Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

If I Just Lay Here

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2011

First of all, I think I have a pretty good handle on the currently standard system for English conditionals. I wrote about them most recently in July in this post. In my grammar, a sentence like If I sit here, my pants will get wet suggests that me sitting here is a possibility that I’m considering (though I may be leaning toward rejecting it). The past-tense form sat in If I sat here, my pants would get wet suggests that I’m not seriously considering the possibility.

Second, I got straight many years ago on the workings of lay and lie–though I’ve also learned that lay and lie have flip-flopped and varied in their usage over the centuries, and that it’s more or less accident that the system currently considered standard was settled upon. This Grammar Girl piece lays it out (get it?) pretty clearly, with a nice diagram. This Language Log post goes into more detail. For what it’s worth, I say lie in the present tense, lay in the past tense, and lain in the perfect tenses to talk about being recumbent. (Or lied if I’m talking about telling untruths.) I say lay (something) in the present tense, laid (something) in the past tense, and lain (something) in the perfect tenses to talk about putting something down carefully. At least, I think I do.

Now with those two points made, consider the refrain from the song “Chasing Cars”, by Snow Patrol:

If I lay here,
If I just lay here,
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Even though I am accustomed to hearing past-tense verbs in if-clauses to introduce remote conditions, and even though I accept lay as the past tense of lie, I still, still, just can’t parse these lyrics as the hypothesis and conclusion of a remote conditional. Instead, I find myself just figuring that the singer uses both lay and lie to mean lying down, sometimes saying one (“If I just lay here”) and sometimes the other (“Would you lie with me?”). Why is that?

Other grammar-watchers have had the same difficulty I have. Benjamin Barrett brought up the lay/lie verse on the American Dialect Society email list (in a thread beginning here), and wondered if the alternation was just for euphonic purposes. The possibility of taking it as a remote conditional seems not to have occurred to him. In a response, Larry Horn raised the possibility, and made his point by replacing lay/lie with the less-confusing sit/sat,:

If I sat here,
If I just sat here,
Would you sit with me and just forget the world?

With sit/sat, I have no problem getting a remote-conditional reading.

The Master of Grammar got tripped up on these lyrics too, and publicized his misunderstanding in this blog post. Three commenters set him straight, but I take the difficulty of getting this parse, even among the grammar-savvy, as a sign that the lay/lie distinction is on its last legs.

So it looks like “Chasing Cars” may be one of those songs that “get it right”. Against all expectation, it uses the standard option when faced with a grammar shibboleth, like Beyonce Knowles singing “If I were a boy” when you’d expect just about any pop singer to go with “If I was a boy”. But wait a minute…

I’ve just watched the video, and every time the singer gets to the refrain, he’s lying on something: twice on a bed, once on some asphalt, and once at the top of a subway escalator. He’s not standing up and thinking about lying in some location; he’s actually doing it. He even lies on a slab of rock during one of the verses of the song, so clearly, lying down in even the most unusual locations is not such a remote possibility for this man. What do you think? Is If I lay here being used in a standard or nonstandard way in “Chasing Cars”?

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23 Responses to “If I Just Lay Here”

  1. Ben Zimmer said

    Assuming the standard conditional reading, I don’t think the action of lying down has to be understood as an unlikely possibility. I could sit down next to someone on a park bench and ask, “Would you mind if I just sat here for a while?” It seems like “remote” conditionals are OK in requests for permission, even to license something you’ve already begun doing. So it’s no biggie (for me) that the singer is actually lying down in the video.

    • Neal said

      Good point about requests, which use “modal remoteness” (as CGEL puts it) to signal politeness. The line in the song isn’t a request, but it’s true that sometimes the remote possibility of a condition need not actually be false. I could say, “If I sat here … like this … I’d get my pants wet, which, as you can see, I’ve just done.”

  2. the ridger said

    I agree with Ben: in requests like that, even if you’re already doing it, the “past” is used very often.

