18

I'd like to know how the sentence "That don't impress me much" sounds to a native English speaker.

The phrase is the title of a song by Shania Twain, and to my eyes it contains a clear error. It is obviously intended, and I want to know what was the effect that the author wanted to obtain.

Other examples that come to mind:

  • “She's got a ticket to ride, but she don't care” — The Beatles
  • “My love don't cost a thing” — Jennifer Lopez
  • “It don't matter” — Akon
  • “She don't care about me” — heard in the Lost series
  • “It Don't Mean a Thing” — a jazz album title
  • “The Sun Don't Lie” — another album title
  • 3
    You may want to check this discussion. – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Jul 27 '11 at 7:16
  • 1
    The "standard English" expression would indeed by "My love doesn't cost a thing", as you said, but in the song she's intentionally aiming for a nonstandard informal register of English. I'm not sure of further details; someone else will elaborate. – ShreevatsaR Dec 17 '11 at 16:12
  • 1
    The "effect" of using (ungrammatical but widespread) don't instead of doesn't is to give your statement extra "informality/street-cred". – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '12 at 23:16
  • 3
    Don't trust pop-singers with grammar. Especially the ones like Jeniffer Lopez. One Selena Gomez song says, "Stars are crashing in the sky, burning just for you and I", when it should really be "... you and me". – mikhailcazi Oct 6 '13 at 10:54

14 Answers 14

26

The intentional misuse of don't is a form of code switching (or code mixing). The form is extremely characteristic of working-class southeastern Americans ("southerners"), who are also the primary audience for American country music.

What is most interesting about the song is that Shania Twain is Canadian — and that is where the code switching begins. It is a deliberate error made in attempt to establish authenticity and to better connect with her music's intended audience.

  • 8
    Surely that is not the only reason either. Replace the word don't with doesn't and try and sing it without it sounding silly. Rhythm plays a big part in the word choice when song writing occurs, especially if the music is written first. Richard Marx explained that this was the reasoning behind the song "Don't Mean Nothing". He even proved it by trying to sing "Doesn't Mean Anything" with aesthetically painful, though perfectly grammatical, results. – David Watts Jul 25 '12 at 15:38
  • Of course, one could replace don't with won't in that lyric, and (more or less) maintain both the intent and the rhythm of the line, while being more grammatically correct in terms of 'proper' English. – flith Dec 1 '16 at 10:32
16

The use of don't instead of doesn't is an error in standard English, of the sort you were probably taught. However, this sort of error is characteristic of many non-standard, rustic dialects, and country music of the sort that Shania Twain sings is known for using these dialectical features as part of the conceit of being rural, Western [1], and unpretentious.

[1] As in the American West, i.e. cowboys and Indians.

12

It's because the song is in non-standard English and don't is used for doesn't in some non-standard varieties of the language. It's important to understand that 'non-standard' doesn't mean 'sub-standard'. It don’t matter is ungrammatical in Standard English, but not in other dialects, such as those in which popular songs might be written.

Some varieties of English use do (and negative don’t) for all persons and numbers as the auxiliary form in the present tense. As Peter Trudgill has pointed out:

Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms. This is true both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish between auxiliary I do, he do and main verb I does, he does or similar, and the past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary did and main verb done, as in You done it, did you?

5

She's altering the lyrics to make the lines scan. In such cases, even ungrammatical English is better than grammatical English which doesn't scan.

Rap lyrics are the best example of this, especially those of Eminem and such.

  • More likely scansion than rhyme, since it's not at the end of a line, but the principle's the same. Song lyrics are not English papers. – John Lawler Dec 17 '11 at 16:13
  • @ShreevatsaR: Oh then I'm very sorry for that, hehe. – RiMMER Dec 17 '11 at 16:26
  • I think you're over-dignifying both rap and pop music by even calling what they do "scansion" or "rhyme". – JeffSahol Dec 17 '11 at 16:28
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    @JeffSahol That's ridiculous. It's not as if scansion or rhyming is a particularly sophisticated thing, and plenty of rap and pop does both competently. – slim Dec 17 '11 at 17:02
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    edited to replace "rhyme" with "scan", since that seems to have been the intent. Awaiting peer review. However, I don't agree with the answer. "Don't" replacing "doesn't" is an authentic form in many English dialects; widespread in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. – slim Dec 17 '11 at 17:05
5

There's something much more going on in this song than grammar. Shania is singing about a guy who thinks he's real suave and all. You're hearing the grammar of "that don't impress me much". But in the spoken portions of the song, Shania is speaking standard English with mostly no discernible accent (to an American or Canadian ear). As a friend of mine used to say, "She's speaking City" and then when she starts singing again, it's not "City" anymore. The result is that she sounds more sincere when she's not being city thus emphasizing her disdain for the fake sophistication of the guy.

4

It's just slang, and is pretty universally used (like "ain't").

It also better fits the rhythm of the groove with its single syllable compared to "doesn't" with its two syllables.

  • That ain't impressing me much - would work well – mplungjan May 15 '14 at 11:50
3

Except for don't to be replaced with doesn't, nothing. And for that I wouldn't blame her, because it's common in songs and casual day to day talks.

