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I was listening to Eminem's song Stan. I noticed in one verse he says:

But she don't know you like I know you Slim...

At first I didn't believe my ears, but when I read out the lyrics I got astonished. I further searched on Google and found on some other forums that this type of incorrect grammatical usage is either intentional (for some linguistic reasons) or the speaker is uneducated!

So my question is:

  • What is the purpose of this type of intentional misuse of grammar?
  • How does it appear to native English speakers?

Thank you.

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3  
Eminem didn't fail to use Standard English. He didn't make any grammatical mistakes. He succeeded in using Non-Standard English. –  snailboat Jun 15 at 12:35
    
@snailplane and others, Please do not infer anything else from what I've written in the question. I didn't say "Eminem fail to use standard English". I say: ...on some other forums that this type of incorrect grammatical usage is either intentional (for some linguistic reasons) or the speaker is uneducated!. –  user31782 Jun 16 at 2:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

A Superiority Attitude? (Note that the following is not in any way intended to judge any ill intent by the OP. It is only an observation that certain language forms can be received in an emotionally negative way by readers.) I might caution that your enthusiasm regarding "incorrect grammar" and "uneducated speaker" may appear to many readers to be similar to a narrow "Standard Educational English is right and a" condescending attitude. The editorializing statements and inflections may also appear to be similar to passive-aggressive troll-like language behavior rather than a sincere question about the motivations behind the grammar used in a song.

Astonishing? Not! It's far from astonishing to find non-standard, informal, or common vernacular in popular American songs. In fact, it's quite common. What might be astonishing is that you waited until "she don't know you" to be astonished. That's deep into the second verse, even after "but you still ain't calling", "you must not-a got 'em", and other gems of a certain recognizable dialect.

Confused Quesiton: To suggest a binary choice that "it's intentional or the speaker is uneducated" is a confusion of levels. The "intention" of creating a character that uses a particular dialect must be attributed to the writers of the song. The "speaker" is the fictional character "Stan" depicted within the song. To question whether a fictional character ("Stan") is "uneducated" might be totally moot in the respect that he is fictional. The next section deals with this further.

Educational Level of the Character Stan: Any "backstory" of a fictional character could be filled in with any sort of creative story desired. Perhaps he was a Rhode Scholar that became disenchanted and suffered schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive behavior, denounced his education and returned to his roots, re-adopting the language of his original culture. This possibility does have historical support. But it's just absurd conjecture about the history of a fictional fantasy. However, suppose we indulge ourselves with some plausible realistic perspective -- it still raises the question, "what kind of education and how much?" Some would support the notion that people are not "educated vs. not-educated". They are educated to various degrees along various dimensions. Stan certainly has a penchant for communicating his ideas clearly and succinctly. And that seems more educated than many high school (dare I say even college) graduates.

Educational Level of Writers: It's notable that Stan by Eminem is a highly successful, acclaimed, and popular hit single. The credits indicate the song was written by Dido Armstrong, Paul Herman, and Marshall Mathers. The success of this song is certainly based on a large team of highly talented and educated artists and professionals.

Correct English? There is no single official standard for correct English grammar. Songs often use common vernacular dialects of English. A common vernacular dialect is only "incorrect" as someone's judgement relative to some other dialect, typically certain standardized dialects such as self-appointed style guides and educational materials. Standard English is itself a dialect, and there are many "Standard English" dialects.

what is the purpose of this non-standard language: To say it's an "intentional misuse of language" is missing the point. It's better characterized as an "intentional use of a popular dialect" that would prove to resonate with those who understand that dialect and directly or indirectly relate (positively or negatively) to the character Stan.

How it appears to the native English speakers? The non-standard English use in the lyrics sounds perfectly in-line with what people understand to be some standard regional or socio-economic dialects. In fact, it's not too far linguistically from your own language; In your following sentence, I've highlighted elements in bold that are similar to some common vernacular English dialects rather than formal Standard English.: "First I didn't believe my ears, but when I read out the lyrics I got astonished."

