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Bob Dylan Teaches You About Questions, Count Nouns


everyday grammar
Bob Dylan Teaches You About Questions, Count Nouns
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Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan is considered to be one of the best American songwriters.

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

The answer is blowin' in the wind

In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore how Blowin’ in the Wind, a famous Bob Dylan song, can teach you about English grammar. You will learn about question words, nouns and more.

Let’s begin by listening to part of the song:

Blowin’ in the Wind

Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist

Before it is washed to the sea?

And how many years can some people exist

Before they're allowed to be free?

Dylan’s song has a group of questions, one after the other, followed by an answer:

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

The answer is blowin' in the wind

Questions

Let’s explore the grammar of the words in greater detail. In English, we use question words – what, where, how - to ask for information.

The word “how” generally asks about manner – the way in which something is done. For example, imagine you saw a circus performer swallow fire.

You might ask them:

How did you do that?

But when used with words such as “much” and “many,” how asks about quantities.

For example, you might hear an American ask the following about a price:

How much money does it cost?

Or

How much [money] does it cost?

Here is another example of a quantity question:

How many people came to the Bob Dylan concert?

But, how do we know when to use “much” and when to use “many?

Noncount vs. count nouns

The answer is about nouns.

We describe nouns as either common or proper. Common nouns include words such as music, song or guitar. The words themselves do not point to an exact, specific thing. Proper nouns include words with an exact, single meaning - Bob Dylan, the United States of America, Blowin’ in the Wind and so on.

There are two kinds of common nouns – count and noncount nouns. Count nouns include words like guitar or song. You can count guitars and songs. Consider the following statements:

I own five guitars.

I wrote 3 songs.

The question form “how many...” is used with plural count nouns. For example:

How many guitars do you own?

I own five guitars.

Noncount nouns include words like money or music.

I need to make money.

I love music.

In general, the question form “how much...” is used with noncount nouns.

How much money did you spend on that new guitar?

I spent all of the money that I earned last week!

How does this discussion connect with the Bob Dylan song?

A series of questions using countable nouns

If you listen carefully to the Bob Dylan song, you will notice that the structure “how many...” plays an important part.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn't see?

And consider these lines:

Yes, and how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?

Questions about count nouns make the base of Dylan’s song. He does not sing about noncount nouns. He does not ask “how much...”?

And the answer to his questions is always the same:

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

The answer is blowin' in the wind

Closing thoughts

The next time you listen to any song in English, try to look for some kind of pattern.

One way to think about Dylan’s song is that it is about questions, answers and count nouns. But other songs have different structures, ideas and grammar points. By carefully studying songs, you can learn a lot about English grammar.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

_________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

songwriter – n. a person who writes the words or music to songs

quantity – n. an amount or number of something

pretend – v. to act as if something is true when it is not true

ear – n. the part of the body that you hear with

pattern – n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done

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