Christmas Carol Grammar

Learn about the odd grammar in "What Child Is This?"

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #300

Back in episode 31 (Unaccusative Verbs), I answered a listener’s question about some confusing lyrics in the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” She wondered why the lyrics went, “The Lord is come,” instead of “The Lord has come.” In fact, traditional Christmas carols are full of archaic or confusing language like this. So today, we’re going to untangle some more of that Christmas carol syntax that you may have been wondering about.

The Christmas carol we’re going to tackle today is “What Child Is This?,” written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix, and sung to the tune of the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves.”(1) It starts out like this:

What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

It’s simple enough at first: “What child is this?” Let’s move on: “who laid to rest on Mary’s lap.” It looks like we have a clause that describes this child. The subject of the clause is the relative pronoun “who.” The predicate seems to be “laid to rest on Mary’s lap.”

“Lay” Versus “Lie”

But wait! If you’re a longtime Grammar Girl listener, you know that something’s funny about “laid to rest.” Back in 2009 ("Lay" Versus "Lie"), I talked about the verbs “lay” and “lie,” and joked that Eric Clapton’s song “Lay Down, Sally” should really be “Lie Down, Sally.”  Here’s a short summary of “lay” and “lie” in the present and past tenses, at least in what’s currently accepted as standard English: Today I lie down; yesterday I lay down. Today I lay aside my misgivings; yesterday I laid aside my misgivings.

So if the line in this Christmas carol is talking about someone who lay down to rest, it should be “who lay to rest.” So why is it actually “who laid to rest”?

Well, maybe William Dix was just one of those speakers like Eric Clapton, who was mixed up about “lay” and “lie.” If you’re hip to the distinction between “lay” and “lie,” you’ll have to just grudgingly accept the songwriter’s wording and move on to the next line.

At this point, we’ve made it through “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap” without too much of a problem. For speakers who have “lay” as a synonym for “lie,” there’s been no problem at all.

Now here comes the real monkey wrench in the works: The sentence isn’t over yet. It goes on for two more words: “is sleeping.”

What? “Who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping”? This clause has too many predicates! The subject is “who,” and it’s already attached to a predicate: “laid to rest on Mary’s lap.” Isn’t it? What are we supposed to do with “is sleeping”?

Linguists call this kind of sentence a garden-path sentence. It gently leads you down the garden path, and everything is fine until you suddenly arrive at a dead end and have to go back and figure out where you took a wrong turn.

Confounded by Squinting Modifiers

Not only is this line a garden-path sentence; it also has what’s sometimes called a squinting modifier. An older meaning of the verb “squint” is “to look in two directions,” and the phrase “on Mary’s lap” does just that. It could go with “laid to rest,” where we’ve been putting it so far, or it could go with “is sleeping.” Either way, the baby Jesus ends up sleeping on Mary’s lap, so we won’t worry about getting a conclusive answer here.

Instead, let’s get back to figuring out how to fit “is sleeping” into this sentence. The trick is to ignore the “laid to rest” part, so that you have just “What child is this, who on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” That makes much more sense, and with just a little rearrangement, it even sounds like everyday English: “What child is this, who’s sleeping on Mary’s lap?” Now we can take another look at that “laid to rest” part.  

Rescued by Adjectival Passives

It turns out that William Dix was using “laid” correctly after all. He wasn’t using it as the past tense of “lay”; he was using “laid” as a past participle, and “laid to rest” is an adjective phrase describing someone who has been laid to rest. In other words, it’s an adjectival passive, which you may remember from the episode on passive voice a few weeks ago. Adjectival passives are responsible for a lot of garden-path sentences.

So, if we untangle and straighten out all the difficult syntax, and put in a couple of helping words, we get something like,

What child is this, who has been laid to rest and is now sleeping on Mary’s lap?

Actually, if you read the lyrics, commas make all this clear, but if you’re singing it from memory, the commas won’t help you. If you read the sentence with the intonation the commas suggest, it might be more understandable, but also halting and awkward:

What child is this,    who,    laid to rest,    on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Archaic Charm

In fact, if I were an English teacher grading a student’s essay with a sentence like this one in it, I would label it “awkward” and have the student rewrite it. But as linguist Geoff Nunberg writes, “We like the incantations we recite on ritual occasions to be linguistically opaque, from the unparsable ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ … to the Pledge of Allegiance….”(2) In that light, the difficult lyrics of old-time Christmas carols are just part of their charm.

This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, and has written more about ambiguous, confusing, or misunderstood lyrics in Christmas songs on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com. You can find those posts in the “Christmas songs” category.

Mignon Fogarty is the author of The Grammar Devotional--it’s not a religious book; it has a year’s worth of daily grammar tips.

The podcast closing song is “March Forth”--the National Grammar Day theme song--and it’s available at iTunes.


1. “What Child Is This?” Wikipedia entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Child_Is_This%3F, accessed Nov. 18, 2011.

2. Nunberg, Geoff. Dec. 30, 2004. “And a right guid willie waught to you, too, pal.” Post on Language Log. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/001767.html, accessed Nov. 18, 2011.

Related Articles

Combining Quotation Marks, Question Marks, and Commas (as in "What Child Is This?,")


Gifts under the Christmas tree image, Alexander Baxevanis at Flickr. CC BY 2.0. 

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.