    I also find that lie/lay is just the one people gripe about. “Sit/set” is lost, and “rise/raise” is on the way. But nobody bitches about them!

    (Also I find that nobody is ever confused. They always *know* which one the speaker “should have used”. But that’s a different proposition…)

    Anyway, I think he’s “getting it right”.

    • Ben Zimmer said

      John McWhorter makes that point about lie/lay vs. sit/set in his new book, What Language Is.

    • Ran said

      > “Sit/set” is lost, and “rise/raise” is on the way.

      Wait, what? For me those distinctions are very much alive and well, and I would certainly notice if someone didn’t observe them. I remember being surprised to encounter them in a grammar-book when I was in elementary school, because it never occurred to me that anyone would get them wrong. (FWIW, I grew up in Kalamazoo and live in Cleveland.)

      • Glen said

        Same here. For me, sit/set and rise/raise are even better established distinctions than lie/lay, and I don’t even hear non-standard uses of them very often. Lie/lay seems much more problematic.

      • the ridger said

        I know many people who have merged the vowels in sit/set (as in pin/pen), so they probably don’t realize there ever was a distinction. But things like “sit that/yourself down” are common, and “set a spell” is, too.

        As for rise/raise – just google “they will rise prices” or “mist raises from the river”.

      • Ran said

        @The Ridger:

        > I know many people who have merged the vowels in sit/set (as in pin/pen) [...]

        No, the pin/pen merger does not affect sit/set. (Wikipedia mentions a separate “bit–bet merger […] occurring for some speakers of Newfoundland English”, but I can’t imagine that’s what you’re referring to.)

        > But things like “sit that/yourself down” are common, and “set a spell” is, too.

        The existence of speakers without this distinction hardly means that the distinction “is lost”, firstly because many speakers do have the distinction (would you say that the “was/were” distinction “is lost” because some speakers say “we was”?), and secondly because you’ve presented no evidence that the distinction used to not “be lost” by your standards. (“Lost”, of course, implies a change of state.) Google Books finds a complaint from 1833 that “sit that down” is “promiscuous”, and a use in March 1848 of “set a spell”.

        “Sit yourself down”, by the way, may not be relevant; I distinguish “sit” from “set”, but the distinction is more complex than just transitive vs. intransitive, and “sit yourself down” is quite grammatical for me. (So is “set yourself down”, for that matter, but with a different meaning.)

    • Jonathon said

      I’ve known some speakers for whom sit/set is mostly lost and rise/raise is on the way out too, but I don’t think it’s generally true of American English speakers. I wouldn’t even say it’s mostly true in the places I’ve lived where it seems common, because I think I’m falling prey to the frequency illusion. I notice every time someone in my neighborhood says set for sit, but I don’t notice when they just use sit.

  3. Naomi said

    Sounds like perfectly normal subjunctive to me…

    • Mneh said

      @Naomi I agree, it’s subjunctive. I’m from Northern Ireland (like Snow Patrol’s singer) and here we use ‘lie’ as present tense, and use ‘lay’ as past tense and to form subjunctive tense.

  4. Jonathon said

    My instinct is that he’s using “lay” in the nonstandard way. I think it’s akin to someone using object who one time and then using whom another time. I just don’t think the lay/lie distinction is productive enough for most English speakers to produce the conditional form of lie. Sure, it works with sit, but it seems much more slippery with lie. And I think there may be some elements of euphony involved, though I’m having trouble pinning it down. For some reason, “If I lie here” sounds a little strange to me—maybe it’s the back-to-back /ai/s?

  5. Ellen K. said

    I’m not familiar with the song, but in this post, I read it with the understanding that he’s already lying down, and thus, the switch to “lie” made it seem like he’s talking about telling lies (well, sort of, I got the correct lie down with him reading, but the tell lies with him reading was in my head too).

    I would not say “If I sat here” if I was already sitting. So “If I lay” here, when he’s already lying down, reads to me as present tense lay, and thus I expect “lay” again in the 3rd line.

