Yesterday, now – grammar in pop songs

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away

Yesterday is a good word to prompt for past simple tense: Every day I ____ pizza, Yesterday I ____ pizza, Every day this week I ____ ____ pizza.

Most past simple verbs are regular and made by adding -ed to the base form (seem, seemed), but about 100 of the most frequently used and important are irregular and change in other ways (eat, ate, eaten) or not at all (put, put, put).

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

Now is not a good time to demonstrate present simple. For action verbs, now usually uses present simple: Now I am eating pizza, not *Now I eat pizza. Compare now meaning ‘nowadays’: When I was young I didn’t eat pizza and Now I eat pizza. But looks here is a state verb, which rarely uses present simple: Now it looks as though they’re here to stay v ?Now it is looking as though they’re here to stay. Compare something which is more changeable: An hour ago the sky was clear. Now it looks/it’s looking as though it is going to rain/like it will rain/like rain. (A better prompt for present simple is ‘every day’.)

The song continues to contrast yesterday (used (to be), came, had (to go), didn’t say, said, was), and now (’re, believe, ’m, ’s, need). Note it looks and I believe and I need. The big grammatical change in present simple is between third person singular, which usually adds –s to the base form (this person/she/he/this thing/it looks) and everything else (I, you, we, they look). Compare All my troubles look as though they’re here to stay and It looks as though they’re here to stay. It doesn’t really mean anything; it is simply the way in which English makes that particular construction.

Another song which contrasts some time in the past (in fact, two times in the past) with an implied ‘now’ is I did what I did for Maria, written by Mitch Murray and Peter Callander and first sung by Tony Christie. (I take the opportunity to credit Paul McCartney’s* Yesterday, but you knew that already.) (*Officially Lennon-McCartney)

The song starts (and finishes) ‘now’: 

Sunrise this is the last day that I’ll ever see
out in the court-yard they’re ready for me
but I go to my Lord without fear
‘cos I did what I did for Maria.

(Note the ‘future’ will see in there.)

It then switches to past tense to tell about the day ‘I’ killed ‘him’. 

As I rode into town with the sun going down
all the windows were barred there was noone around
for they knew that I’d come with my hand on my gun
and revenge in my heart for Maria my dearest departed Maria.

The song contrasts ‘the day I did what I did to him’ and ‘the (earlier) day he did what he did to Maria’, but there is no change of tense: I did what I did because he had done what he had done. The two past times are clear in the context, and most native speakers avoid past perfect whenever they can. Note, though, they knew that I’d come, which does use past perfect. They knew that I came is possible but less natural, I don’t know why.

One day I played this in a class and one student couldn’t understand why he sounded so happy about it. There is a slight mood dissonance between the words and the music. The video doesn’t help.

Another post about song which switches between the past and now, though my emphasis there is modal verbs and passive voice.

Lyrics are copyright, used under fair use provisions.


6 thoughts on “Yesterday, now – grammar in pop songs

  1. “Yesterday” is truly a lyrical masterpiece. Its one flaw is the line “Yesterday came suddenly.” In terms of the tale being told, “Today came suddenly” would have been better.

    In general, using pop songs to illustrate grammar treads on risky ground. Think about all the songs with some variant of “for you and I” in them.


      • The precipitating event (Paul’s saying something wrong and his love leaving) presumably happened “today”, which is why he longs for “yesterday.” I suppose it could have happened very late “yesterday” evening, though.


      • I had always assumed that the ‘saying something wrong’ happened (late-ish) yesterday, that the narrator has slept on it and woken up today realise that his life has changed for ever, in which case he longs for early-ish yesterday. Maybe it happened on the stroke of midnight, so we don’t have to decide!


  2. In “I Did What I Did for Maria”, the line “They knew that I’d come” could be either “I had come” or “I would come.” Either interpretation works in the context.


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