S is for Sentence

21 12 2009

When writing the A-Z, one of the things I wanted to avoid was the use of contrived sentences to illustrate points of grammar – of the type I was having a shower when the phone rang, or Look, black clouds: it’s going to rain!  Instead, I wanted examples which were genuine, but also plausible, easy to understand, and, if possible, memorable. Rather than consult a corpus, I decided, where possible, to use well-known titles of songs and films – which had the advantage of being genuine, familiar and fairly easy to unpack. For example, the entry on participles included citations from some song titles and lyrics by the Beatles:

Participles are used:

  • in conjunction with auxiliary verbs to form verb phrases: She’s leaving home. I’ve just seen a face. I should’ve known better.
  • after certain verbs: I saw her standing there.
  • to post-modify nouns in the form of a reduced relative clause: There’s a shadow hanging over me.
  • like adjectives: the long and winding road;
  • on their own, as the verb in a non-finite participle clause: Looking up, I noticed I was late. Rocky had come, equipped with a gun.

At a fairly late stage in the production of the book, however, there was a sudden panic at head office, as the realisation dawned that we might need to seek permission to use these quotes – permission, what’s more,  from none other than Michael Jackson (who, at the time, held the rights to most of the Beatles oeuvre). I tried to argue that sentences of the type “she’s leaving home” could have been said or written by anyone.  But, in the end, (and even after I had appealed to the Society of Authors for advice) it was decided that it was just too risky: even if permission were granted, it would come at an enormous cost. So all the Beatles citations were excised.  This is how the above extract appears in its published version:

Participles are used:

  • in conjunction with auxiliary verbs to form verb phrases: As I was going to St. Ives… I’ve been to London to look at the Queen.
  • after certain verbs: Tow went howling down the street. Jill came tumbling after
  • to post-modify nouns in the form of a reduced relative clause:  Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair. There was an old woman tossed up in a basket…
  • like adjectives:I went out to the roaring sea, and saw a tossing boat.;
  • on their own, as the verb in a non-finite participle clause:  The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes. In spring I look gay, dressed in handsome array.

The examples are all ‘authentic’, in that they come from English nursery rhymes, but for me they have nothing of the resonance or memorability of the Beatles quotes.

For that reason, I am always on the look-out for film and song titles that I can use in language analysis classes, and I am proud that many of these (although not the Beatles ones) did make it into the final cut of An A-Z. I am particularly keen to collect film and song titles that are complete sentences, such as She’s leaving home or The times, they are a-changing or A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. These – I think – are much more fun to analyse than the kind of contrived sentences that are the stock in trade of traditional grammars.

So, if you know of any film or song titles that form syntactically complete sentences, do let me know!  




40 responses

21 12 2009
mark andrews

Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards Scott from Billy Bragg’s Workers Playtime album, a great favourite of mine. Xmas greetings from sub zero Budapest!

21 12 2009
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Mark, for being first out of the gates. Not sure if “waiting for the great leap forwards” constitutes a sentence though – in the stict sense of having at least one finite verb. But it’s a nice phrase!

21 12 2009
Peter Fenton

This post reminds me of a weekly feature in The Guardian newspaper section where readers are invited to recommend songs about a particular subject.


I also seem to remember a similar feature on the Mark and Lard show a few years ago on Radio 1.

To get to the point of your post, invariably songs by Morrissey or The Smiths would often feature as they have more than their fair share of long song titles.

Here’s a couple of my favourite Smiths songs to get you started.

There is a Light That Never Goes Out
You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet Baby

21 12 2009
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Peter … I should have made a seasonal competition of it, shouldn’t I, with a signed copy of An A-Z as a prize! Nice sentences, too. I give this kind of sentence to my MA students, for parsing purposes – and let them choose their own as well. Inevitably there’s always one with a vocative (as in baby in your example ‘You just haven’t earned it yet, baby’) which we hadn’t dealt with in the traditional subject-verb-object kind of analysis. When I tell them that it’s neither an object or a complement, but a vocative, I sense that they think I’m just making it up as I go along!

21 12 2009

Oh – I LOVE this type of thing…. here’s the first one that sprang to mind – from Jim diamond (remember him!)

