Everyone loves The Beatles. The four-person band from Liverpool, England propelled to superstardom in the 1960s on the back of dozens of catchy hit songs. The ‘Fab Four’ (as they were informally known) are still as popular today with fans in all corners of the globe.
Not only is their music good for a party, but it can also help improve your English. Songs by The Beatles are particularly useful for English learners for a number of reasons. First of all, the lyrics are often sung clearly and slowly, allowing for even beginner level learners of English to understand them. The lyrics are often quite simple, with relatively basic structures repeated throughout the songs. In fact, they’re so catchy that you really can’t help singing along and practicing the words!
In this article, we’re going to focus on four of The Beatles’ most popular songs and take a look at some grammar and language points that can be learned simply by studying the lyrics and singing along. So, clear your throat and put your headphones on as we see what these guys can teach us about learning English.
Hard Day’s Night: Written by John Lennon
The slightly nonsensical title of this Beatles’ song (is it possible to have a hard day’s night?) came about from a comment by drummer Ringo Starr after a particularly gruelling day and night of performing. The song is a great introduction to the present perfect tense, both in the simple and continuous forms, as well as some idiomatic language.
Grammar points: present perfect simple, present perfect continuous, idiomatic expressions.
It’s been a hard day’s night,
And I’ve been working like a dog.
It’s been a hard day’s night,
I should be sleeping like a log.
In this first verse, we can notice several interesting grammar and language points. Firstly, let’s take a look at the idiomatic language:
- To work like a dog: This idiom means to work extremely hard, particularly in a job which requires some sort of physical labour.
- To sleep like a log: This idiom means to sleep deeply and soundly.
- He’s been working like a dog recently so he really deserves this holiday.
- I slept like a log last night so I didn’t hear you get in late.
Lennon uses the present perfect simple tense (It’s been a hard day’s night) to talk about an experience which began in the past and has continued up to the present time (the gruelling day and night of working). By using this tense, we know that the time period has not yet ended, or at least it has a direct impact on the present.
In the second line, he continues to use the present perfect, but this time changing it to the present perfect continuous (I’ve been working like a dog). Again, this indicates that the time period began in the past and has continued up to the present. However, it also indicates that it was an action which involved repetition or duration.
I’ve been given a pay rise because I’ve been working such long hours over the past few months.
Yesterday: Written by Paul McCartney
This melancholic song is one of The Beatles’ biggest hits, and is also one of the most recorded songs in the history of pop music. Performed solely by Paul McCartney, Yesterday laments the end of a romantic relationship and compares the singer’s current situation with what had happened previously. As such, it’s great for comparing several forms related to the present and the past.
Grammar points: Present simple, past simple, the verb “will” in the past, “used to” + verb.
Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
McCartney compares the past and present with these two lines using the past simple (my troubles seemed) and the present simple (it looks as though they are here to stay) tenses. The time expressions (yesterday/now) also make clear the transition from the past to the present.
Suddenly, I’m not the man I used to be
Here, McCartney uses the present simple again (I am not) and the used to + verb form (I used to be) to contrast a current situation with a past fact or generalisation that is no longer true.
I used to eat meat, but now I’m vegetarian.
Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
With this line, McCartney uses the simple past of have to (she had to go) in order to indicate an obligation in the past. We can also see the past form of the auxiliary verb will in the negative (she wouldn’t say), which is used to tell us that she was unwilling to give an answer.
- I had to get up early this morning because I had an exam.
- They wouldn’t let me extend my visa.
With a Little Help from My Friends: Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
This song is unusual for the The Beatles in that is was actually written for the drummer Ringo Starr to sing. It features on the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and deals with themes of love, friendship and loneliness. The lyrics use some interesting structures to ask real and hypothetical questions about what the singer would do or does do.
Grammar points: Second conditional, zero conditional.
What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
This second conditional form is asking a hypothetical question about an imaginary present. It uses an if clause (if I sang out of tune) and a result clause (what would you think?). We can construct this form by using the structure below:
(If) + (subject) + (past simple) + (would) + (subject) + (base verb)
If I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?
What do I do when my love is away?
In the second verse, the second conditional changes to the zero conditional. Unlike the second conditional above, this is no longer hypothetical, but is asking about how the singer responds in real life when faced with this situation. We can say that the zero conditional is used to talk about things which are usually or generally true. Take a look at the structure below:
(when) + (subject) + (present simple) + (what) + (do) + (subject) + (base verb)
When my love is away, what do I do?
All My Loving: Written by Paul McCartney
This early Beatles’ song (released in 1963) is typical of the upbeat pop music which made them stars around the world. Like so many pop songs, it focuses on romance and uses the future simple tense throughout to express future intentions.
Grammar points: Future simple with contractions and the imperative form of the verb.
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you
Tomorrow I’ll miss you
Remember I’ll always be true
The first three lines of the first verse use two interesting grammar points: the future simple tense (I’ll kiss you/I’ll miss you) and the imperative form of the verb (Close your eyes/Remember). The future simple forms both use contractions (I will > I’ll) to reflect spoken, informal English and to fit better with the rhythm of the melody. The imperative forms are used to give direct orders or instructions in English. They are made simply by using the verb in its base form.
- Do the dishes.
- Watch your head.
- Remember to post that letter.
I’ll pretend that I’m kissing
The lips I am missing
Here we see the future simple again (I’ll pretend) used with the present continuous tenses (I’m kissing/I am missing) to indicate an action happening at the moment of speaking. So, is the singer kissing and missing at the time of the song? No. By using this form with the future simple, he is talking about a future intention to do this action.
I’ll pretend that I’m doing my homework but, in reality, I’ll be playing video games.
A Word of Warning
Although songs are a great way to pick up new vocabulary and practice grammatical structures, be careful not to accept every lyric as proper English. A lot of songs use very informal or grammatically incorrect forms just because they fit the melody or suit the relaxed style of the song. If in doubt, check out a tense table or ask your English teacher about the form.