English English language Expression Grammar Usage

Live and let die

Q: Here’s a non-grammatical lyric that will amuse you. In the recording of “Live and Let Die,” Paul McCartney sings: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in.” Isn’t this a serious overdose of the “in” word?

A: This lyric comes in for a lot of criticism from people who like complaining about ungrammatical songs.

Some people even hear one more “in” there: “But IN this ever-changing world IN which we live IN”!

However, the phrase may be perfectly correct in the lyric as originally written, according to Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema (2005), edited by Steve Lannin and Matthew Caley.

The song was written by Paul and Linda McCartney for the James Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973). It was also recorded by McCartney’s band Wings and released as a single.

Here’s the entire stanza, as quoted in Pop Fiction:

When you were young and your heart was an open book,
You used to say “live and let live”
(You know you did, you know you did, you know you did)
But if this ever-changing world in which we’re living
Makes you give in and cry,
Say “Live and Let Die.”

The language commentator Stan Carey, writing on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, argues that the phrase is indeed “live in,” and he cites a defense of the usage by the linguist David Crystal.

“Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural,” Crystal says on his blog. “That kind of prepositional doubling is common enough in speech when people start to use one construction and switch into another, especially when the construction involved (as here) is a usage shibboleth.”

Carey also cites a July 30, 2009, Washington Post interview in which McCartney indicates that he’s unsure of the actual wording of the lyric:

“It’s kind of ambivalent, isn’t it?” he says as he waivers between whether the phrase is “we’re living” or “we live in.”

McCartney ultimately thinks the phrase is “we’re living” (the version given in Pop Fiction), though he regards “live in” as “wronger but cuter.”

We’d like to put in a plea here for caution when critiquing song lyrics. The words found on Internet song-lyric sites are generally supplied by fans who merely post what they think they’re hearing.

And what they hear isn’t necessarily what the lyricist wrote. That’s why we don’t trust what we can’t actually see in published books or sheet music.

In fact, we don’t generally get all hot and bothered about ungrammatical song lyrics. As we’ve written before on the blog, lyric writers are exempt from the rules of grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, pronunciation, and even logic!

(Note: This post was updated on May 27, 2015.)

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