I should have known better

Now I won’t be able to stop thinking of songs all day!!

21 12 2009

“This guys in love with you” – and such a cheesy video too – together with rugged seventies man, crashing waves and woman with weighty eyelashes!

21 12 2009

Here are a few more (with youtube links) and Merry Christmas from a very snowy Switzerland (it was -35 in the coldest area and about -15 in Basel over the weekend) But planes, trains, transport all still running smoothly!!

Engleburt Humperdink. – Help me make it through the night

I want a little sugar in my bowl – Nina Simone

Queen – I was born to love you

Leonard Cohen – Hey that’s no way to say goodbye.

Pink Floyd – Wish you were here

Aha – Living a Boys adventure tale

Culture Club – Do you really want to hurt me?

U2 – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Eric Clapton. – I shot the sherrif

Bob Marley – Could you be loved?

ELO – The diary of Horace Wimp

Del Amitri – Nothing ever happens

21 12 2009

I’ve never been to me – Charlene.

(from Priscilla Queen of the desert!) I love cheesy songs!

Link has all the lyrics so you can Karoake it.

OK – now I am going to stop – this is a serious addiction.

21 12 2009

Thanks Steph – what a great collection of sentence-type titles! Wish you were here just passes the ‘sentence’ test, if we accept the ellipted subject as being grammatical, since it still contains a finite verb. Not sure about Living a boy’s adventure tale, though, which would certainly pass the ‘utterance’ test (“What are you doing?” “Living a boy’s adventure tale!”) but perhaps not the fully-formed sentence test. Nor the noun phrase The diary of Horace Wimp. But all the others get my vote – and thanks for the video links!

21 12 2009

Hi Scott wouldn’t it be possible that “Living a boys adventure tale” qualifies as a sentence with an ellipted subject and finite verb. “What are you doing?” “(I am) Living a boys adventure tale”?

21 12 2009

Hi Steph, yes, fair question – and as I said Living a boy’s adventure tale passes the utterance test (in the sense that it would make a plausible utterance in context). But so would Nuts (as in the exchange “What do you need to make a Christmas cake?” “Nuts”). But to say that Nuts is a sentence because the subject and verb (“You need…”) are ellipted is rather stretching the definition of a sentence, don’t you think?

21 12 2009

Hi Scott – according to this website (University of Ottowa) even a single word like “run” can be said to be a sentence!


But I hear what you are saying – and I suppose it’s a matter of closely we adhere to the traditional definition of a sentence.

I know way too little about syntax to deeply discuss the topic. (maybe I should sign up for an MA! ) But my gut feeling says – when it comes to spoken discourse – the whole system of sentence classification seems to be rather slippery.

21 12 2009

Hi Steph – you’re ever so persistent – glad you’re not one of my students! 😉

Yes – but if you look closely at what that website says, the minimum requirement for a sentence is a predicate (read ‘verb phrase’) and usually a subject (remember – the shortest sentence in the Bible is exactly that: a subject and a (finite) verb: Jesus wept). However, imperative verbs (which don’t have explicit subjects) are also ‘allowed’, hence Run! This ‘rule’ would mean that Fire! is a sentence, if it means Shoot your gun!, but not if it means There is a fire down below! So, you’re right, the whole system of sentence classification is very slippery, which is why – in spoken discourse, at least – the term utterance is preferred (although no easier to define!)

21 12 2009

Thanks for your patience! (and answer) Scott

21 12 2009

‘Nobody loves a fairy when she’s forty.’
Tessy O’Shea

21 12 2009

Nothing personal, I hope, Glennie! 😉

21 12 2009

Not at all.
I just think Tessie O’Shea (spelling her name correctly this time!) was a marvelous, saucy character. And it’s a great line with the alliteration. Just trips off the tongue.
(She had another great song about her friend’s prize marrow with the immortal chorus line “Oh! What a beauty! I’ve never seen one as big as that before!” :->)

21 12 2009

Scott, run a word search on amazon.com. For instance, you can try “wish” in a search for books or music or movies. I tried “written” with music. These are some entries for the first page:
Written in Chalk
It was Written
Written in the Stars
The Greatest Songs Ever Written
Songs We Wish We’d Written
Written in Red

How about this. Copy and paste each picture of the song album onto a page on an interactive whiteboard. Hide the key word (“written”) by drawing with your pen over it on each picture. Have your students guess what the missing word is.

