Q: I hope you can settle a household dispute. There’s a song by Snow Patrol with the lines “If I just lay here / Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” My mother, a former English teacher, says the first line is yet another grating misuse of “lay,” and it should be “If I just lie here.” I don’t know what this construction is (the subjunctive, maybe?), but it seems right to me.
A: This isn’t a subjunctive issue. It involves an “if” clause followed by a conditional clause. In a normal sequence of tenses, when the second verb is in the simple conditional tense (“would lie”), the first verb can be either in the simple present (“I lie”) or the simple past (“I lay”).
But given the context of these lines from the Snow Patrol song “Chasing Cars,” any reasonable person would assume the lyricist intended to use the present tense.
A look at the full refrain shows that it’s clearly framed in the here and now: “If I lay here / If I just lay here / Would you lie with me and just forget the world?”
In the best English, “lie” should replace “lay” in the first two lines. But who says lyricists have to use the best English? In the words of Ira Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
As to the broader question of which tenses go with which, we’ll set the song lyric aside. It’s complicated by a lot of red herrings, so let’s get rid of them.
First, we’ll replace “lie.” It’s a minefield, since the separate verb “lay” is identical to the past tense of “lie” and often confused with it. I’ve written about “lie” vs. “lay” before on the blog.
Let’s also get rid of the word “here,” which implies the present tense. And let’s drop “just,” since it has two meanings: “recently” (which muddles the tense issue) and “simply.”
Now, let’s start fresh with a new, simplified sentence, and we’ll use two different verbs to illustrate: “do” and “run.” Here are the correct sequences of tenses.
PRESENT: “If I do this … would you do that?” / “If I run … would you run?”
PAST: “If I did this … would you do that?” / “If I ran … would you run?”
PAST PERFECT: “If I had done this … would you have done [conditional perfect] that?” / “If I had run … would you have run [conditional perfect]?”
Note that in both past and present tenses, the simple conditional is appropriate for the accompanying clause. (There is no “past conditional.”) The conditional can only be simple (“would do” … “would run”) or perfect “would have done” … “would have run”).
With that, I do have to run. Or, as the Snow Patrol song “Run” puts it, “I’ll sing it one last time for you / Then we really have to go.”