Do You Take Sugar, One Question Mark or Two?

…the Doctor of Rock sets the definitive standard for capitalization and punctuation in song lyrics.

If you play guitar and have ever used the Internet, you are likely aware that (a) the Internet is full of guitar chords for pop songs and (b) guitar chords for pop songs rank only slightly above YouTube comments in the care given to proofreading. I will not regale you with examples of poor capitalization and punctuation in song lyrics; suffice it to say that it’s a wild world out there.

But is it really a lack of care? Or are the masses of chord-posters yearning – desperate, even – for guidance? Do they not seek a North Star to which they can look when they ask themselves the deep, soul-interrogating questions we all must ask when chord-posting? “Should I put the entirety of ‘The Gambler’ and half of ‘Piano Man’ in quotation marks?” “Is ‘one lump or two?’ really being posed as a question, and if so, is it a different question than ‘do you take sugar?’?”. “Did the Doctor of Rock just deliberately create an intensely complicated series of nested questions to make his point and require four consecutive punctuation marks?”

I say it’s time to give them that North Star. I hereby present the Doctor of Rock’s Conventions for Punctuation and Capitalization in Song Lyrics (DRCPCSL) (2017 edition).

The 2017 DRCPCSL

Table of contents

Line capitalization

Every physical line should be capitalized, as in:

Sister Christian, there’s so much in life
Don’t you give it up before your time is due

This is true even if a line obviously begins in the middle of a sentence:

It’s a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me

…and this is even true if a line contains a single word that concludes a sentence or could have been placed alongside the previous sentence, which is often necessary for rhythmic reasons:

I’m just a fool, a fool in love with

But you’re motoring

Happiness is a warm, yes it is…

Line-terminating punctuation

In general, no punctuation other than a question mark should be used at the end of a line. There is never a reason to end a line with a comma, and abbreviations are the only reason to end a sentence with a period, as in:

Flew in from Miami Beach B.O.A.C.

A question mark should be used at the end of a line-ending question, as in:

Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?

Could that someone be old Mack the Knife?

An ellipsis may be used at the end of a line to call attention to expected content that is not present, typically a line that is shorter than its equivalent in a previous verse or chorus:

Thank you for being a…

Look at you all…
Still my guitar gently weeps

Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you…
Here am I floating ’round my tin can

An ellipsis may be used at the end of a line to indicate that a syllable is to be held for longer than its previous instances, or that it is followed by a rhythmic break that is not consistent with previous instances of the same lyric:

And my love, and my love, and my love…

Happiness is a warm, yes it is…

An ellipsis may be used at the end of a line to to indicate a repetition that does not merit verbatim inclusion in the lyrics:

I’m begging you please to come home
Come on home

Sentences within lines

Multiple sentences within lines should be separated by commas, not periods. And never semicolons. If you see someone using a semicolon in song lyrics that aren’t actually about semicolons, you need to email me immediately.

I need a hero, I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night

You keep me standing tall, you help me through it all

Questions that end within a line may be terminated with question marks, but this is not required, and authors may choose not to use mid-line question marks for aesthetic reasons. When a mid-line question is not terminated with a question mark, a comma should be used. All of the following are acceptable:

Who you gonna call, Ghostbusters

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters

Does he love me, I wanna know

Does he love me? I wanna know

Now did you hear ’bout Louie Miller, he disappeared, babe

Now did you hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe

Because we don’t use periods to separate sentences mid-line, there’s almost never a reason to use capital letters in the middle of a line other than the capitalization of proper nouns. The last example above illustrates an exception (“He disappeared”). For one other notable exception, see “Vocal part delineation” below.

Rhythmic indicators

Ellipses may be used to indicate rhythmic pauses that are notable in their inconsistency with previous instances of the same lyric. This is a generalization of the line-ending ellipsis rule above.

If you’re sad… then it’s time you spoke up… too

Charles… in charge… of me

Let… me… go… let… me… go…
Let… me… go… let me goooo…

Commas may be used at the author’s discretion when rhythmic indicators are helpful:

Working for her man, she brings home her pay for love

I don’t know how, but I suddenly lose control

…even when they would clearly indicate hyper-comma syndrome in prose:

Standing tall, on the wings of my dreams
Rise and fall, on the wings of my dreams

Mid-sentence commas are almost never required, even when correct in prose. Most notably, commas are not required to separate clauses. For example:

I don’t know how but I suddenly lose control

…would be incorrect in prose, but acceptable in lyrics.

Exclamation points

Exclamation points are allowed in very rare circumstances, when a short word is meant to be shouted or particularly staccato:

Woah, oh, sweet love of mine

Won’t take nothing with you but your soul, think!

…but basically you need to email me for permission to use an exclamation point in song lyrics.

Vocal part delineation

There are two instances in which it’s appropriate to use parentheses in lyrics, both relating to vocal part delineation. First, background vocals that mandate inclusion may be delimited by parentheses:

(Is it in his eyes?) Oh no you’ll be deceived

Cause I’m hot (hot), so hot, sticky sweet
From my head (head), my head, to my feet

Note that the former example is also the only case where a non-proper noun should be capitalized anywhere other than the beginning of a line (equivalent to the “Did you hear ’bout Louie Miller?” example above).