21 12 2009

Nice idea. I’d heard you could do something similar with I-tunes – so, inspired by your post, I did a search for “I wish” in the I-tunes store, and got these great sentence titles:

I wish I was your lover.
I wish the cat could talk.
I wish I knew how it would feel.
I wish I were in love again.
I wish you knew.
I wish it would rain down.
I wish that I could see you soon.

and -very appropriately:

I wish it could be Christmas every day.

21 12 2009

Hi Scott,

Here are some titles:

“We wish you a Merry Christmas”
“Santa Claus is coming to town”

“I’ve been thinking about you” – London Beat –

“Don’t worry, be happy” – Bobby McFerrin –

“I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” – Aerosmith –

“Thank You For Loving Me” – Bon Jovi –

“You Give Love A Bad Name” – Bon Jovi –

“Another one bites the dust” – Queen –

“We will rock you” – Queen –

“I want to break free” – Queen –

“We are the champions” – Queen –

I’d better stop…

Best wishes,

22 12 2009

Great stuff, Melania – and they all meet the “syntactically well-formed sentence” test, too. AND there are a couple of seasonal references, to boot. (I think you might be eligible for the prize! 😉 )

Regarding “Thank you for loving me”: this contruction has come up before on my language analysis courses, and resists conventional analysis. Do we assume that there is an ellipted subject pronoun (I, we) or is it best categorised separately as a social formula, and left alone? And what about thanks to/for as in “Thanks for all your help”; “Thanks to my mother and father for having me, etc”? Are these examples of verb-less sentences??

22 12 2009

Well Scott,

I’d opt for an ellipted subject pronoun in “(I) Thank you for loving me”, “(I/We/You/They) Thank me/you/him/her/us/them for the invitation” and even in “(He/She) Thanks me/you/etc for the lovely evening” – in all three situations “thank” is a verb.

Then you ask: “And what about thanks to/for as in “Thanks for all your help”; “Thanks to my mother and father for having me, etc”? Are these examples of verb-less sentences??”, and I’d say: “Yes, verb-less sentences”; in these examples, “thanks” is a noun and verb collocating with it would be “give/send/express” + a possessive adjective, as in: “(I) Give my thanks to my mother and father for having me …”

Thanks for entering my name in the prize list!


22 12 2009

And there’s also the situation of “thank” used in the Imperative: “Thank her for the invitation!”

I guess this also applies in “Don’t worry, be happy!”


22 12 2009
Andy Hockley

Films are more difficult, it would seem, since these are pretty much all songs. But in keeping with the season, there is, of course, “It’s a wonderful life”

Somewhat less seasonally there is also “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia”

22 12 2009

Thanks Andy – yes, it’s true: there aren’t that many film titles that are full sentences. Those that are are often rather B-grade (I married a Zombie; I was a fugitive from a chain gang) or are couched as questions: Guess who’s coming to dinner? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What’s new, Pussycat? Whatever happened to Baby Jane?

Incidentally, I’ve only ever been able to find one film title that includes a question tag. Anyone know what it is?

22 12 2009
Fernando Guarany

Would it be “They shoot horses, don’t they?”?

Never seen it, just googled it 😉




22 12 2009

Well done, Fernando – that’s the one I had in mind! (And I did see it, too).

22 12 2009

Hello again Scott and Andy,

I did an IMDB search and came up with the following pseudo-whole-sentence movie titles:

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) – looks like a whole sentence but it’s not because the subject group has no predicate; “The Little Girl… did what?”

Imperative sentences:
Analyse This (1999)
Analyse That (2002)
Search and Destroy (1995)
Meet the Fockers (2004)
Do Not Alter (2008)

Not very sure about these two – they sound… unfinished…
What Just Happened (2008)
What Doesn’t Kill You (2008)

And finally, whole-sentence movie titles:
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
We’re no Angels (1989)
New York, I Love You (2009)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
What’s up, Doc?

