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just a little musing (little a-musing?)

I was intrigued to read today’s post from Thomas at My Porch about grammar (oh woe) because I was also going to make a language comment in today’s post. Mine is not a complaint, though, more of a musing.

One of my favorite bands is the Drive-by Truckers. The Husband and I are a little bit fanatical about them, in fact. This morning on the way to work I was blessed by the iPod which gave me “Thank God for the TVA”, a Truckers song that was written and performed by Jason Isbell who is no longer in the band. So, we don’t get to see it played live. 😦 But I did hear it in the car, and I love it. Here, I found you this recording of it.

The line I’m most concerned with right now says is, “I wanted her to want me so bad it hurt.” I notice some ambiguity here. Let’s use parentheses in the mathematical way: he could mean “I wanted her (to want me) so bad it hurt.” Or he could mean “I wanted her (to want me so badly it hurt).” Does he want, so badly that it hurts, for her to want him? Or does he want for her desire for him to be painful? (I’m leaving aside the grammatical wrongness of “so bad it hurts” – should be “so badly” – but I can appreciate the southern flavor it gives.) This is the same ambiguity we see in pronoun use such as “Maria gave her mother the card, and her eyes sparkled.” Because Maria and her mother are both female, “her” is ambiguous. Whose eyes sparkled? Maria’s, or her mother’s? I think ambiguity in language is generally a problem. If I came across a sentence like the one I just made up in a book I would be frustrated. The purpose of language, after all, is to communicate.

But I guess there are exceptions to my statements, that language is solely a tool of communication, and that ambiguity is frustrating. Because the above line in the song is poetry; it’s beautiful; and the meaning of the sentence works both ways. I appreciate it. I’m okay with the ambiguity; in fact it adds to the song and, what do I know, may even have been purposeful. When is language not just about communication? When you’re passing the time, when you’re trying to look busy, when you like to hear the sound of your own voice, when you’re stalling, when you’re trying to get something you want without someone else noticing they gave it to you. Etc. But also, when it’s poetry. I think Jason Isbell is a poet, and he’s brought us our musing of the day. Thank you Drive-by Truckers.

6 Responses

  1. I think ambiguity is great for poets. (Leave aside how it might be if someone is writing directions for installing a light switch!) I haven’t listened to the song recently, but I’m going with, “I wanted her to want me. I wanted that so badly that it hurt (me).” The second meaning is possible, but is that what people usually say? That is, I want HER love for me to be painful to her. That’s selfish, or maybe unhinged.
    Often when people make these common grammatical mistakes, the meaning is a bit idiomatic but understandable. (And that’s how I would settle the question; I don’t have much doubt about what was intended. Not so good if you’re dealing with electric current or Friday night plans, though.) Here’s a case where he could have fixed the thought by using an object after hurt: “I wanted her to want me so bad it hurt me,” or “it (would) hurt her.” Of course there are several reasons that he didn’t make it clear; maybe, foremost, he didn’t want to – be perfectly clear. There’s a lot of musing to do over songs and poems, and life is a lot more interesting when we can just play around with the ideas and the words. What is the nature of love and how does selfishness and selflessness come into it?
    If the idea comes up in a novel, maybe you ponder the question and hold on to it as you read. Is it an insight into the character that will show itself later or just a small error? Hmm, another issue to ponder while you stay tuned. Some writers will never say it right out loud on the page and you have to make your own case for this guy’s guilt or innocence. Isn’t that why we have literary criticism and book clubs?

  2. YES! Great answer. That’s why we have book clubs and literary criticism and that’s why I wrote this blog post. I like the idea of ambiguity in the song; I like that it could go either way. Would it be selfish of him to want her to hurt for desire? Yes. Would it be unhinged? Maybe not; I think love is like that. It might not be a sweet nothing to whisper in your lover’s ear, but I think love IS selfish. I prefer to keep it a question, as to what he meant. But yes, I think this is the beauty of poetry, song, and yes, literature. Room for ambiguity. You’re right, technical writing, please no ambiguity.

  3. As an English teacher, I love this post! I can’t tell you how annoyed I get when reading incorrect grammar. The mistakes that bug me the most are the common ones that everyone, who has completed fourth grade, should know! (There, they’re, and their, your and you’re.) The teacher across the hall consistently spells “their” as “there.” “All students going on the field trip are responisble for there work.” I just want to slap her! LOL!

  4. I feel you Linda! Language is a precious thing. My mother, the Karen above (gave you away mom), is a linguist and English teacher (as a second language, to adults) and I knew she’d be involved!

  5. Today’s blog post is great. I liked it; not that I disliked any others. That reminds me, I watched a “hillbillys” documentary on the History channel the other day. TVA had a large portion of coverage. They had footage of remains of the old houses taken during low lake levels.

  6. Aren’t you diplomatic. 🙂 Thanks. Hm, sorry I missed that documentary, sounds interesting. I like it when music (or books!) educate me and inspire me to do further research. The Truckers do that a lot, for me.

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