  • 2
    Or to be more precise: it is normal in many dialects of English, but not at present in any standard versions. – Colin Fine Oct 6 '13 at 9:35
2

Some forms of performed music are expected to use a certain language or type of language. For example, in the 17th century, operas were expected to be in Italian, the language of origin of this type of music — even if the writer was German.

American popular music of the 1940s that was directed to an audience of white Americans used standard English — for example, such standards as "Autumn Leaves" or "Stardust." American popular music of this period that was created by or directed to an African-American audience was derived from the African-American forms jazz music and blues music, and used grammatical forms that were, and are, correct in the dialect used by that audience, African-American English Vernacular (AAEV or "Black English"), but that are not Standard English.

Rock and Roll music grew out of Rhythm and Blues music, which grew out of Blues music. Rock and Roll songs are expected to use some characteristics of AAEV, or else they don't "sound right." Even the Beatles, from Liverpool, write that "She's got a ticket to ride, and she don't care." In Rock and Roll lyrics you can hear many features of AAEV, such as rhyming "know" with "more", pronounced "mo", as in "I know, you don't love me no mo'," or the use of the double negative, as in "I can't get no satisfaction." Bjork, from Iceland, writes "You just ain't receiving." If this sort of thing were not done, the Rock and Roll would sound as if it were being sung by pedantic accountants - it would sound "too white."

  • Is you is or is you ain't my baby? – mplungjan May 15 '14 at 11:51
1

The extension of I, we, you, they don't to the third person singular he, she, it is a case of paradigm leveling, where distinctions within one morphological pattern are leveled out in favor of a single one. Leveling is a force operating in virtually every language. It's why strive has become a weak verb for many English speakers and why Slovak (though not Czech) no longer bothers with a productive vocative case.

For many speakers on both sides of the Atlantic, the leveling of doesn't to don't only extends to the negative, yielding this question in a short story set in a pub somewhere in England:

He don't do that, does he?

Third person singular don't would simply be some charming but often deprecated dialect usage were it not for one particular cultural phenomen: speakers who regularly employ this leveled form have produced an inordinate amount, even whole genres, of popular music.

A prominent feature of both African American Vernacular English(AAVE) and that of the Mountain/Inland South, he, she, it don't was destined to appear in genres such as rap, hiphop, rhythm and blues, Motown, gospel, spirituals, minstrel, ragtime, and some jazz as well as Country-Western, bluegrass, white gospel, and folk songs either sung in these dialect areas or meant to sound like them.

With a few exceptions, singers in these genres will often imitate the associated dialect features even if their own speech is nothing like it. Singer Tom Jones is as Welsh as leeks and Charlotte Church, but because of the genres he sings, he adopts many features of AAVE, as when he covers "You Can Leave Your Hat On." Willie Nelson couldn't be from anywhere but Texas, but one hit wonder Jeannie C. Riley, from Anson, Texas, was aiming for Nashville in "Harper Valley P.T.A.".

Except in the company of language purists of little imagination, dialect or non-standard forms in song lyrics suggest familiarity, intimacy, and a certain rawness of emotion. Imagine Pink Floyd singing "We don't need any education" or Elvis lamenting "I'm nothing but a dog."

Falling well beyond the reach of such generosity toward dialect forms is grammar tortured for the mere sake of a rhyme. The Christmas song "I Wonder as I Wander," covered by many artists, even Streisand, begins with the verse:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die,
For poor on'ry people like you and like I.
wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Come for to die and on'ry are vaguely Appalachian, but then comes the cringeworthy like I. At best a hypercorrection one would expect from Hyacinth Bucket in "Keeping Up Appearances," it exists solely for the rhyme. This isn't just bad grammar; it's bad poetry.

0

It's not grammatically correct in Standard English. However there are some dialects of English where it's perfectly normal and generally accepted. For instance, as a Senegalese American, it's likely Akon uses one of those dialects such as AAVE.

As far as song lyrics are concerned, what's written fits a particular style (and even a particular metre, rhythm or rhyming pattern) and anything goes, anyway.

-1

don't = do not, doesn't = does not. You wouldn't use 'do not' with 'love' because 'love' is treated as 3rd person singular, 'it'. 'it does not' therefore 'it doesn't'. However, as Ms Lopez has demonstrated, pop lyrics are a law unto themselves and are subordinate only to the rhythm of the song/ tune. 'Don't' is one syllable, 'doens't' is two and wouldn't fit the line length so well. I wouldn't scour pop lyrics for anything other than examples of how not to construct a sentence correctly :)

  • Ain't would work and in a perverse sense be more grammatical – mplungjan May 15 '14 at 11:52
-1

For a group or plural, we use they don't. For singular, we use does not. Example - Singular: That boy does not dance. Plural: Those boyS do not dance.

  • That is the standard rule, yes. How is it relevant here? – sumelic Aug 7 '16 at 18:04
-2

You are correct with your rule of does/does not for he/she/it and do/don't for i/you/we/they.

Saying "he don't" is a very ghetto, lower class way of speaking, and is not accepted as being correct.

-2

it has to do with the rhythm and timing of the music. Don't has one syllable where doesn't or does not has two.

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage! Please explain your answer, preferably with some supporting statements and references. While opinions are valued, they are not of much help as answers. – NVZ Dec 5 '16 at 14:05

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