Oh, some beautiful songs I just remembered, by Simply Red: “If you don’t know me by now”, “You Make Me Feel Brand New”, “Say You Love Me”, “Something Got Me Started”


22 12 2009

Wow, Melania – you’ve been doing your homework! It’s a close run thing between you and Steph, I think!

Just a couple of things:

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane: Yes, you’re right, this is not a sentence, but it’s a very nice noun phrase with relative clause post-modification – exactly the same structure as The Spy Who Loved Me or, for that matter, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

On similar grounds I’d argue that these are not fully-fledged sentences (not, at least, if read as statements rather than questions):

What just happened
What doesn’t kill you

Rather, they’re noun (or nominal) clauses and can function as subjects, objects or complements, but are not syntactically complete sentences, e.g.

What just happened was we missed our stop.


What doesn’t kill you isn’t worth worrying about.


Before the devil knows you’re dead

strikes me as being a subordinate clause, and not therefore a sentence. Compare: You’d better get out of here, before the devil knows you’re dead. The same for the Simply Red song: If you don’t know me by now… Isn’t this a conditional clause?

22 12 2009

Hmmm… I had my doubt about those two introduced by “what”, I did say they sound unfinished. If considered as part of a context, “What just happened” could answer a question like: “What are you writing about?”, but that would mean not sticking to the rule (this is what I usually tell my students: we first need to learn the rules and then we can discuss particular situations).

As for the two subordinates… there’s nothing I can say except: you’re right! And I knew you’re right, but I got carried away by the particular situations when these could be partial answers to some qs, and therefore not complete sentences! My bad!


22 12 2009

On second thoughts… “Before the Devil Knows, You’re Dead” would make a complete sentence… we all know the value of a well-placed comma…. hahaha

I don’t know anything about the film, I didn’t see it, so there’s no help coming from that direction. But we’re free to speculate here, aren’t we?

22 12 2009

Haha, Melania – the power of the comma! (Or the question mark, for that matter, which would have nicely dealt with What just happened).

22 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester


Nothing to add, except



23 12 2009

You want film titles? I’ll give you film titles.

I know what you did last summer.

I still know what you did last summer.

Did you hear about the Morgans?

He’s just not that into you.

I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry.

You’ve Got Mail.

Everyone Says I Love You.

You Only Live Twice.

I love you, Beth Cooper.

You can’t Take It With You.

It Could Happen to You.

I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.

Debbie Does Dallas.

As You Like It.

I’m Not Afraid.

Not Everyone’s Lucky Enough To Have Parents Who Are Communist.

I Am Legend.

I Love Lucy.

I Am Sam.

I Heart Huckabees.

Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

Honey, I Blew Up The Kid.

I Am Cuba.

23 12 2009

Incidentally, a search of IMDB gives the film title “Fleas Bark Too, Don’t They?” as the translation of the (non-Dogme) Danish film, “En loppe kan også gø”. There’s also the Danish film, “They don’t burn priests, do they?” (Man brænder da ikke præster). There was also a documentary called “They Shoot Children, Don’t They?” about the murderous habits of the Guatemalan police.

27 12 2009
Marcos Benevides

Hi Scott,

Nice idea, and I hope you don’t mind if I take this off-topic for a minute. I’m really shocked that your publisher thought it too risky to use phrases which are not only an important part of our shared culture, but also–even if standalone sentences were somehow copyrightable–would still clearly fall under fair use. How terrible that we must live in fear of frivolous corporate litigation like this!

27 12 2009

Thanks, Marcos, for your comment. Yes, it’s a bit depressing that someone (whether Michael Jackson or not) can ‘own’ much-quoted chunks of the English language. In fairness to my publishers, they did try hard, but their legal advisors warned them to stay well away from song lyrics – they are a litigious minefield. Book titles, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be a problem, and many of my examples of the noun phrase, for example, are titles of well-known books (such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or Portnoy’s Complaint).

31 12 2009

Let’s Do it – Victoria Wood.

And here are the lyrics – should be plenty of authentic song-like sentences there.

