20

In

"I know the words in/of/to that song,"

do all three prepositions work equally fine?

Which is the most common?

21

I'm going to disagree with the other answer to this question. All three of these prepositions (in, of, to) can work. Without additional context, all refer to the entire lyrics of a song, and not just a portion. For example:

Outwardly, many of the Beatles' greatest hits are considered 'collaborations' between all four of the members of the band, but the words in those songs were written entirely by a single person, frequently John or Paul.

Here I chose "words in those songs" in order to contrast with "outwardly." This is just a style choice. It would not change the meaning in any way if I had instead chosen, "words to those songs," or, "words of those songs."

My personal feeling is that, in general, "words to a song" sounds the most idiomatic, but Ngram shows that "words of a song" is the most common:

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(I agree that Ngram is a poor choice to highlight idiomatic differences between these prepositions, but it does help to check assumptions.)

Examples:

We can take the words of a song and set them to different music, or take the music and sing different words.

Jeff Morrow is correct that when we want to refer to a specific portion of a song, we do say "words in a song". For example:

In the process, the author observes the changes in America, from the earlier ones back during the Depression, where hard work was the key to achievement and “proud to be an American”” was more than words in a song.

Again, in this case the context indicates which words the writer means. Without this, you would assume the writer means all the words in the song.

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    This is not to start a petty argument, but ngram is not pertinent to the discussion. Everyone appears to agree that "in" and "of" and "to" are all grammatical and idiomatic. The question is whether there are any differences in meaning. Ngram cannot give any evidence on differences in meaning between idiomatic usages. I point out that the last two examples given above do not contradict the different nuances I specified in my answer rather than just the last one being consistent. – Jeff Morrow Jan 22 '18 at 15:01
  • also, "in a song" and "in those songs" are not unequivocally identical senses of "in". – N. Presley Jan 22 '18 at 17:14
  • @N.Presley Sure, but to quote Jim Croce, "Every time I tried to tell you the words just came out wrong. So I have to say 'I love you' in a song." Does Jim mean that he's going to use these specific words in a song, or the entire song is a way to say "I love you"? Perhaps it's deliberately ambiguous. – Andrew Jan 22 '18 at 17:44
  • Follow-up question: could "words from a song" work in your last example to refer to a portion of a song? – Eddie Kal Jan 23 '18 at 4:55
  • @L.Moneta Yes, certainly. "Remember the words from that popular song, the one that tells us not to worry. How does it go again?" – Andrew Jan 23 '18 at 6:20
7

"Words in a song" refers to merely part of a "song" in the sense of "lyrics," meaning "words," whether sung, declaimed, or read. "Words of a song" means part or all of the lyrics of a piece sung, declaimed, or read.

"Words to a song" is completely different. Here the reference is to the entire lyrics associated with a "song" in the sense of melody or piece of music.

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    'I know the words in that song' might imply that your command of English is such that you know the meaning of those words. 'to that song' sounds most idiomatic to me. – Strawberry Jan 22 '18 at 12:16
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    I don't recognise the distinction you're trying to make between "words of a song" and "words to a song" at all. – Chris H Jan 22 '18 at 13:10
  • I think they're saying that "in" = partial lyrics, "to" = complete lyrics, and "of" means either. – Feathercrown Jan 22 '18 at 13:16
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    "Do you know the words to that song?" sounds normal, "Do you know the words of that song?" also sounds reasonable. "Do you know the words in that song?" sounds strange. – barbecue Jan 22 '18 at 15:24

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