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”).
So that Snow Patrol lyric, from the song “Chasing Cars,” would have been grammatically correct either way.
The fact that the verb is “lie” does complicate things. It’s a minefield! But let’s imagine the same construction using different verbs.
Here are parallel examples using the simple present for the first verb: “If I run, would you run?” … “If I eat, would you eat?” … “If I go, would you go?”
And here are parallel examples using the simple past for the first verb: “If I ran, would you run?” … “If I ate, would you eat?” … “If I went, would you go?”
Of course, there is a subtle difference in meaning. The present tense (“If I lie/run/eat/go, would you …”) implies “If I do it right now.” But the use of the past tense (“If I lay/ran/ate/went, would you …”) in this context implies a theoretical time in the future, perhaps only minutes away.
Assuming that the past tense is what the lyricist intended, the meaning is quite clear. But who says lyricists should use perfect English anyway?
In the words of Ira Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.” (And one of my favorite songs is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.”)
The Snow Patrol lyric is complicated by a lot of red herrings. The biggest and reddest, of course, is the verb “lie,” 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.
The word “here,” is a mini-herring, since it seems to imply the present tense. And the use of “just” is another little red fishie, since it has two meanings: “recently” (which muddles the tense issue) and “simply.”
That’s why I eliminated the herrings in the simplified examples above.
One more note, however, about the use of the conditional “would.” This time we’ll use the verb “sing” to illustrate the correct sequence of tenses:
Present: “If I sing, would you sing?”
Past: “If I sang, would you sing?”
Past perfect: “If I had sung, would you have sung [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 sing”) or perfect (“would have sung”).
With that, I’ll go. Or, as the Snow Patrol song “Run” puts it, “I’ll sing it one last time for you / Then we really have to go.”
[Note: This post was revised on Dec. 12, 2014.]