Joe Hadsall: 'Chasing Cars' grammar shows love makes us blind to imperfections

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  • Gary Lightbody
    Irish singer

Dec. 16—I honestly have no idea how The Lovely Paula and I missed such bad grammar in our favorite song.

It has been a little more than a month since she died. I'm still squarely in the anger and bargaining phases of grief, and I will be on those steps of the stairway for a long time, because they feel the most honest. But I love looking at pictures and remembering fun times — sometimes those moments bring some peace and appreciation without triggering the injustice of her early death.

That means I've been listening to our song. A lot.

I don't think Paula and I ever said, out loud, that "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol is our song. We both just knew. It violates some tradition to the choosing of "our song" — such a title is bestowed upon the first song a couple dances to.

We did not dance to this song. We just listened to it together in her car.

She had told me she liked the song, while we were dating. I hadn't heard it yet, so after work one night I dug it up online, and kinda dug it. So I burned it onto a mix CD for her — we started dating in the days when burning CDs was easier than making a Spotify playlist.

A playlist on a physical CD makes each song a what's-next mystery, meaning you can fill it will surprises and treats. So I did. I gave it to her as casually as I'd give her some french fries out of a drive-through burger order.

We were in her car, with her getting ready to drive. Before she started driving, she popped it in and listened for a while. I settled back and just listened for a while.

When I noticed we weren't driving, I checked on her, and saw she was in tears. Bawling. My first instinct was that I screwed up and made her cry in a bad way. It was a good way, instead — she was sobbing because the gesture meant that much to her.

Paula always loved the small things like they were big things. From that day forward, "Chasing Cars" was our song. Tradition be damned. We didn't need to talk about it.

As we lived life together, we found that we each had a repulsion to bad grammar and typos. We'd spot them and laugh, groan or both. We'd hear what people said and correct them under our breath.

That's why I'm amazed that neither one of us caught one of the biggest grammar goofs in modern music.

No lie

This is bigger than Gotye's goof (Should be "Now you're just somebody WHO I used to know) or Lady Gaga's groaner (Should be "You and I, we have a bad romance"). It's way past "Ain't No Sunshine" or "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." The chorus of "Chasing Cars":

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

It wasn't until this week that the improper use of lay and lie leaped out at me.

The lay-lie confusion is one of the tougher ones to suss out for grammarians, because of the tricky rules involved. Once I noticed it last week, I wondered if maybe singer Gary Lightbody actually had it right, because the line is based on a conditional: If I do this, would you do that? Such mixed verbs are common: "If I ate now, would you also eat?"

But the AP Stylebook slapped me out of my reverie. Using "lay" requires a direct object, and no such thing exists in that lyric. "Lie," when talking about reclining, has no requirement for a direct object. That means it should be, "If I lie here / If I just lie here / Would you lie with me and just for get the world."

Brilliant hit

Released in 2006 as the second single from the band's second album, "Chasing Cars" was massively popular in the U.S., racking up sales and award nominations. It was featured prominently in the second season finale of "Grey's Anatomy," as well as in "One Tree Hill."

It also performed phenomenally in the UK, where the Scottish and Irish band saw even greater success. In 2009, a UK music licensing group called PPL announced it was the most played song of that decade in the UK.

At it heart, it's a simple love song. Lightbody in an interview with Rolling Stone said it was "the purest song that he had ever written.

"There's no knife-in-the-back twist," he said. "When I read these lyrics back, I was like, 'Oh, that's weird.' All the other love songs I've written have a dark edge."

With that in mind, I suspect that the "improper grammar" is quite intentional. Songwriters have a long history of twisting grammar to their needs, after all. Songwriting is writing, after all, and as a writer, I know one of the main reasons for knowing the rules of grammar is so I can break them at just the right time.

So I think Lightbody deliberately chose "lay" for those first two instances in order to get away from the double meaning of "lie." Maybe one of these days I'll get a chance to ask him.

Until then, it amazes me that Paula and I went 15 years without noticing it. I wish she was here to talk about it with me, because I miss her voice so much. I'm pretty sure she'd see things the same way as me, however — the bad grammar is so good for communicating the song's true meaning.

Love makes us see imperfections as perfections, unique blemishes. Those aberrations become the gold streaks and veins in the kintsugi pottery bowls.

So, thank you, Lightbody and Snow Patrol, for writing a song so perfect for Paula and me. I promise that, when I get the hardened-enough heart to sing this in karaoke without breaking down in an ugly cry, me will not change a single, perfect word.

Follow Digital Editor Joe Hadsall on Twitter at @JoeHadsall.

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