I had asked this question

What is the meaning of “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together"

It took no time for one user to vote 'close' stating the song lyrics are off topic (surprisingly, then s/he answers the same question!). I myself had ask about MJ's lyrics earlier where FumbleFingers came and tried to close the topic. The question received enough attention and I got the answer.

My question is, such questions are accepted, live, answered, why my question about lyrics are voted closed. Those who vote 'close' plumb ignore the tags. For natives, it could be lyrics but for a person like me, it's meaning in context, sentence meaning, phrase meaning.

Furthermore, when I searched the words 'lyrics', I found many questions. I also observed that the TAG lyrics had been already created. I always searched for 'song' first but it never came up. Thus, I created a tag song-lyrics to help users like me. Obviously, if 'lyrics' is a tag, there is no harm in having 'song-lyrics' so that others can use it.

My nervous system is shot all right -accepted and kept open and so are the others...
A stormed is loosed upon the sea
Now I gotta cut Loose. footloose

My question is: How do you judge and close some of the same type of questions while keeping others open? Also, let me remind, song lyrics are in English, and some songs are known for their lyrics! Merely, without reading OP's concern, intention and tags, if you start 'closing' them, I'm afraid, it does not serve the purpose of ELL!

  • 3
    Because I'm a native speaker, I know intuitively that forms such as "Don't you black or white me" are not standard English, and have no clear unambiguous meaning. Which is why I tried to close the question. I'd have been happy for it to be kept open if OP had been asking about the acceptability/prevalence of such non-standard "verbifications", rather than about the specific meaning in context (which I think has no relevance whatsoever to "learning English"). If the only instance you can find for a perplexing usage is in a song lyric, I maintain it's almost certainly Off Topic. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 22:14
  • 4
    It does seem like ELL can be pretty inconsistent when it comes to closing questions. Another type of question that's treated similarly: Sometimes people ask what an audio recording says because they have trouble hearing (a problem faced by virtually all learners), and some of these stay open while others get closed. Why? I have no idea.
    – user230
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 15:35
  • @Fumble - RE: If the only instance you can find for a perplexing usage is in a song lyric, I maintain it's almost certainly Off Topic. That depends on the question, I think. If the question asks something like: "Is this an acceptable usage? Could I use it in conversation?" then I think it could be ON-topic (much like how Yoichi notices unusual or one-off wordings from the NYT, and asks questions about phrases such as shoe leather journalism, BlackBerry-ing, Rock God, pretzel palace, etc.). Seems legit to me.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 3:09
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    @J.R.: I specifically pointed out that "asking about the acceptability/prevalence" could be okay. Which pretty much presupposes the OP (and others) know what some term means before asking such a question. The questions Yoichi asks invariably come from contexts where the purpose of the text is to communicate specific meaningful / articulable concepts. Thus it stands to reason there's likely to be an unambiguously correct answer to "What does this mean?". This isn't always the case with song lyrics / poetry etc., which often use words with little regard for "information content". Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 13:08
  • 1
    I am a he as you are a he.
    – user6951
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 1:04

4 Answers 4


I'm glad you've asked this question; I've been thinking about writing a meta post on lyrics for awhile now.

Yes, song lyrics (and poetry verses) are in English. However, they are not always as readily explainable or interpretable as, say, sentences from a news article, or passages from a book.

There are entire websites devoted to meanings of song lyrics, and you'll often find debates raging on those pages. Truth is, it's often hard to tell if a songwriter is simply trying to paint an image, force a rhyme, slip in a double-entendre, or say something more literal.

I recently commented on this after the community voted to close another question about lyrics, by explaining:

Traditionally, questions about song lyrics are often closed, both on ELU and on ELL, because lyrics are often abstract, obtuse, unclear, and subject to debate. There are entire websites devoted to such debate, but SE isn't one of them. If a song lyric confuses a native speaker, don't be surprised to see close votes.

