6 Grammar Lessons Hidden in Christmas Songs

iStock/georgeclerk
iStock/georgeclerk

Understand the grammar in your favorite carols.

1. Round yon virgin

The “round” in “Silent Night” might call up imagery of the soft, maternal kind, but in the phrase “round yon virgin,” it simply means “around.” “Yon” is an antiquated word for “that one” or “over there.” The meaning of the phrase in the song depends on the line before it. It should be understood in the context “all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.” In other words “Everything is calm and bright around that virgin mother over there and her child.” In technical terms, “round yon virgin mother and child” is a prepositional phrase.

2. Troll the ancient Yuletide carol

Trolling a carol might sound like some obnoxious attempt to undermine it, but it’s actually a great way to get in the holiday spirit. According to the OED, one of the meanings of “troll,” in use since the 16th century, is “to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.” It’s related to the sense of rolling, or passing around, and probably came to be used to mean singing because of rounds, where the melody is passed from one person to the next. The modern, obnoxious sense of troll comes from a much later importation from Scandinavian mythology. People have increasingly been changing this line to “toll the ancient Yuletide carol” (now over 17,000 hits on Google). Don’t let the trolls win! Let’s troll the trolls by dragging this word back to the cheery side!

3. The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed / The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” This line is a perfect storm of lay/lie confusion. The correct form here is “laid,” but it often gets changed to “lay,” and with good reason. “Laid” is the past tense of “lay,” which should be used here because the little Lord Jesus isn’t simply reposing (lying), but setting something down (laying), namely, his head.

If it were in the present tense, you could say he “lays down his sweet head.” But in the past tense “lay” is the form for “lie.” I know. It’s a rule that seems rigged just to trip people up. But here, it gets even worse, because the word right after “laid” is “down.” There’s a word ending with ‘d’ followed by a word beginning with ‘d.’ When you say “laid down,” it’s hard to tell whether that first ‘d’ is there or not. As a practical matter, both “lay” and “laid” sound exactly the same in this context. So you can fudge it when you sing it. Just be careful how you write it.

4. You better watch out, you better not cry

That’s right, Santa Claus is coming to town, so you better watch out. Or is it “you’d better watch out?” Many grammar guides advise that the proper form is “you’d better” because the construction comes from “you had better,” and it doesn’t make sense without the “had.” The problem is, it doesn’t make much sense with the “had” either, if you want to do a picky word-by-word breakdown.

Though the “had better” construction has been a part of English for 1000 years, it came from a distortion of phrases like “him were better that he never were born,” where “were” was a subjunctive (“it would have been better”) and “him” (or “me,” “you,” “us”) was in the dative case (“him were better” = “it would have been better for him”). People started changing the dative to the subject case (“he were better”) and then changed the “were” to “had.”

That was all hundreds of years ago. Then, in the 1800s, people started dropping the “had.” The grammar books of the late 1800s tried mightily to shore up the “had” (some even making up a rule from nowhere that it should be “would,” as in “he would better”), but these days the bare form is considered correct, if a bit casual for formal contexts. Clearly, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” wants nothing to do with fancy formality. So “you better watch out” is the way to go.

5. With the kids jingle belling and mistletoeing

There is a lot of verbing going on in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” First, “With the kids jingle belling/And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer',” and then, “There’ll be much mistletoeing/And hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.” Of course, in a song, concessions to rhythm and rhyme need to be made, and sometimes this involves making up a few words. But the practice of turning nouns into verbs is as old as English itself. Many of our verbs started when someone decided to use a noun to stand for some verbal notion related to that noun. First we had “hammer,” and from that we made “hammering.” First we had “message,” and now we have “messaging.” Oil, oiling, sled, sledding, battle, battling. The meaning of the verb is built off some context involving the noun, which could be almost anything (pounding with a hammer, sending a message, putting oil on, riding a sled, engaging in a battle). So verbs for “ringing jingle bells” or “kissing under the mistletoe” aren’t so strange at all. At least no more strange than “gifting” or “dialoguing.”

