Diana Ross and the missing B

When you sing, you have a choice. The choice to bury a consonant and the choice to bring it out into the light when it suits you.

Listen, with your eyes closed, to the Supremes singing My World is Empty Without You. What’s missing from Diana Ross‘ life? A lover called Bay? eBay? A Turkish Bey? What word can you hear?

If you know the song, you know the answer. If English is your native language, you’ve guessed the answer. So ask yourself a different question: when does Diana choose to sing the word clearly, right through to the last consonant? Why then and nowhere else?

If you listen closely, you’ll notice that Diana sings the final of Babe clearly once only. You actually hear Bay or Bey for most of the song. If you’re a native English speaker, you don’t need to hear the whole word. You’ll choose Babe as the most likely word, from the store of words in your head. You’ll slot it into place without waiting for the last consonant. Hearing the Bay at the beginning is enough. Your brain has done the rest.

If English isn’t your first language, you might not know the word Babe. It’s not a word they teach in most English classes. Your brain won’t have been given enough information to slot Babe into place, so you’ll be stuck with the sound you hear – Bay or Bey. You’ll still enjoy the song, but if you want to sing it in public you’ll do so much better if you have the  choice to mute or emphasise the final b of Babe. It’s one more emotional weapon for your arsenal.

Watch the video and you’ll see Diana’s mouth clearly forming the final b of Babe every time she sings the word. She mutes the consonant, but she forms the word. That’s important. She’s sure to establish Babe‘s clear presence in her audience’s mind. She’s going to call on the whole word later.

Diana waits until 2.04 to pronounce Babe clearly, from beginning to end. The structure of the line changes to allow it. Up until that point she’s kept the complete word, Babe, in reserve. Suggested but shadowy. She gives the word maximum power when she chooses to sing it clearly. Diana Ross has always been praised for her phrasing.

Why doesn’t Diana pronounce the whole word each time? She doesn’t need to. She knows her audience will guess it and complete it in their own minds, so she puts her breath and energy into the word you. You is the important word. It’s the word that Diana builds up to in the line. You is the person that Diana’s singing to.

Babe exists as a rhythmic filler sound. It’s like the ‘uh’ that Pharrell Williams uses to finish lines in Happy. Or the ‘now’ in Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer for You. Once you start noticing rhythmic fillers, you’ll notice them everywhere.

To be fair, in My World is Empty Without You Diana could sing to a Turkish Bey or an ex-lover called Bay without destroying the sound or meaning of the song.

But Babe is the better word. Why? Because it’s not just any old rhythmic filler. It has added value:

  • Babe‘s a term of endearment. Using it intensifies the emotional energy of the song. A name like Bay, or a sound like ‘uhalone would tell us nothing about Diana’s feelings for her man. The word Babe contains their whole love affair.
  • Babe is both specific and general – each member of the audience can sing along and think of their own personal, beloved Babe. Human or not.
  • The audience can substitute a new Babe each time their own love life turns a new page. So the song becomes timeless for them.

Come to think of it, most love songs use darling, my love or sweetheart rather than a specific name. More intimate but more universal. Clever.

If English isn’t your first language, make sure that you don’t get left short of an emotional weapon, in this, or any other song. Babe‘s the kind of word you need a good set of lyrics to find and to get right. You need to know that you’re singing to your Babe not to Bay or a Bey. You need that final b to play with. Then you have a choice. If you don’t know the b‘s there, you have no choice.

Careful: once you’ve found the whole word Babe, don’t get over excited about its final b. Choose, as Diana does, when to deploy your emotional weapon. Do you agree with Diana’s phrasing? Think how you’d change the song if you pronounce the b clearly every time it appears. Have you got your own clear artistic reasons for doing so?

Watch Diamanda Galás’ cover of My World is Empty Without You. How does she manage the final b of Babe?:

How about the Afghan Whigs cover? Listen to Greg Dulli here. He adds the final b of Babe in a different part of the song – at about 1.15 in? What do you think of his version? Or Jose Feliciano’s cover here.

Remember: if there’s a sound that’s hard to hear in the original of any song, especially a consonant on the end of a word, it’s worth thinking why the singer has chosen to hide it. It’s worth listening closely to hear when the singer chooses to pronounce it more clearly, if ever. Think:

  • Is ghosting part of the singer’s personal style?
  • Is there a good, musical reason why the singer has chosen to mute a sound? Are they hiding it so that they can bring it out of the shadows later? What effect are they trying to achieve?
  • Or have you just misheard the lyrics? Native speakers of English do that too. A lot. There’s even a word for it: mondegreen. You can see some famous ones here.

