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From the beginning of Calvin Harris' song Blame:

Can't be sleepin'
Keep on waking
Without the woman next to me
Guilt is burning
Inside I'm hurting
This ain't a feeling I can keep

Does the sentence sound weird only to me? I understand that the intended meaning is I can't fall asleep, but I'd like to hear an explanation of why this is natural English.

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    You are correct: this is not natural standard English. The unusual phrasing was probably chosen to fit the meter of the song, or it may be a dialect. "Can't be sleeping" has the same rhythm as "keep on waking," while "I can't fall asleep" (or "...stay asleep") does not.
    – apsillers
    Feb 11 '15 at 12:53
  • @apsillers I indeed understand the sentence fits the song's meter pretty well, and I can't fall asleep would ruin it. I'm only interested in whether the sentence is ultimately natural English, considering it's perfectly grammatical.
    – user132181
    Feb 11 '15 at 13:01
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    OP's rephrasing of the intended meaning as I can't fall asleep embodies ambiguity that doesn't exist in the original (I might be unable to sleep, or not permitted, where only the second applies in the context of the song). See also the (prediminantly, BrE) idiomatic usage can't be doing with {something} = to be unable to bear something, or to have no patience with it. I don't find it any more "unnatural" than, say, "I can't be watching the baby all the time". Feb 11 '15 at 13:57
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    @BenKovitz - I've just listened to the song and it's seemingly far from Black American English in style. I probably should scrap my answer. This makes the question all the more interesting. Feb 11 '15 at 18:44
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    @CopperKettle Your answer was my first guess, too. And who knows, maybe John Newman is trying to sound Black. I can't tell.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 11 '15 at 18:48
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This sentence is actually a standard construction, though informal, and perhaps a little unusual, depending upon its exact meaning.

The subject, "I", has been dropped (also in the second line), which is pretty common in informal, spoken English, and so perfectly valid in a song lyric.

"Be sleeping" is the bare infinitive form of the present continuous of "sleep"; compare to "I am sleeping."

The bare infinitive is used with the modal auxiliary verb "can", or, in this case, its negative "can't". Other, similar "modal + present continuous" forms are more common and might seem more natural: "I should be sleeping", "I could be sleeping", "He might be sleeping".

"Can't" in this case can have one of two meanings: 1) "to lack the ability" or 2) "must not" or "should not". Out of context, I would have assumed the sentence was using the second meaning: the speaker is intentionally avoiding sleep. (This sense of "can't" feels to me like it calls more for the present continuous over the simple present than the other sense.) This could work in context--the speaker is avoiding even trying to sleep because repeatedly waking is worse than not sleeping at all.

The first meaning is more straightforward in this context and probably more likely: the speaker lacks the ability to sleep (for an extended enough period of time to qualify as sleep, at least) at the moment.

Either of these meanings could be fairly well served by the simple present: "I can't sleep". But besides not scanning well, the simple present doesn't convey the immediacy of the continuous present--there is a "right now" element that would be lost. This line isn't a reflection made later, during the daytime, between sleepless nights; this is a frustrated cry made during the night as the event is being experienced.

I think there are a couple of reasons this feels non-standard. Foremost is that "can" is probably the modal verb least commonly used with the present continuous in any context. "Could/should/would/might be doing something" all are much more common. Next is the non-conjugated "be" associated with some Black and/or Southern American dialects, with which this "be" could be confused, combined with the fact that these could easily be "blues" lyrics. There may also be a sense that the "can't be doing something" construction, correct or not, is more associated with informal or dialectal speech than with more formal speech, although I could be imagining that.

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The sentence is not grammatically correct, due to the fact it is a song, the artists of songs often give up grammar in order to make it rhythmically correct, otherwise it would sound even worse.

Thanks, hope this helps!

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