6. God rest you merry, gentlemen

Notice the comma placement there? The gentlemen in this phrase are not necessarily taken to be merry already. It’s not “Hey, you! You merry gentlemen! God rest you!” It’s “Hey, you gentlemen over there! May God rest you merry!”

In Shakespeare’s time, “rest you merry” was a way to express good wishes, to say something like “peace and happiness to you.” Other versions were “rest you fair” or “rest you happy.” It came from a sense of “rest” meaning “be at ease,” which we still use in the phrase “rest assured.” In “God rest you merry,” “you” is the object of “rest,” so when people make the song sound more old-timey by substituting “ye” for “you,” they are messing up the original grammar because “ye” was the subject form.

Actually, that’s not quite true, because even in Shakespeare’s time, “ye” was sometimes used as the object form. However, if you want to go that way, you should be consistent with your pronouns and sing “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing ye dismay.” In the second line “you” is also an object, as in “Let nothing dismay you.”

So rest you merry this season, and enjoy your jingle belling, mistletoeing, and trolling.

9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers on National Punctuation Day

Uncommon Goods
Uncommon Goods

Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Does your significant other get a thrill from showing you how to really use a semicolon? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

1. The Elements of Style Illustrated; $15

Elements of Style Illustrated Book.
Penguin Random House

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. Pencils; $9

Best Grammar Gifts
Fresh Prints of CT

Mixing up their and they're is a simple mistake that we're all guilty of, but these pencils will remind you to take an extra moment while writing to make sure you're getting the basics right.

Find It: Amazon

3. Punctuation Bookends; $25


JHP

These punctuation-themed bookends are ideal for keeping your reading material in order; they’re heavy enough to do the job but not big enough to overshadow your collection. Or you can just use them as paperweights or simple home decorations.

Find It: Amazon

4. Cheese & Crackers Serving Board; $48

Uncommon Goods Ampersand Cheese Board
Uncommon Goods

Bring your love of punctuation to your next wine and cheese party with this maple wood serving board that arranges your finger food in the shape of an ampersand.

Find it: Uncommon Goods

5. Punctuation Poster; $36

Punctuation and Grammar Gifts.
FolioCreations

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster from FolioCreations, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. Shady Characters; $14

Shady Characters Book
W. W. Norton & Company

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. Ampersand Marquee; $16

Grammar Gifts
Darice/Amazon

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. Pop Culture Parts of Speech; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. Owl Shirt; $15

Best Grammar Gifts
Bookworm Basics

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

It’s Official: Merriam-Webster Has Added They to Its Online Dictionary as a Nonbinary Pronoun

psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images
psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images

Two and a half years after the Associated Press announced it would recognize they as a singular pronoun, America’s oldest dictionary is following suit. The Guardian reports that Merriam-Webster has officially added they into its online dictionary as a grammatically correct nonbinary pronoun.

Merriam-Webster notes in a blog post that people have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, and quoted an 1881 letter in which Emily Dickinson refers to a person of unknown gender with the pronouns they, theirs, and even themself. The post also mentions that using you as a singular pronoun wasn’t always considered grammatically correct, either: it was born out of necessity, gained popularity in casual conversation, and eventually became formally accepted as a singular pronoun.

Merriam-Webster does acknowledge that this new application of they differs from how the general public has most commonly used it in previous centuries. In the past, the singular they has referred to “a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context.” For example, you would probably say “Tell each person that they are responsible for cleaning up their own trash,” rather than “Tell each person that he or she is responsible for cleaning up his or her own trash.” Now, however, we use they to describe a person who simply doesn't identify as either male or female.

It’s a much more direct use of the pronoun, and it’s this definition that Merriam-Webster is adding to the existing dictionary entry for the word they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

And with that, “Don’t use they as a singular pronoun” has become nothing more than bad writing advice, much like “Don’t split infinitives” and these other grammar myths.

[h/t The Guardian]

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