For example, consider American Pie [a famous song by Don McLean with lyrics supposedly linked to many historical events]. When asked what the song meant, McLean jokingly replied, "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to." He later said, "You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me .. Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." That's an interesting quote on the matter – and it nicely summarizes why I'd probably vote to close a question asking us to interpret a song like American Pie [or I Am the Walrus, or Mother and Child Reunion].

I'm pretty sure that I once heard (or read) one of the Beatles in an interview, discussing how they were often surprised by some of the meanings and interpretations people found in their lyrics. I believe he said something along the lines of, "If we liked the interpretation enough, we might go along with it. Otherwise, we'd simply deny it."

I don't agree with this quote, but I found this on a website: "It seems every one of the Beatle’s lyrics are about drugs, communism, illicit acts and psychadelic drug-enabled sounds that confuse the mind." My answer to that is, "Sure, if you look hard enough, and bend the words, you can probably get their lyrics to allude to just about anything you want." Or, as McCartney himself once said, "Everything has a double meaning if you look for it long enough."

Poetry interpretation often suffers from the same overanalyis. From a webpage discussing Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?) Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston – he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: He gives the harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.

Pritchard then continues:

…he [Frost] wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it.

That said, I don't think that we need to have a knee-jerk reaction of close-voting every ELL question that alludes to lyrics. If the confusion is about the meaning of a word, it might be a legitimate English learner's question – even if it was a song lyric that got the learning wondering about the question. As a quick example, say someone asked a question referencing Carole King's I Feel the Earth Move lyrics:

  • If the question was about use of "tame" in the line: "I know that my emotions are something I just can't tame," I might be in favor of keeping it open, especially if the O.P. was wondering if, say, it would be acceptable conversational English to say something like, "I got so mad at the meeting that I had to tame my emotions." (That's a question asking about English, not about the meaning or interpretion of song lyrics.)

  • However, if the question were asking something more along the lines of, "What does it mean for the sky to ‘tumble’?" or. "What does she mean by feeling the ‘earth move’ - is that like an earthquake?" I would support a prompt closure, because those are asking us to interpret lyrics, and, as McLean alluded, only the artist knows for sure, and perhaps it's best to keep it that way.

In the case of your black-and-white question, I thought that was worth keeping open, because you didn't ask about the meaning of the song; rather, your question focused on the use of the black-and-white as a verb. Don't mix apples and oranges.

As a footnote, I really wish we had had a longer discussion here before you created a new tag and retagged some questions. (I don't necessarily support the new tag, and I'll probably still vote to close questions about song lyrics if I think they need to be answered by the composer, instead of speculated upon by people who have no way of knowing what something means.)

Remember: Just because a tag exists doesn't mean any or all questions that can be tied to that tag are suddenly on-topic. Tags are used to group related questions, not to determine what is on- or off-target.

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    I do think it is a common mistake to view tags as descriptors of the content of the question rather than as tools for grouping the questions so that folks with a specific language question can find answers. I blame social media :) The lyrics tag isn't useful in finding the answer to "How can black and white be a verb?" or any other on-topic question here. Contrast that with headlinese which does help find answers to questions about the grammar constructions used in headlines. A tag like figurative-usage would be more useful than lyrics I think.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 18:22

The principle

What makes some questions about song lyrics off-topic is that they don’t seem to have any real, definitive answer, only interpretations that differ from person to person. An on-topic question about a song lyric asks people to explain something about the English language or how to make use of the lyric as part of the process of learning English.

A common mistake

One comment said the question was about how to interpret song lyrics, which he thought was “subjective”.

I think that interpretation of your question was just an inadvertent mistake. I understood your question to clearly be about the “I am he” construction, how or whether it shows up in that sentence, and why you would or wouldn't include commas between each instance. You had been wondering about that construction, searched for examples of it, and found a doozy. A couple of the answers listed various trivia about the song or speculated about what the meaning might be—not even the meaning of the sentence you asked about, but the meaning of other verses in the song!

