apparently others also think of it as Yiddish but it's really just New Yorkish: see this post by Nancy Friedman (which starts with a 2008 quote from Arizona Sen. John McCain).

  16. hanmeng said,

    June 7, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

    The exchange between the instructor and Rusty Barrett reminds me of the old Morgenbesser joke:


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