Monday, July 28, 2014

Lay It Down and Lie Low: The Battle Between Two Misunderstood Verbs

Most Americans cannot tell the difference between the verbs lay (to place) and lie (to recline). It’s a sad truth. Actually, most Americans think that lay means both to place and to recline. And that lie means solely to fib. The confusion lies in the past tense of the verb to lie, which is lay.

Oy vey.

{ Flashback. }

I’m in sixth grade class. My teacher Mrs. Centurelli, holding my language arts quiz in her hand, sidles up to my desk. My eyes zoom in on the circled, red-inked grade, with the precision of Luke Skywalker targeting the Death Star. I usually nail these quizzes so when I saw “Use the following words in a sentence” on this one, I was pretty confident I’d get an A. Once a grammar geek . . . .

But, all I see is a big question mark. She hands me my quiz and I stare at that serpentine scarlet marking, well . . . quizzically.

Mrs. Centurelli explains, “I couldn’t grade one of your answers because it was vague.”

Vague? Yikes! I want that A.

“What should I do?”

She grabs the quiz back, turns it over, and points to the problem. “You were asked to use the word lay in a sentence, but your answer avoids using it in a way that makes me think I should just mark it wrong.”

I scan my sentence and read it aloud. “I like the song that Melanie sings called ‘Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).’”

Okay, I see her point. I could also have written, “His last word before he croaked was ‘Lay.’”

So I look up at her stern but somewhat bemused eyes and start singing the song in my best boy soprano (but with a hippie bent, since Melanie was singing about Woodstock, after all).

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile
At the ones who stand and frown

Still frowning, Mrs. Centurelli asks, “So, what are you laying down?”

Isn’t it obvious. Geez. “It! She’s telling us to just lay it all down, you dig?” The Sixties, especially the flower-spreading hippies, taunted me with the promise of freedom, whatever that meant. But I dug the patois.

“Yeah, I dig.” She throws me a little smirk and leans in closely to me.“No more answers like that, okay? You’re better than that.”

“Okay, Mrs. C.” I thought she was hipper than, I don’t know, my mom, but at least my mom knew the lyrics to the Melanie song.

{ Jump forward to now. }

In grammar-geek patois, lay is a transitive verb, meaning that it takes a direct object, i.e., the object being acted upon. In the sentence “I lay kitchen tile for work,” kitchen tile is the direct object of the verb to lay. What are you laying? Kitchen tile.

Lie is an intransitive verb, so it stands alone, needing no direct object. In the sentence “We lie on the waterbed, holding hands,” there is no direct object, since you cannot lie something. If you have trouble understanding that, try substituting the word recline or sit.

Now, for the nitty-gritty. What follows is your guide to choosing the correct verb, based on its tense.



The following sentences show these verbs and their inflections in context:
  • Before we lie down, will you lay the handcuffs at the foot of the bed? (Substitute recline for lie down and set for lay, if you’re at all confused.)
  • I’m trying to entice you with my wiles, but you just lie there like a sleeping bulldog. (An old folk belief still persists that lie refers to people, whereas lay is reserved for animals and objects—not true! Remember the saying “Let sleeping dogs lie.”)
  • Enraptured with the fall foliage, he lay on a pile of maple leaves he had earlier raked into an orange and gold mound. (In this example, lay is the past tense of lie.)
  • After carving the chicken into eight pieces, Marcus laid the knife in the sink to prevent any cross-contamination with the vegetables lying nearby. (Knife is the direct object of laid; the lying vegetables are doing just that, minding their own business.)
  • Had you lain down for a spell before the midnight showing of Rocky Horror, you would not have fallen asleep in the middle of Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite.” (Unforgivable!)
As a copy editor, I close my eyes and hum om every time I see or hear lay and lie used improperly. Hell, I roll my eyes and slap the side of my head every time I catch myself misusing one of these words. Improper use of lay and lie makes the teacher in me cry just a little. Again, if you have trouble differentiating between the two, substitute recline or sit for lie and place or set for lay, until you get the hang of it. Then, you can start using these verbs properly, without having to think about which is correct every time you open your formerly ignorant mouth. Ha ha.

It’s interesting to note that both words derive from the Old English and they are distinguished by one different vowel: lay comes from lecgan; lie comes from licgan. It seems that this scourge—confusing these two seemingly innocuous little verbs— belched out of an Anglo-Saxon’s maw well over a thousand years ago. It’s time for a revolution.

For fun, here are a few song lyrics. Can you tell which are used properly?
  1. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down (Simon and Garfunkel)
  2. Lay down, Sally, and rest you in my arms (Eric Clapton)
  3. You’re gone and I’m lost inside this tangled web in which I’m lain entwined (Sarah McLachlan)
  4. Lying beside you, here in the dark, feeling your heart beat with mine (Journey)
  5. Lay, lady, lay across my big brass bed (Bob Dylan)
  6. And when I laid beside you for the first time (Tegan and Sara)
Answers
  1. Correct. This one is a little tricky, but me is the direct object of lay.
  2. Incorrect. “Lie down, Sally” would be correct.
  3. Incorrect, although in this instance, lain is most likely dialect for laying (she pronounces the word with two syllables), in which case, it’s still incorrect. “In which I’m lying entwined” would be correct, but if she truly meant lain, then “in which I’m laid entwined” would be correct, although it would imply that someone had put her in the metaphorical web, which would be odd.
  4. Correct. Lying is intransitive; grammarians applaud Journey for the proper use of this verb.
  5. Incorrect. “Lie, lady, lie” would be correct.
  6. Incorrect. “And when I lay beside you” would be correct.

No comments:

Post a Comment