    (I could say “If I just sat here” while sitting, but since “If I just lay here” comes after “If I lay here”, it doesn’t, in that context, read as the conditional to me.)

    Me, for the conditional, I’d say “If I were to lay here…”. Somehow, “If I were to lie here” sounds wrong, though “If I was to lie here” sounds okay, though not how I’d talk.

  6. Glen said

    I vote for the “non-standard and inconsistent” explanation. For speakers who don’t recognize or understand the lie/lay distinction, they are just synonyms. So the singer is choosing, perhaps without even thinking much about it, to switch words.

  7. Benjamin Barrett said

    Thank you for this excellent recap of this issue. The idea of this being subjunctive, indeed, did not even cross my mind, which seems to be the case for others.

    The issue of Gary Lightbody actually lying down in the video is brought up. (“He even lies on a slab of rock during one of the verses of the song, so clearly, lying down in even the most unusual locations is not such a remote possibility for this man.”) I think that is a red herring, however, as music videos commonly take liberties like that.

  8. heavenskyy said

    I agree with Jonathon, (For some reason, “If I lie here” sounds a little strange to me—maybe it’s the back-to-back /ai/s?)… I write lyrics, and I usually try to avoid using anything with lie/lay because of this situation, unless I am using the past tense form. Lay just sounds better in a question form, and I wonder if it’s because we heard it being used so often in the present tense, that now lie sounds funny in its correct usage. I asked someone the other day, if they would like to lie down, and they looked at me funny before answering. I can see that they were probably thinking about the lay/lie situation before answering me, and I had to laugh.

  9. Aha! The reason that the singer HAD to use “lay” in the first instance is to establish that he was referring to lying down, NOT to telling a lie, so that listeners — even those listeners who missed the repeated clue “here” (one does not generally speak of telling a lie “here”) would NOT be confused as to whether the subsequent line “would you lie with me” means anything but lying down alongside him. And yet, apparently some readers of this blog still manage to misconstrue it!

  10. Philip Whitman said

    He’s just doing what he likes the sound of. Singers do it all the time. Sometimes they get it right gramatically, and sometimes they don’t, but it doesn’t matter to them either way.

  11. Philip Whitman said

    grammatically

  12. Benjamin Barrett said

    Although I agree with Philip Whitman’s comment that the lie/lay alternation sounds good (euphonic), that does not mean that Lightbody’s grammar is incorrect.

    Like Neal Whitman, I learned the lay/lie/lie paradigms as an adult, and like him, I have no trouble with the subjunctive of Larry Horn’s sit/sat pair.

    Perhaps the issue at play is native (childhood) acquisition of the forms. People who learn these paradigms as adults do not have a native speaker’s intuition of how they work, and so are stumped when faced with the subjunctive, a mode that itself teeters on the brink of extinction.

    • Philip Whitman said

      Just for the record, I didn’t say his grammar was incorrect. I just said that he probably didn’t know or care, and he probably just did what sounded good to him.

  13. I was one of those three commenters on the Master of Grammar blog. This seems to me a perfectly normal example of what in the TEFL world we call Second Conditional, as is your ‘sit’ example. But as apart from ‘was/were’, subjunctive and indicative past have the same forms, TEFL books tend to refer to this use as ‘unreal past’ (with reference to the present).

    By the conventions of Second Conditional, as the result clause here starts with ‘would’, it is absolutely standard to use past simple in the if clause – ‘If I lie here, would you lie with me …’ would be rather an unusual construction. The normal construction after ‘If I lie here’ would be ‘will you lie with me’ – i.e. First Conditional.

    Most of the misunderstanding on the web (although admittedly not in your post) seems to come from reading ‘lay’ (past simple of intransitive lie) as being a form of the transitive verb lay. I’ve already written about about it in a bit more detail on my blog – Random Idea English.

  14. [...] the difficulty is due to the perennial confusion between lie and lay (which I also wrote about in this post about the song “If I Just Lay Here”). For a while, I considered concluding the podcast [...]

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