On Miley Cyrus and the Role of Grammar in Creative Writing

Miley Cyrus just can’t catch a break these days. From valid criticisms of her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards to the nearly half a dozen open letters she’s received from Sinead O’Connor, the 20-year-old pop star can’t stop ruffling feathers. Perhaps the nerdiest rebuke came three weeks ago when indie-rock multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens took to Tumblr with his own open letter to Miley. But Sufjan didn’t get on her for twerking. Instead, he offered Miley a mini-lesson in grammar.

After complimenting her song “#GetItRight,” Sufjan voices his concern over the line “I been laying in this bed all night long.” He rightly points out that Miley has actually been “LYING, not LAYING,” which he defines as “an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. ‘I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long’” (a VICE Magazine editor begs to differ). Sufjan further notes that Miley ought to have used the “Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long).” In short, Miley could easily have changed the line to “I’ve been lying in this bed all night long” without disrupting her flow. Is there not an English major among all the assistants and producers and hangers-on who surround her?

However, while I’m inclined to agree with Sufjan (who serves, after all, as Minister of Aesthetics for Asthmatic Kitty, the record label he co-founded), his letter got me thinking about the function of grammar in music and art more generally. What about rap or the blues? Are we going to copy edit “Ain’t No Sunshine?” And when it comes to creative writing, clearly we don’t demand that everyone conform to grammatically correct Standard English, or we wouldn’t have our Toni Morrisons and David Foster Wallaces. We’ve given up any war we might have waged against sentence fragments. We allow for comma splices and run-ons if the author makes them work. We don’t have to put quotation marks around dialogue if we’re disinclined, and even punctuation is up for discussion. The most contentious grammatical issue of our day is the relatively benign Oxford comma (though I admit that I’d fight over that one).

So, when is something a mistake, and when is it an artistic choice? In “#GetItRight,” Miley also sings, “I feel like I got no panties on.” Should we neuter the line and screw up her rhymes just to tell her that, actually, she feels like she isn’t wearing any panties? As Roxanne Gay writes at Salon, “Though I disagree with her choices, I suspect Miley Cyrus […] is crystal clear on what she’s doing and why.” Gay isn’t talking about Miley’s grammar here, but like performers, writers also make choices. Decisions about grammar are really decisions about voice, style, form, and the general aesthetic a writer wants to achieve in a piece of prose or poetry. Sometimes your narrator might actually say, “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Sometimes you want to play with words and sounds and structures and give all those constraining grammarians the figurative finger. So do it. Experiment. See how it goes. Miley Cyrus’ poorly spelled Bangerz sold 270,000 copies the week it debuted. Maybe your convention-bucking book will, too—or at least it might garner some headline-grabbing criticism.

Amy Long is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at Virginia Tech. She holds a BA in English and women’s studies and an MA in women’s studies from the University of Florida and is a contributing editor for Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

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