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I've started noticing people using constructions like "something won't do something" as a present tense instead of "something doesn't do something".

For example, here is a piece from Eminem's song

but he keeps on forgettin'

What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud

He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out

Is it ok to say like this and is there any specific rule that says in which situations one can use won't when they would normally use don't/doesn't?

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    Welcome to ELL.SE. Do note that lyricists, like poets are given considerable artistic license; they don't need to follow any rules of grammar or usage. They may choose words to evoke a certain image or atmosphere, or simply because they sound unusual together, or to identify with a particular subculture through their vernacular. If you come across an unusual usage, try to find an example from prose. – choster Oct 31 '18 at 0:59
  • @choster - agreed. A big part of his word choice will also be poetic/phonetic/etc. Look at the other words, he's building his phrasing with a bunch of "w" / "wo" words. "Don't" would break that pattern. – BruceWayne Oct 31 '18 at 2:59
  • Does his use of alliteration mean it’s grammatically incorrect? In this case, it seems like the subject is the words. Unlike the question, won’t doesn’t only describe present tense, but present and future. “I won’t go to the store” vs “I don’t go to the store” are both valid and have slightly different meanings. The former describing intent (willfulness) and the later describing a quality or state of action. – vol7ron Oct 31 '18 at 11:51
  • @BruceWayne ‘a bunch of “w”/“wo” words’ — is this really a significant factor here? Spelling-wise there plenty of w’s, but when spoken/sung, only whole, words, and won’t really begin with w — there’s no more alliteration built up from them than from keeps/crowd/come. I agree with your general point, but I don’t think it’s a major factor here. – PLL Oct 31 '18 at 16:11
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    @BruceWayne: Totally agree with you on the vowel repetition — that’s extremely prominently used throughout the song — but that’s irrelevant to the won’t vs don’t choice, since they both fit it (he uses don’t as part of the same sequence a few lines later). What I don’t see is any particularly deliberate repetition of initial w’s, as you seemed to be suggesting in your original comment — it doesn’t seem like more repetition than can arise by chance, and that sort of alliteration isn’t emphasised elsewhere in the song, and is less central than vowel-based rhyme in hip-hop generally. – PLL Oct 31 '18 at 17:14
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The example is using figurative language to describe the scene. Don't come out would be the normal form to use in that situation if one is simply listing the events, but the song is trying to evoke the sense of a struggle, a fight between the character and the words.

Don't is a more neutral term. It's a simple statement of fact - the words do not come. The line is about the singer's surprise that the words he's expecting don't come.

Won't personifies the words and grants them agency - they refuse to come out, while the character is trying to make them. The line is then about the singer fighting, trying to make the words come out.

Edited for clarity:

Won't does not always imply agency - it can also mean a prediction. To use an example in the comments, saying "The water won't drain" doesn't indicate that the water refuses to drain, it indicates a future tense. The implication of agency is largely contextual in this case, and related to the present tense of the line.

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    I don't think won't implies agency of the subject, but rather agency of the actor. won't implies that an agent wills something to be so, but it does not happen. For example, "the water doesn't drain from the sink" merely implies the stated fact. "The water won't draink from the sink", however, implies that an actor wills the water to drain, but is unable to make it do so. This does not imply agency of the sink or water. – MooseBoys Oct 31 '18 at 7:03
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    @MooseBoys: It makes no literal sense to blame the water for not draining from the sink (since water is an inanimate object), but that's besides the point. The phrasing of "the water won't drain" implies that the water actively refuses to do so. Regardless of objective correctness, that is what the speaker is alleging. – Flater Oct 31 '18 at 7:59
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    @MooseBoys: How about "This frozen bolt is refusing to budge" ? Would you agree that there the bolt is being spoken of as if it is being uncooperative? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 31 '18 at 10:35
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    Modulo some of the minor adjustments proposed in comments, this is a very well-written answer. Bravo! – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 31 '18 at 10:44
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    Generally a good answer, but what do you mean by saying that don’t would be “the most grammatical form to use”? The fact that the won’t version involves some subtler figurative connotations doesn’t make it in any way less grammatical. – PLL Oct 31 '18 at 16:14
17

"won't" is a short form of "will not", where the verb will is used to express an ability, capability or an expectation:

Wood will float on water. Rock won't float on water.

The car will start when you turn the ignition on. I turn the ignition but the car won't start.

The lyrics you've cited express the the lack of the ability to speak, or an unfulfilled expectation that someone will speak when they open their mouth.

15

There, won't means "refuse to". Similar contexts can be found among the results here.

4

He opens his mouth, but the words don't come out

This leaves it open that even though the words currently aren't coming out, then may in the future or when he tries a different approach.

He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out

This more strongly suggests that the problem is unfixable. No matter what he tries, the words won't come out. Not now, not in the future.

Note that this is not a stated fact, but simply a stronger implication compared to using "don't".


Secondly, keep in mind that this is a song. In lyrics, grammatical correctness can be overridden for lyrical flow. Especially for rap, easy pronunciation is essential to speaking quickly yet being easily understood.


Is it ok to say like this and is there any specific rule that says in which situations one can use won't when they would normally use don't/doesn't?