I've seen a lot of answers like that, that wander off what the question was about and never get around to answering the question. In this case, it appears that people may have mistaken their own wandering off-topic for the question’s being off-topic! It happens.

Before asking

So, before asking a question involving a song lyric, I suggest thinking of how to word it so it’s clearly a question about learning English and not a request for people to give their own, individual interpretations of the song’s meaning. If you can state explicitly what aspect of English that you’re hoping the song lyric will shed light on, that will help. Asking what the lyric “means” can trigger people to think you’re asking for “subjective interpretations” even if that’s not what you intend. Here are a few ways to steer readers away from the “subjective interpretation” interpretation:

  • Why does this song lyric violate the usual rule for ____?

  • What does ____ refer to in this context?

  • [Element of grammar] in ____

  • Does this phrase have a clear meaning in English?

  • How does a native speaker make sense of this phrase?

That can be very difficult, of course: the reason you’re asking the question is because you don’t clearly understand what’s going on yet. Sometimes the real meaning of a question can only become known by answering it. For example, the song lyric you asked about had both “I am he” and “you are me”, seeming to follow two different rules. TRomano’s answer addressed that. But if you’re the one asking the question, you might not be able to see in advance that that’s what your question is really about! So, sometimes “What does it mean?” is the clearest way to ask an on-topic question and you have to rely on the answerers to figure out what you're getting at.

Fortunately, when people vote to close, they often add helpful comments about why, like the comment you quote. You can use that information to alter your question to clarify what aspect of English you’re interested in. The comments themselves often contain clues to what that is.

Before voting or answering

For answerers, I suggest considering the following before voting to close a question about a song lyric—and also before answering it:

  1. Is there a way to interpret the question that is on-topic?

  2. How can you answer this in a way that helps someone learn English?

For example, could it be a question about grammar, vocabulary, idiom, or how a native speaker makes sense of figurative language?

An important part of learning English is learning the common cultural knowledge that speakers assume when choosing their words in order to be understood. So, it can be very helpful to point the reader to the relevant cultural knowledge and state specifically that it’s common knowledge—or that it’s only common knowledge in one region, one specialized field, etc. It is off-topic to describe esoteric trivia that doesn’t shed light on how a song lyric communicates or fails to communicate.

“Objective” questions about “subjective” interpretation

If a song lyric is “subjective”, which I take to mean that different people understand it differently because it’s unclear or ambiguous, then that might be the answer, together with an explanation of why it's unclear or ambiguous. Just because the song lyric is open to widely varying “subjective” interpretations doesn’t mean that the question is “subjective”.

It can be very helpful to an EFL learner to present the facts about grammar, vocabulary, and common knowledge that explain why a native speaker finds a song lyric incomprehensible, unclear, open to two parallel interpretations (like a double-entendre), or rich with emotional overtones. For example, if a song lyric sounds similar to two common constructions that are familiar to English speakers, but doesn't quite match either one, causing the confusion, it can be helpful to explain that. This kind of answer is about English, not the song. That’s probably what the person who posted the question is hoping for. (If not, then maybe the question really is off-topic.)

Note also that on ELL, we want certain kinds of “subjective” questions, because we want answers that explain why rather than just state a correct answer. More about these “good subjective” questions is here. When native speakers describe what happens in their mind when they make sense of a phrase, they’re describing something “subjective”, and not all native speakers will see it the same way, but this is itself useful, factual information for someone learning English.

