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This sounds wrong to me:

If happy ever after did exist

I would still be holding you like this

It may be perfect grammar for all I know, and songs have "poetic license", yet...

Is "did exist" the right tense here? If not, how could it be improved?

EDIT: the moderator that closed this as "exact duplicate" did not bother to read/understand the question and the answers!

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Interpreting lyrics is off-topic, but that first line is grammatically fine - you just have to imagine "happy ever after" really is "quotated". Then you can understand it as referring to the whole concept of "[and they lived] happily ever after" - structurally (and to a large extent, semantically) equivalent to pipe dreams. Also note that no-one in their right mind would seriously expect were to exist in this context. –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 '12 at 22:24
    
If "happy ever after" really existed? –  Robottinosino Jul 19 '12 at 22:27
    
Yes: the state of being happy for ever after certain events. "They all lived happily ever after" is a customary end to fairy stories. The first line might be understood as "If long-term happiness really did exist". –  Andrew Leach Jul 19 '12 at 22:30
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Here are a few printed instances of "If God did not exist I would blah blah". It's perfectly normal phrasing. –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 '12 at 22:45
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It's the first of your alternatives, but instead of a neutral "existed" it uses an emphatic "did exist". –  Andrew Leach Jul 19 '12 at 22:46
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Jul 20 '12 at 12:30

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2 Answers

Yes, it's the right tense. We use the past tense to describe hypothetical / impossible situations. Compare:

You've bought a lottery ticket, have you? What will you do if you win the lottery?

I know you never buy lottery tickets, but just imagine: what would you do if you won the lottery?

Thus, in the line:

If happy ever after did exist

the use of the past tense implies that "happy ever after" does not exist. The use of the emphatic "did exist" rather than plain "existed" shows that the song is contradicting our usual expectations, which further emphasises that "happy ever after" only exists in our imagination.

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If ever after did exist...

There are at least 3 elements involved in your first (if) clause:

  • ever after = used as a Noun

Ex. Is there a happy ever after?

  • do = used in a positive sentence as a form of emphasis

Ex. I do believe in fairies!

  • the unreal conditional = the second type of conditional

Ex. If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you a house.

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