We’ve talked a lot about hunting for ghost consonants in English songs. Once you’ve found a ghost, don’t go mad with it.

Decide whether you want to sing consonants that are ghosted in the original every time they appear – as Cécile McLorin Salvant might. Or whether you want to keep them in reserve so that you can use them to emphasise a word, when you choose. Listening to the original, and a few covers will help you to decide.

Some treasure should be left buried, until it’s needed. With the lyrics as your treasure map, you’ll always have a choice.

© Sing Better English, 2014



5 thoughts on “Diana Ross and the missing B”

  1. That’s very sweet of you.

    I doubt if Diana thought it through, like a general planning a battle, or in an intellectual way, before she started singing My World is Empty. I think most of the subtle power that we put into our words: speaking, singing or writing, is something we generally notice only once we’ve done it. Especially if it has worked. Teenagers pour extra layers of meaning into the most innocent words when they’re arguing with their parents. Jilted lovers do it. We’re all magicians of sound, when we need to be.

    Your friend might enjoy this post about the word ‘pretty’ https://singbetterenglish.wordpress.com/?s=pretty I’d be interested to know if she’s conscious of putting extra power into certain sounds when she sings.


    1. Thanks, I’ll send her the link (and will ask her).

      If you have a moment, would you be willing to take a look at my blog and tell me what I can do better? In the “new blog” post, you are one of the respondents with the most practical advice, so I’d love to hear what you have to say. If you don’t have time, no worries.
      Either way, I’ll be following yours. Smart, witty blog; I especially enjoy the style. You provide an incredible amount of information without sounding preachy or officious. Love it.


      1. You’re very sweet to say that. Thanks.

        Ok – just looked at your Adoption = Advocacy post. I don’t know much about the subject and I think you’re in the US? So I know even less about how things work there! You’re the expert on your subject, so the things that I notice are going to be more general, like these: you put things in bold like “less-than-stellar social worker made this statement” and then “find someone to fight for you and the child.” That was a bit confusing for me because I wasn’t clear what bold means for you – is it you shouting, or you emphasising something for your reader? I suppose, until your readers know you, you need to let them know what they should understand by bold type or italic type on your blog. I think reading people’s blog posts for the first few times is a bit like dating – you’re trying to get to know the blogger. And to know if you trust them. So you try to understand what they mean – especially what bold or capitals, or colour or italics mean to them. You want to feel that you’re ‘reading’ them clearly.

        On that post, if it were me, I would probably have made it clear that it was the social worker’s voice at the beginning. What she says is shocking, but if you read it cold, you’re not sure who’s speaking. So the shock of the fact that it’s a social worker speaking is lessened – and few people will go back to read her words again. If you don’t want to give away the speaker, you could ask them to guess who’s speaking, so your reader knows that the words aren’t yours but are reading them with attention and trying to work out who might have said them. It’s a powerful beginning, but it would make your point better if your readers weren’t wondering who on earth was talking while they were reading it. They might not read on if they don’t know you and they think it’s you talking.

        I’d put links that explain DSS and give more helpful information about IEPs and ‘liasons’ – if you can. If they open in a different window then your readers will come back to you. If you’re aiming for an audience in other countries you’ll find that families elsewhere will have their own versions of DSS, and once they know what you mean, they’ll be able to relate to your helpful information better. DSS used to mean Department of Social Security here in the UK – in Montenegro DSS is a political party. You could write the name out in full the first time you mention it in a post and then use initials. Even somebody in your country, who’s new to Adoption/Advocacy might not be up to speed on all the initials.

        I think I’d decide what you’d like your reader to ‘get’ from your post. If you want to help other parents in the same situation, have you given them at least two or three useful, clear, supportive points to take away with them to use as weapons in their own struggles? If you want to let the world know how shitty your experience of the ‘system’ has been, have you done that to your satisfaction?

        It’s really obvious from your writing that what you say is heartfelt and that your knowledge was gained the hard way, battling for your children. I suppose the challenge now is turning your struggle into hope for others. So that they don’t have to struggle as you have.

        I like your last sentence 🙂


  2. Thanks so much! This is very helpful feedback.
    I’ll try using links to explain words & acronyms- it never occurred to me that they could mean different things, but I have friends on every continent except Antarctica, so it definitely should have (duh, Casey). 🙂 Also, I see what you mean about the social worker’s comment. I’ll rework that.
    As far as purpose, it’s dual… 1. tell the horrible story (in an entertaining way) so that 2. other people can find help and hope. I’ll think more about how to express that clearly.
    Thank you again for every bit of your feedback; I’ve taken it to heart and very much appreciate your time.
    Have a fabulous Friday! 🙂


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