6 Grammar Lessons Hidden in Christmas Songs

Digital Vision./iStock via Getty Images Plus
Digital Vision./iStock via Getty Images Plus

Drop these facts about the grammar in your favorite carols when you're out caroling this holiday season.

1. "Round Yon Virgin"

The Carol: "Silent Night"

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"

The Carol: "Deck the Halls"

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 Oxford English Dictionary (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"

The Carol: "Away in a Manger"

“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"

The Carol: "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

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” equals “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 "There’ll Be Much Mistletoeing"

The Carol: "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

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"

The Carol: "God Rest You Merry Gentleman"

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.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

welcomia/iStock via Getty Images
welcomia/iStock via Getty Images

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the more than 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This Scented Candle Is Perfect for the Grammar Police in Your Life

Whiskey River Soap Co. / Amazon
Whiskey River Soap Co. / Amazon

Whether it’s with Facebook posts, Instagram captions, or even in everyday conversation, we all know that one person who just can’t help themselves when it comes to correcting someone else’s grammar—whether they’re asked or not. Some may appreciate the correction, but if you don’t, now you can let the grammar police in your life know exactly how you feel with this "smells like your annoying" scented candle from Amazon for $21. They’ll no doubt be irked by that grammatical faux pas on the label every time they go to light it.

“Just wanted to shoot a quick message to let you know how impressed we all are that you finally figured out the difference between your and you're, thanks to Facebook trolls," manufacturer Whiskey River Soap Co. sarcastically says in the candle's description. "But as a club member, you now have to quit whining about everyone else's grammatical errors. Trust me, you're still making some."

But Whiskey River’s candles aren’t just for grammar lovers. Some of our other favorites include an unscented candle for introverts ($20) and one for morning people, which aptly smells of "hell no" ($29).

If you still can’t refrain from correcting what someone wrote or said—despite people’s protests—check out these 10 grammar myths to make sure you’ve got everything correct. And if you want to see some products that do follow all the rules, be sure to check out these grammatically correct gifts.

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!

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