The distinction between "won't" and "don't" is effectively the speaker's opinion (in regards to how permanent this statement is). Logically, there is no rule that can define whether what the speaker believes is actually correct or not.

However, there is a guideline here. If you're writing a story in which the speaker is convinced the problem is unsolvable, "won't" is a better choice. If the speaker thinks that the problem is only temporary or an easy fix may exist, then "don't" is a better choice.

But neither options are definitive. It all hinges on how you want to portray the speaker.

3

Using the future tense "won't" suggests that a rule or pattern of resistance to your intent has been established, so using "won't" is predictive that the trend will last into the future.

It's hinting at: "Even if I try again in the future, it still won't happen."

The future is used in the sense that it follows after your intention to make something happen.

You wouldn't use it if the situation was never to be repeated in the future.

  • When I call my mechanic telling that "my car won't start", I don't really suggest that my car has an established trend of not starting. It means quite the contrary: I expected it to start and it didn't. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 31 '18 at 10:34
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    @DmitryGrigoryev If you say it won't start you're implying it still won't start on the next turn of the key. If it was out of petrol and wouldn't start, but then you filled it up, you wouldn't say "it won't start" any more because you know it probably will start. – user334732 Oct 31 '18 at 10:41
  • But even if you knew it would start today, you might describe the problem using the past tense of "will not start" - you'd say "Yesterday it wouldn't start." I don't think there's anything about predictions here because the same usage happens in the past tense. I think what makes me use the word "would not" or "won't" is when I wanted something to happen, usually tried to make it happen, and it didn't happen - despite my wishes. Car won't start, screw won't turn, document won't print, etc. – XP84 Nov 1 '18 at 20:10
  • @XP84 I agree that "won't" refers to it being in the future, relative to the moment of intent, which i put in the answer. – user334732 Nov 1 '18 at 21:04
  • @XP84 wouldn't is the past tense of will not. The question's asking why the song uses the future tense for something in the past, rather than the present or past. – user334732 Nov 4 '18 at 9:11
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Won't is used here instead of don't, to express the inability of the words to come out. It is not used in this case to express the future tense. I do not believe this use is ungrammatical.

Won't is of course a contraction of will not, and will has quite a lot of different uses in addition to its use to express the future tense

The Oxford English Dictionary gives 6 different uses of will as a modal verb: one of these matches the usage found here quite well:

Expressing facts about ability or capacity.

  • ‘a rock so light that it will float on water’

  • ‘your tank will hold about 26 gallons’

3

"Won't" carries an implication that the thing not happening is desirable and plausible.

My dog doesn't talk. (implausible)

My dog doesn't bite. (undesirable)

My dog won't fetch my slippers. (plausible and desirable)

My dog doesn't fetch my slippers. (plausible and desirable -- doesn't is neutral on those questions)

EDIT

Roy makes an excellent point, in that "My dog won't bite" is also perfectly acceptable usage. I guess it's really more that "won't" implies some non-neutral desirability, either positive or negative, where "doesn't" -- well, "doesn't" necessarily do so. :)

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    Disagree at least partially - "my dog won't bite" is perfectly acceptable without any implication of desirability. – Roy Oct 31 '18 at 11:50
  • "But you said your dog doesn't bite!" "That is not my dog" – geneSummons Oct 31 '18 at 18:15
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    I believe "My dog won't bite" is a true neutral future tense statement (a prediction) just like if you said "I will go to the store tomorrow" vs "I won't go to the store tomorrow." - so the plausible/desirable in this answer doesn't need to apply there. The "My dog won't fetch," by contrast, is using "will not" in the sense of the dog is not willing to fetch not just forming future tense of the verb as in "tomorrow i will do something" – XP84 Nov 1 '18 at 20:15
  • XP84- but in any given situation, a dog biting is either desired or undesired. I can't imagine a situation in which I'm ambivalent about my dog biting. But the more I reflect on this, the more I think that the literal meaning - "will not" - should be understood when refering to anything with agency. "My dog won't poop in tall grass" may be a neutral, but it expresses a choice being made by the dog, while "my car won't start" or "the pipe won't leak" are not neutral, but do not express choices, but (as you suggest) either present or predicted future state, typically desired or not. – Joe Baker Nov 5 '18 at 16:24
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I would say that won't is generally used when you are expecting someone or something to do a certain action but it isn't doing it. But, doesn't is just stating a fact that someone or something isn't doing a certain action.

-1

Won’t means it can, but it ‘currently’ will not.

Doesn’t means it does not.

  • I think the second half of that doesn't hold up. For example, "I don't attend city council meetings," "This sandwich doesn't come with mayonnaise." Those situations could easily change if I took an interest in an issue before the council or if I asked them to add mayo. – XP84 Nov 1 '18 at 20:16
  • Doesn’t is short for does not. I am 100% certain of this. If you took an interest in an issue before attending the council meeting then you are changing a variable, which in this case you would change your statement also. Such as “I haven’t attended city council meetings”. And the sign clearly says “This sandwich doesn’t come with mayonnaise”. If you later add mayo to the sandwich the statement still applies. As the sandwich does not come with mayo. You added this later and separately. – user106186 Nov 2 '18 at 15:00

protected by Community Oct 31 '18 at 13:57

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