By John Braheny

One of the most common problem areas in lyric writing is the use of pronouns. Pronouns take the place of both proper nouns (Paul Simon, Los Angeles, Laurel Canyon) and common nouns (songwriter, city, canyon). The words pronouns replace are referred to as "principals." Here are five rules for the use of pronouns, all established in the interest of clarity:

1. Make it clear what the pronoun you're using is a substitute for.

2. The principal must be close by so the listener doesn't get confused about what the pronoun stands for.

3. Avoid putting two principals close by or the listener won't know which one the pronoun represents. "When John talked to Joe, he realized that he was getting old but not wise." Was it John or Joe who was getting old?

4. Avoid having one pronoun represent two principals at once. "He was rich but he was poor." Was principal #1 rich and principal #2 poor, or is there only one principal involved?

5. If possible, avoid placing the pronoun before its principal. "She heard the message he delivered but didn't believe the messenger." It takes the listener a few seconds to make the connection that "he" is the messenger.

Be very careful about the number of pronouns you use in a song. Without realizing it, you can create a maze in which only you know who's saying what to whom. "She said she thought he loved her more than she loved him, and she wouldn't recommend that he move in." There are at least three different ways that line could be interpreted. If you can read the line at your leisure, you can probably figure them out, but when the line goes by in seven seconds in a song, you're in trouble.

On the other hand, pronouns serve a valuable function when they're used properly. They can help to guide the listener away from vagueness by letting them know exactly who is saying or doing what.

POINT OF VIEW

Pronouns are important in establishing point-of-view. Certain creative decisions need to be made by the songwriter. The options are:

Relating the song in the first person (I, me, we). "I was on my way to nowhere"

Having the singer address the song to the second person (you). "You Are So Beautiful."

Third person is relating a song about something or someone else (he, him, she, her, it, they, them). "He was a high school hero in a one horse town."

The choices you make are based on clarity and impact. For instance, it's usually very effective to deliver a heavy philosophical message in the first person ("Here's what happened to me") or in the third person, in which you tell a story about someone else and we understand the message in our own way. Second-person messages ("You should...") can alienate the singer from the listener by implying that "I don't need this message but you do," but second-person positive sentiments ("You're wonderful." "You deserve the best.") are very powerful.

Some writers use "you" as a substitute for "I" in a rhetorical sort of way. "What do you do when you fall in love with someone you can't have?" We read this as "What do I do ...?" The approach puts distance between the singer and a hurtful problem by using "you" instead of "I." There's no wrong or right here. The impact of the pronoun you choose can vary with each song. It's always a good idea to check out all the possibilities to create the most powerful emotional statement. "I can't pretend that I don't hurt" may be better than "You can't pretend that you don't hurt" because, when the listener sings along, he is singing about himself rather than an anonymous "you."

From a commercial standpoint, third person can be very useful. When an artist listens to your song and is deciding if he'll record it, it may be a great song but expresses a point of view or a personal situation that the artist doesn't want to be identified with. His fans will think he wrote it or it will think that's how he feels. Maybe he's happily married but it's about considering divorce. That problem may keep him from wanting to record it. If it's in third person it takes that heat off.

The most common-sense rule to follow in all of this is to try to put yourself in the place of the listener, no matter how emotionally involved you may be in expressing your personal feelings. It's a difficult thing to do in the heat of passionate inspiration, so it's a good idea to put a song away for a few days to allow yourself to look at it more objectively.

EXERCISE

Look at the lyrics for your favorite songs. If it's in first person, change it to second or third person. If it's in third person, change it to first or second, etc. Think about which one seems to have the most impact for you. You'll usually discover why the writer chose to do it that way. Now do the same for your own lyrics.



This excerpt from John Braheny's book, (The Craft and Business of Songwriting, 2nd Edition) has been edited for length. It's available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.

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