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.

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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13 Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should Be Using

Damon Amato
Damon Amato

Because sometimes periods, commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, hyphens, apostrophes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks, brackets, parentheses, braces, and ellipses won't do, here are a few other punctuation marks to work into your everyday communications.

1. Interrobang

Advertising executive Martin Speckter came up with the interrobang in 1962.Damon Amato

You probably already know the interrobang, thanks to its excellent moniker and popularity (You did what!? or You don't read Mental Floss?!). Though the combination exclamation point and question mark can be replaced by using one of each, they can also be combined into a single glyph. The interrobang was invented by advertising executive Martin Speckter in 1962; according to his obituary in The New York Times the interrobang was “said to be the typographical equivalent of a grimace or a shrug of the shoulders. It applied solely to the rhetorical, Mr. Speckter said, when a writer wished to convey incredulity.” The name is derived from the Latin word interrogatio, which means “questioning,” and bang—how printers refer to the exclamation mark.

2. Percontation Point or Rhetorical Question Mark

Damon Amato

The backward question mark was proposed by printer Henry Denham in the 16th century as an end to a rhetorical question. According to Lynne Truss in the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, “it didn’t catch on.”

3. Irony Mark

Alcanter de Brahm's irony mark.Damon Amato

According to Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters, it was British philosopher John Wilkins who first suggested an irony mark, which he thought should be an inverted exclamation point.

Next came Alcanter de Brahm, who introduced his own irony mark (above)—which de Brahm said took “the form of a whip”— in the 19th century. Then, in 1966, French author Hervé Bazin proposed his irony mark, which looks a bit like an exclamation point with a lowercase U through the middle [PDF], in his book, Plumons l’Oiseau, along with five other pieces of punctuation.

4. Love Point

Hervé Bazin's love point.Damon Amato

Among Bazin's proposed new punctuation marks was the love point. It was composed of two mirrored question marks that formed a heart and shared a point. The intended use, of course, was to denote a statement of affection or love, as in "Happy anniversary [love point]" or "I have warm fuzzies [love point]."

5. Acclamation Point

Hervé Bazin's acclamation point.Damon Amato

Bazin described this mark as "the stylistic representation of those two little flags that float above the tour bus when a president comes to town." Acclamation is a "demonstration of goodwill or welcome," so you could use it to say "I'm so happy to see you [acclamation point]" or "Viva Las Vegas [acclamation point]."

6. Certitude Point

Hervé Bazin's certitude point.Damon Amato

Need to say something with unwavering conviction? End your declaration with the certitude point, another of Bazin's designs, which is an exclamation point with a line through it. As Phil Jamieson writes at Proofread Now’s GrammerPhile blog, “This punctuation would best be used instead of writing in all caps.”

7. Doubt Point

Hervé Bazin's doubt mark.Damon Amato

Another Bazin creation, the doubt point—which looks a little like a cross between the letter Z and a question mark—is the opposite of the certitude point, and thus is used to end a sentence with a note of skepticism.

8. Authority Point

Hervé Bazin's authority point.Damon Amato

Bazin's authority point "shades your sentence" with a note of expertise, "like a parasol over a sultan." (“Well, I was there and that's what happened [authority point].”) Likewise, it's also used to indicate an order or advice that should be taken seriously, as it comes from a voice of authority.

Unfortunately, as Houston writes at the BBC, “Bazin’s creations were doomed to fail from the start. Though his new symbols looked familiar, crucially, they were impossible to type on a typewriter. The author himself never used them after Plumons l’Oiseau and the book’s playful tone discouraged other writers from taking them up too, so that today the love point, irony point, and the rest are little more than curiosities.”

9. SarcMark

The SarcMark (short for "sarcasm mark") looks like a swirl with a dot in the middle. According to its website, “Its creator, Douglas Sak, was writing an email to a friend and was attempting to be sarcastic. It occurred to him that the English language, and perhaps other languages, lacked a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm.” The SarcMark was born—and trademarked—and it debuted in 2010. While the SarcMark hasn't seen widespread use, Saks markets it as "the official, easy-to-use punctuation mark to emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence or message." Because half the fun of sarcasm is pointing it out [SarcMark].

10. Snark Mark

You don't need a special font or keyboard to make the SnarkMark.Damon Amato

This, like the SarcMark, is used to indicate that a sentence should be understood beyond the literal meaning. Unlike the SarcMark, however, this one is copyright-free and easy to type: It's just a period followed by a tilde. It was created by typographer Choz Cunningham in 2007.

11. Asterism

We can think of a few situations in which the asterism would be useful.Damon Amato

According to Houston, this triangular trio of asterisks was “named for a constellation of stars and used as late as the 1850s to indicate ‘a note of considerable length, which has no reference.’”

12. And 13. Exclamation Comma and Question Comma

The exclamation comma and the question comma should be used "within a written sentence between words as a comma, but with more feeling or inquisitiveness."Damon Amato

According to the Huffington Post, Leonard Storch, Ernst van Haagen, and Sigmund Silber created both the exclamation comma and the question comma—an exclamation mark with a comma for a bottom point, and a question mark with a comma for a point, respectively—in 1992. The patent for the marks (which expired in 1995) reads:

“Using two new punctuation marks, the question comma and the exclamation comma … inquisitiveness and exclamation may be expressed within a written sentence structure, so that thoughts may be more easily and clearly conveyed to readers. The new punctuation marks are for use within a written sentence between words as a comma, but with more feeling or inquisitiveness. This affords an author greater choice of method of punctuating, e.g., to reflect spoken language more closely. Moreover, the new punctuation fits rather neatly into the scheme of things, simply filling a gap, with a little or no explanation needed.”

The patent closes with an imagining of what a reader might “silently remark” when seeing the marks for the first time: “Clever [exclamation comma] funny I never saw one of those before.”

This story has been updated for 2020.