Freda and Barry sat one night,
The sky was clear, the stars were bright,
The wind was soft, the moon was up,
Freda drained her cocoa cup.

She licked her lips, she felt sublime,
She switched off Gardeners’ Question Time.
Barry cringed in fear and dread
As Freda grabbed his tie and said….

Let’s do it,Let’s do it,
Do it while the mood is right
I’m feeling, appealing,
I’ve really got an appetite.
I’m on fire, with desire,
I could handle half the tenors in a male voice choir.
Let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight.

But he said:
I can’t do it,I can’t do it,
I don’t believe in too much sex
This fashion, for passion,
Turns us into nervous wrecks
No derision, my decision,
I’d rather watch the Spinners on the television.
I can’t do it, I can’t do it, tonight.

So she said:
Let’s do it, Let’s do it,
Do it till our hearts go boom
Go native, creative,
Living in the living room
This folly, is jolly,
Bend me over backwards on me hostess trolley.
Let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight.

But he said:
I can’t do it, I can’t do it,
Me ‘eavy breathing days’ve gone
I’m older, feel colder,
It’s other things that turn me on,
I’m imploring, i’m boring,
Let me read this catalogue on vinyl flooring.
I can’t do it, I can’t do it, tonight.

So she said:
Let’s do it, Let’s do it,
Have a crazy night of love.
I’ll strip bare, I’ll just wear,
Stilettos and an oven glove.
Don’t starve a, girl of a palava,
Dangle from the wardrobe in yer balaclava.
Let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight.

But he said:
I can’t do it, I can’t do it,
I know I’d only get it wrong.
Don’t angle, for me to dangle,
Me arms have never been that strong.
Stop pouting, stop shouting,
You know I pulled a muscle when I did that grouting.
I can’t do it, I can’t do it, tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it,
Share a night of wild romance,
Frenetic, poetic,
This could be your last big chance,
To quote Milton, to eat stilton,
To roll in gay abandon on the tufted Wilton.
Let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight.

I can’t do it, I can’t do it,
I’ve got other little jobs on hand,
Don’t grouse, around the house,
I’ve got a busy evening planned.
Stop nagging, I’m flagging,
You know as well as I do that the pipes want lagging.
Can’t do it, can’t do it, tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it,
While I’m really in the mood
Three cheers, it’s years,
Since I caught you even semi-nude
Get drastic, gymnastic,
Wear your baggy Y-fronts with the loose elastic,
but let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight.

I can’t do it, I can’t do it,
I must refuse to get undressed.
I feel silly, it’s too chilly,
To go without me thermal vest
Don’t choose me, don’t use me,
Me mother sent a note to say you must excuse me
I can’t do it,I can’t do it, tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it,
I feel I absolutely must,
I won’t exempt you, want to tempt you,
Want to drive you mad with lust
No cautions, just contortions,
Smear an avocado on my lower portions
Let’s do it, let’s do it tonight.

I can’t do it, I can’t do it,
Its really not my cup of tea,
I’m harassed, embarrassed,
I wish you hadn’t picked on me.
No dramas, give me me pyjamas,
The only girl I’m mad about is Judith Chalmers
I can’t do it, I can’t do it, tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it,
I really want to run amok
Let’s wiggle, lets jiggle,
Let’s really make the rafters rock
Be mighty, be flighty,
Come and melt the buttons on me flameproof nightie
Let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it,
I really want to rant and rave.
Let’s go, ‘cos I know,
Just how I want you to behave
Not bleakly, not meekly,
Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly
Let’s do it, let’s do it, tonight

28 01 2010
Jill Florent

Here are some plays and novel titles:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Tom Stoppard
The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing
The way I found her – Rose Tremain
Do Androids dream of electric sheep? – Philip K Dick
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Now we are Six – A A Milne
She Stoops to Conquer – Oliver Goldsmith
The Lady Vanishes – Agatha Christie
There’s a girl in my soup – ?

28 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jill: this has the makings of a jolly parlour game – or something for long-distance car journeys!

(For the record, Jill was part of the brilliant editorial team that worked on An A-Z with me, and she shared with me the anguish of having to jettison the Beatles titles. It’s nice to have you back, Jill!)

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