Parentheses may also be used to indicate non-sung content, usually identifiers of a particular vocal line:

(Riff Raff) With a bit of a mind flip
(Magenta) You’re into a time slip
(Riff Raff) And nothing can ever be the same
(Magenta) You’re spaced out on sensation
(Riff Raff) Like you’re under sedation

Vocal performance notes beyond singer identification are beyond the scope of this document, as some formats allow for explicit delineation of metadata with formatting. But in the case where there is no clear indicator of metadata, parentheses are appropriate.

Commas for direct addressing

Commas are recommended (though not required) for addressing individuals. More often than not, the individual being addressed is “babe”, “baby”, or “honey”:

If this ain’t love, baby, just say so

…though occasionally the individual being addressed is “demolition woman”:

Demolition woman, can I be your man?

Commas for repetitive lyrics

Commas are recommended (though not required) to separate repetitive short phrases, especially repetitive nonsense words:

Sweet child, sweet child, sweet child, sweet child of mine

Woah, oh, oh, sweet child o’ mine

Quotation marks

There is almost never a reason to use quotation marks in song lyrics. Quotes are forbidden when they would normally be used to indicate the content expressed by a particular speaker; commas may be used instead:

Welcome to the real world, she said to me

Night breezes seem to whisper, I love you

I said to the man, are you trying to tempt me?

Watching some good friends scream, let me out

Accidents will happen, they all heard Ricky say

He said, we haven't had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine

And the man at the back said everyone attack

Note than in the last example, no indication of the quote was provided. This is acceptable, and in this case is weakly recommended for aesthetic reasons.

This rule exists in part because parsing quotes can be very complex when line breaks are constrained by rhythm:

And he said
Do you come from a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder?

Said, if you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

He says, son can you play me a memory?
I'm not really sure how it goes

The first of these quotes (from "Land Down Under") spans not only a complete chorus, but multiple choruses into a fade. The second (from "The Gambler") spans the end of a verse, a complete chorus, and half of the next verse (before the speaker dies in the middle of a verse, which might be the only instance of this occurring in a pop song). The third (from "Piano Man") spans the end of a verse, a complete chorus, and possibly a nonsense-word interlude, though it's unclear whether the speaker (the "old man sitting next to me") or the primary narrator (the "piano man") is in fact singing "la di da".

In prose, line and paragraph breaks would be used to clarify these complex structures, but this is not possible in lyrics, where rhythmic structure and rapid glancability outweigh semantic clarity. So we simplify structurally and aesthetically by assuming that delineating the precise boundary of the quote is not critical.

Another reason quotation marks are prohibited for speaker identification is that the indication of the speaker is often muttered, de-emphasized relative to the content, or ambiguous in its application, in a manner that is rarely true in prose:

He say, one and one and one is three

I say
I shot the sheriff
But I did not shoot no deputy

Given the long pause after "I say", it's unclear whether the narrator is telling you that he said "I shot the sheriff", or whether "I say" is just being used here as an exclamatory. Given that the song is written in the first person, what would it mean to call out a quote in the middle of the song? This illustrates the thorny ground we would get into if we allowed quotes in this context.

Quotation marks may be used when a word is being referred to directly. Quotes or italics would be required in prose in this case. In lyrics, quotes are allowed – but not required – here.

Have you heard the word is “love”?

Who put the “ram” in the “rama lama ding dong”?

Quotation marks may also be used when a word is being selected sarcastically, as would be the case in prose:

Just like Poland is protected by her Russian “friends”

Single quotes and other matters of pronunciation

Deliberate misspelling to express recommended pronunciation is beyond the scope of this document, and is generally left to the author's discretion. However, we will discuss some common examples.

Misspelling to indicate that phrases are collapsed into fewer syllables than would normally be required is encouraged, as this has strong rhythmic implications. The most common examples are "gonna" (going to) and "wanna" (want to):

And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike

Went the distance, now I'm not gonna stop, just a man and his will to survive

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya

Even more common is the verbal replacement of "ing" with "in'". Whether to write this out as "ing" or "in'" is at the author's discretion, but a reasonable guideline is that if the "in'" is integral to the character of the lyric or used in a rhyme, it should be written as "in'":

Gonna free fall out into nothin'

Smokin' in the boys room, smokin' in the boys room

...while songs where the "in'" is neither rhymed nor part of a key phrase are more ambiguous, even if the pronunciation is clear. For example, either of the following are acceptable:

Wake me up before you go-go, 'cause I'm not planning on going solo

Wake me up before you go-go, 'cause I'm not plannin' on goin' solo

...but the former is slightly preferred.

Closing remarks

We here at hope we have provided some clarity to the lyric-posters of the world, while still allowing the flexibility that is necessary given the unpredictable formatting constraints of song lyrics. If you have suggestions or criticisms of the DRCPCSL, please post comments below, and the committe1 will consider your input for the 2018 edition of the DRCPCSL2.

And, finally, a confession. The author of this post also maintains a library of chords and lyrics:

...and admits that it is not fully compliant with the DRCPCSL. Many of the lyrics are pasted, and emphasis in curation has focused on chords, in some cases at the expense of DRCPCSL conformity. Please send corrections, no matter how small.

1There is no committee.
2There almost certainly won't be a 2018 edition. Let's be honest; that would be a total fucking waste of time.

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