Lie, Lady, Lie
HWA trustee and poet Marge Simon suggested that now might be a good time to review the difference between “lie” and “lay”—and, judging by the number of times (just since she made that suggestion to me a few short weeks ago) that I have heard “lay” misused for “lie,” I think she’s right.
I understand why there’s a problem. I understand why people get confused.
“Lie,” which means to recline and is an intransitive verb, is conjugated thus:
lie, lay, lain
“Lay,” which means to put something down and is a transitive verb (i.e., one that requires a direct object) is conjugated thus:
lay, laid, laid
The past tense of “lie” is the same as the present tense of “lay,” which adds to and perhaps causes the confusion.
People and animals can lie down to rest or lie low to avoid discovery or lie with a beloved—a euphemism for “have sexual intercourse with.” If they did it at some specific point in the past, they lay down back then or lay low at the time or lay with their lover in the recent past. And, if they have performed this action at some undetermined point in the past, they have lain down, lain low, lain with. (I probably don’t have to tell you, but the gerund form is “lying”: “lying down,” “lying low,” “lying with.”)
Notice that there are no direct objects associated with “lie.” You don’t “lie a bed” or “lie a ground”—you lie in bed/on a bed, on the ground; you use “lie” with prepositional phrases (although I will admit that you can “lie abed” or “lie aground,” but “abed” and “aground” are adverbs, not direct objects).
If you lay in the present, then you are laying something: soldiers who stop fighting lay down their arms; chickens (or comedians who bomb) lay eggs; people who hook up (or scoundrels and bounders) lay their partners (or unwilling recipients of their attention)—yet another euphemism for “have sexual intercourse with.” If it happened at some specific point in the past, then the soldiers laid down their arms; the chickens laid eggs; hook-ups laid their partner. And, if it happened at some unspecified point in the past, the soldiers have laid down their arms; the chickens have laid their eggs; the people have laid their partners. (The gerund form is “laying.”)
Notice that every permutation of “lay” takes a direct object: “lay down arms,” “lay eggs,” “lay him/her.”
To possibly further complicate matters, “lie,” which means to tell a falsehood, is a homonym for the other “lie”—at least in its present tense. (Is that what makes people skittish about using “lie” to mean “recline”?)
Keeping the two verbs, “lie” and “lay,” straight is not as difficult as it seems. Heck, few people (well, fewer people) confuse “sit” and “set,” right?
(Conjugations: sit, sat, sat; set, set, set.)
“Sit”—like “lie,” a movement of the body—is an intransitive verb (well, there is “sit a horse,” but that’s a specialized meaning that I’m not going to deal with here). “Set” is something you do to something/someone else (well, the sun sets, but that’s another specialized case):
“I had to sit through all of ‘Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall’—twice!”
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.”
“I sat belonely down a tree—humble, fat, and small.” (John Lennon)
“Set it down on paper.”
“Set down your load.”
“Set your things anywhere.”
Except for regionalisms/colloquialisms (like “set [i.e., sit] a spell” and “set yourself down”—though that’s an interesting one because you are being told to put something [yourself] down), nobody really mixes up “sit” and “set,” do they?
So why all the trouble with “lie” and “lay”?
I don’t know.
I know that, conversationally, people shy away from “whom” because they think it sounds pretentious and so substitute “who” for the object form. But “lie” is a perfectly good three-letter word, and no one is likely to think you’re a snob or putting on airs if you tell someone to “lie down” instead of “lay down.”
[Anecdote: Some years ago, a friend of ours, a retired Wayne State professor of English, inherited an older dog. She had been told that the animal knew and obeyed the usual commands. However, when she told him to lie down, he just looked at her. Finally, it occurred to her to tell him to lay down—and, sure enough, he obeyed, having been taught to react to the ungrammatical construction by his previous owners.]
Pop culture certainly hasn’t helped the cause of good grammar. After all, Bob Dylan scored a big hit with his ballad “Lay, Lady, Lay (Lay Across My Big Brass Bed).” And who’s going to argue with Bob Dylan, right? Heck, he won a Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago, didn’t he? (Is it possible that the Nobel Committee, consisting of Swedes, whose first language isn’t English, didn’t register the mistake? Or is Dylan allowed poetic license, as songwriters get when they write “he don’t” and “she don’t”?)
The “pretentiousness” problem stems, I think, from something I mentioned earlier—that the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Many people have a block against saying, “I lay down earlier,” thinking it must be wrong, thinking—I guess—that “lay” can only be a present-tense verb, and so “lie” becomes “lay” (and “lay”—as the past tense of “lie,” which is now “lay,” to their way of thinking—cannot be “lay,” too—even though there are examples of verbs that are the same in the past tense as they are in the present tense [like “set” and “put”]).
If you practice the correct form, it begins to sound natural to you (just as, by repeating the incorrect form, it—unfortunately—becomes natural). So think before you “lie” (or “lay,” as the case may be) and insure that your best-laid plans don’t gang agley.
Thank you, and good day.
Anthony Ambrogio, firstname.lastname@example.org