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2  
Did you really see a condescending, superiority attitude in the O.P.? I didn't. I thought it was genuine curiosity. It's not hard for me to imagine someone learning English as a second language, being told by ESL teachers over and over again that she doesn't is correct, she don't is incorrect, and then being genuinely surprised to hear an accomplished artist say something contrary to what had been taught. I suppose your troll hypothesis could be right, but that's not how I interpreted the question, or the motivation behind asking it. –  J.R. Jun 15 at 21:05
    
Hi CoolHAndLouis, Is the word "Astonished" too much exclamatory? My knowledge of English vocabulary is not good. I just wanted to express my exclamation. Perhaps I should have used the word "surprised" instead of "astonished". Please excuse me if my words seem passive aggressive or rude. I really didn't know that "She didn't" is usually used in songs. –  user31782 Jun 16 at 2:48
    
@J.R. I added a preface to the beginning address your concern. Thanks - –  CoolHandLouis Jun 16 at 5:29

It's intentional.

Emimem is using street language (where the word street refers to “of or relating to the urban counterculture”). Misconjugated verbs are part of street language; in a rap song, the idea would be to use a wrong verb deliberately, creating the impression that the lyrics are being rapped by some tough guy who “don't” care about his grammar so much.

This kind of speech is actually rather common in some subcultures. You'll encounter it fairly often in movie scripts or song lyrics.

Some people also speak this way outside of these fictional genres. Although such language can convey the impression that someone didn't receive a very good education (or else they are too careless to follow what they were taught in grammar school), I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm “astonished” when I hear it.

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"Misconjugated verbs", "use a wrong verb deliberately", "don't care about his grammar", "an [sic] thoughtful, intelligent individual, more than capable of speaking with decent grammar" all give the impression that you think there's something ungrammatical or incorrect about the lyrics. That makes the unlikely assumption that the author intended to write Standard English and failed. –  snailboat Jun 16 at 3:14
    
The problem is conflating "correct" and "standard". The two align any time one's goal is to speak or write Standard English, and for learners, that usually is the goal, so for them non-standard English usually is incorrect. But you can't assume that everyone shares that goal, and the value judgment that everyone should share that goal is unfortunate. –  snailboat Jun 16 at 3:15
    
It's silly to try to correct the grammar. Eminem isn't in a class at school where he's being graded on whether or not his writing fits the norms of the local prestige dialect. And what he wrote is perfectly grammatical in the dialect he used. It's fine, though, to talk about the grammar and whether or not it's standard. That can be educational, and it seems like that's what would be appropriate here. –  snailboat Jun 16 at 3:15
    
@snail - I'm not asserting that anything needs to be corrected. I'm assuming the O.P. is an English learner, confused as to why the song lyric conflicts with prior English lessons. I can see where you got that impression, but I assure you, that's the last impression I was trying to create. I intended for "misconjugated" (a word my spell checker underlines, btw) simply to be used as a synonym for what you call "non-standard." If my words "give the impression that .. there's something ungrammatical or incorrect about the lyrics" – it's because I answered assuming that's how the OP felt. –  J.R. Jun 16 at 3:22

Standard English uses 'I/you/we/they don't' and 'she/he/it doesn't', but there are many well-researched, stabilised varieties of English which don't use 'doesn't' or any other 's' form with 'she/he/it'. One of these is commonly called African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is used by many African Americans living in large cities. Marshall Mathers/Eminem is white American, but grew up in 'a largely black lower-middle-class Detroit neighborhood' (quoted from Wikipedia). I don't know how he speaks in real life, but in his songs he sometimes uses some patterns of AAVE. 'She don't know you' is perfectly good AAVE.

(By the way, I live in Australia and speak standard Australian English. Other commenters living in the US may be able to say more about this.)

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I've heard the artist in interviews, like this one. He strikes me as an thoughtful, intelligent individual, more than capable of speaking with decent grammar. Also, AAVE isn't the only dialect with misconjugated verbs. "Redneck English," for example, would also contain phrases that might "astonish" our O.P. –  J.R. Jun 15 at 11:53
2  
    
@snailplane - Agreed. I never said anything about mistakes. (I only meant to point out that a phrase like "She don't know you" isn't something you'd encounter only in AAVE.) –  J.R. Jun 15 at 20:58

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