May 10, 2004

Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful guidance

If you will just pop to this PartiallyClips cartoon and read it, and then pop back here and continue, I'll tell you the answer to the dentist's question, and I'll add some additional remarks.

Thank you. The answer is, of course, lying. There are three relevant verbs, one transitive and two intransitive, two regular and one irregular; and they share certain shapes for certain parts of their paradigms. The verbs are lie "deliberately speak falsehoods with intent to deceive" (intransitive; fully regular), lie "be recumbent or prone or in horizontal rather than upright position" (intransitive; irregular), and lay "deposit, set down, or cause to be recumbent or prone or in horizontal rather than upright position" (transitive; fully regular in phonetics, irregular in written form). Here are the paradigms (terminology is from The Cambridge Grammar):

"tell untruths"
"be recumbent"
plain present formlielielay
3rd sg present form lieslieslays
preterite formliedlaylaid
plain formlielielay
past participleliedlainlaid

Here are the promised additional remarks. The general assumption is that the problem here is confusing the two verbs -- simply not knowing one from the other. But that's not quite what's going on. Everyone knows the difference between them, at least in some uses. For a phrase like The island of Madagascar lies several hundred miles off the east coast of southern Africa, no one is tempted to say lays. For a phrase like This hen lays a minmum of seven eggs a week, no one is tempted to say lies. For You are lying in your teeth, you lying bastard no one is tempted to say laying. For I got laid last night no one is tempted to say lain (it's a special idiom, of course, but the point is that the idiom is based on the verb lay, and we are intuitively aware of that). We know how to tell these verbs apart to at least some extent.

Nonetheless, it is true that the intransitive verb meaning "be recumbent" and the transitive verb meaning "deposit" (which is essentially the causative of the first one: it means "cause to lie") are beginning to share some of each other's uses in a way that is not fully accepted as standard yet. In fact the pool of relevant data is beginning to be (from the purist's point of view) highly polluted. Assuming the standard prescriptivist version of how English is and ought to remain (basically as set out in the table above), we have large numbers of "errors" all around us. Here is a moderately random sample of what's out there:

PhraseSourcePrescriptivist judgment
As I lay dyingWilliam Faulkner title (a.k.a. Sally Dang)Correct (preterite tense)
As I lie dyingfrom a Bayne MacGregor poemCorrect (present tense)
Lay, lady, layBob Dylan songIncorrect
Lay down your weary tuneBob Dylan songCorrect
Lay down, little doggiesWoody Guthrie songIncorrect
When I Lay My Burden DownMississippi Fred McDowellCorrect
Come and lay down by my sideKris Kristofferson song "Help me make it through the night"Incorrect
Lay it soft against my skinKris Kristofferson song "Help me make it through the night"Correct
lie it on the floorweb page about indoor marijuana cultivationIncorrect
lay it on the floorweb page about yogaCorrect
lay on the floorweb page about spine exerciseIncorrect
lie on the floorweb page about abdominal exerciseCorrect

If hardly anyone achieves error-free learning of the standard pattern from this kind of chaotic input, it's not surprising. And if you're as confused as the dentist, it's no wonder. The situation isn't going to get any better, so this merging of two verbs is likely to continue to spread. Sometimes you've got to play it as it lays (incorrect).

Thanks to Rich Alderson for catching some errors in the first version of this post.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 10, 2004 01:13 AM