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    You did a good job noticing how the O.P. was trying to learn more about the I am he construction. That said, CarSmacks "common mistake" was quite understandable in this case, given that the title of the question reads: The meaning of the quote: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”. That leads to another side lesson: if you're going to ask about song lyrics, don't make the "common mistake" of entitling your question so that it looks like a query about lyric meaning – use a title that shifts focus away from song interpretation and squarely on an English issue.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 13:00
  • @J.R. Good point! I will add this to my answer. In fact, my answer only half-way answers this question—which might be understood most constructively as “How can I ask an on-topic question about a song lyric without it getting closed?”
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 13:08
  • @J.R. BTW, when I saw that the original question was getting close votes, I thought about how to re-word the title to make clearer that it really is a question about English. The only ideas I had risked distorting the question, since the meaning probably was the most salient thing about the line that triggered Maulik to ask the question. Can you think of a better way to re-word it?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 13:12
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    I don't think that all song lyrics are off-topic, but I also don't think that we should try to imagine all the ways that a question could be on-topic before closing it. I think that we should guide askers to bring their question on-topic instead of looking at their example sentences and imagining all the interesting questions that could be asked about it. The way the question is stated is "I was researching a grammar issue and came across this sentence. What does it mean? Also, is it punctuated correctly?" It could be a very interesting question, but it's not right now.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 13:58
  • @ColleenV Would you say that the question was actually unclear rather than off-topic?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 14:25
  • I often choose the off-topic reason that talks about "including more context and details" instead of "unclear what you're asking" because I think it gives better guidance on how to improve the question. I'm not thrilled that reason is buried under off-topic, but I have no control over that. I try to leave a comment but I don't always have the bandwidth.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 14:29

My nervous system is shot all right

This was about an English idiom used in a song lyric

A stormed is loosed upon the sea

This question highlighted certain words in the lyrics and wasn't asking for the meaning of the entire lyric. The lyrics were context to ask questions about the meaning of the terms in the lyric.

Now I gotta cut Loose. footloose

This was a question specifically about the term footloose, not about the meaning of the song.

I don't like to close questions with comments that it's off-topic because of the source of the question, because I think it doesn't help the asker figure out how to bring their question on-topic. The source of the question shouldn't matter as long as the question is about the English language.

I readily admit that there is a big gray area when it comes to and that there may be some inconsistency in what questions are left open and which are closed, but I think as long as we close questions with an eye to helping the author edit them to bring them on-topic, we aren't being over zealous.

I think that you have a very grammatically interesting sentence in your question, but we need a more specific question about it than "what does it mean?". At least give us some insight into what you think it means and why you're unsure that you're correct.


I was in search of the usage I'm he or I'm him and came across a quote that spun my head further!

I have a question for @Maulik V. Did you know this quote came from a song?

Because when I saw the quoted part (I am he as you are blah blah), I immediately identified those words as being song lyrics. I mean, the band began to play the song in my head as soon as I read the quote. Since I connected the quote with the entire song, and saw 'What does this mean?' I voted to close. (EDIT: I also knew this particular song had been written with a bunch of nonsense.) My later answer was satire, meant to show that the entire song could be interpreted in an improbable way.

I do not know what else to say except that users asking about song lyrics stress that that they are asking about grammar.

  • 2
    No, I did not know that it was from some song unless you all came up with. I came across it on GoodReads or some 'Quote' site. I did not bother to search the same quote on different sites (and why should I?). It was then when comments start flowing that they were lyrical words. I then searched whether lyrics are off topic but found that there are many such questions live. For a keen learner like me (non-native), English is English. I learn even from the hoardings, songs, slang or whatever I come across. For that moment, the rejection was too painful for me. But, it's all okay.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 7:39
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    @MaulikV Closing a question isn't a rejection of the asker. There are very good questions that aren't on-topic here or don't fit the format of this site. Even great film makers and novelists have some of their content left on the editing room floor to make the film or book better as a whole. You can't always know before you ask the question whether it can be answered well and would be a good reference for other learners, so I don't think that you should feel badly if some of your questions are closed.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 18:10
  • 1
    Amazing (and I mean that in a good way). Many of us thought it was a request for song interpretation, but the O.P. was reading this as a quote. Sometimes it's remarkably easy for one small detail to be missed; once that's identified, everyone says, "Ohhhh! So that's what you were thinking!" Put another way: So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 18:32
  • @MaulikV So you're not a big Beatles fan, then? (I'm serious; I thought everybody in the world was a Beatles fan--to some degree.) Tell me you have heard of them!
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 19:40

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