I, being a singles lover, am fond of the Snow Patrol song Chasing Cars, except that the chorus used to annoy me, because it goes: If I lay here/If I just lay here/Would you lie with me…
The lie/lay thing can be confusing, but in general, ‘lay’ is what you do to something else (to place), whereas ‘lie’ is what a living thing does with itself (to recline; ignoring the other type of lie a living thing is capable of). So you lay down a book or you lay a brick, but you lie down and you lie in on Saturday morning. There’s technical terms – transitive verb (has an object) vs intransitive verb (no object) – but this entry is arguing that you don’t necessarily need to know those terms.
Back to the point: the lyrics are wrong, right? They shouldn’t be using ‘lay’ in there and they even get it right on the next line to prove it. But! But ‘lay’ is also the past tense of lie (it’s an irregular verb – it has unexpected conjugation [tense transformation]. It goes ‘lay, laid, laid’, and ‘lie, lay, lain’).
Recently, I wrote this bit of dialogue: ‘If you loved me, you would help me.’ And would you look at that. Nearly-same construction: If I [past tense], you would / would you [present tense].
It’s called something like a hypothetical conjunctional or a subjunctive (expressing the possible, the conditional or the desirable). The name doesn’t really matter – what matters is I knew I had that dialogue right (in terms of the grammar; the dialogue itself is clichéd), and therefore I knew Snow Patrol must have got it right too (though honestly, it does still bug me, and I would have written ‘if I were to just lie here’, which you’d have to sing pretty fast to fit in).
And the bigger point – I’m getting there – is that I had no idea I knew this somewhat obscure point of grammar until I noticed myself using it, which I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t had the Snow Patrol example to compare it to. I knew it subconsciously, I knew it without knowing the technical name for it, and I knew when to use it.
Now, you do have to know your grammar – no matter how good your story, editors do not have time to nurse you along if you don’t also have a solid grasp of the written language.
But you already know more grammar than you might think you do…if – it’s a big if! – you read widely. Every time we read, we take in the rules of our language. That’s part of why reading is so important to writing.
Just because you might not be able to cut open a sentence and diagram every sub-clause does not mean your skills are not up to the task of writing. Relax! You know the rule, even if you don’t know what the rule is called.