Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I think Snow Patrol got it spot on

There is a lot of chatter in forums etc about the chorus to Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars - whether or not it is grammatical (many people seem to think not), whether or not it is confusing, is it some weird Scottishism (where that idea came from, God knows).
Even the illustrious Grammarphobia had their say, and sticking my neck out, I think they got it wrong. Strangely enough, I think this is where foreign students might have a better idea of what's going on than many native speakers.
Here are the 'offending' lines:
  • If I lay here
  • If I just lay here
  • Would you lie with me
  • And forget the world?
The important bit is:
If I lay here, would you lie with me and forget the world?
Grammarphobia rightly identify this as a conditional sentence, but then say:
... 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 ... it’s clearly framed in the here and now.

In the best English, “lie” should replace “lay” in the first two lines.
Well, with the greatest respect, I beg to differ. 'Any reasonable person' would first have the decency to give the lyricist the benefit of the doubt unless they had good reason not to do so.

First and Second Conditionals

In EFL (and as far as I know ESL), we don't talk about 'Simple Conditional Tense', but we do talk about First and Second Conditionals. And while it is possible for 'would' in the result clause to follow Present Simple in the 'if' clause, it far more often follows Past Simple, giving a classic Second Conditional form.
If I cooked supper tomorrow, would you cook the following night?
Likewise Present Simple in the 'if' clause is usually followed by 'will' (or 'can' or an imperative) in the result clause (rather than 'would') - giving a First Conditional.
If I peel the potatoes, will you do the vegetables?
The very reason we teach these forms is that they are by far the most commonly used in real life. And any foreign learner of English from Intermediate level upwards (assuming they knew the verb forms) would immediately recognise the Chasing Cars chorus as a Second Conditional.
So what about this 'in the here and now' bit. Well, as our typical learner could also tell you, Second Conditional is about the 'here and now', or even about the future (as in the example above). The use of past forms here is not about time, but about uncertainty. Take this sentence:
If I asked you nicely, would you make me a cup of coffee?
I hope you can accept that this is both a valid sentence, and one that is definitely about the 'here and now'. But I put it into the Second Conditional to make it more tentative, more polite. Now let's try another one.
If I sat down here on the sofa, would you sit down next to me?
Equally valid, equally tentative. So if those are both OK, why on Earth should this one be wrong?
If I lay here, would you lie with me and forget the world?
In fact the grammatical structure of that line is exactly the same as that of another well-known song, whose grammar nobody seems to criticise:
If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me
And if we doubt that the singer is feeling tentative? Well, maybe these lines from the song might give us a clue:
I don't quite know how to say
How to feel

The lay and lie conundrum

So why all this confusion? I think the problem is partly that people have had it drummed into them so much that 'to lay' is a transitive verb which must take an object, that they can't get beyond first base and see that the verb 'to lay' doesn't appear in this song at all. Or to use another metaphor, they can't see the wood for the trees - that's to say, that 'lay' here is the Past Simple of 'lie'.
But that doesn't explain Grammarphobia's answer. And to be honest I can't explain Grammarphobia's answer. Why it should be the 'best English' to change a perfectly standard form (Second Conditional) into a less usual form, I have no idea. And if we were to change the first verb to "lie", the most common construction would probably be:
If I lie here, will you lie with me and forget the world?
As their grammar explanations are usually pretty good, I can only assume they were having an off day.
Actually, I think Snow Patrol have been rather clever in choosing this particular verb form. The verb duo 'lay and lie' is right at the top of many grammar sites' problem lists. And they've certainly succeeded in getting their song talked about, and probably had a good laugh into the bargain.

See my other posts on this subject

Links - Chasing Cars

Grammar - Conditionals

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