Journalism professor questions why few people use the verbs “lie” and “lay,” correctly
I won’t lie to you. The verb “to lie,” meaning “to recline,” is not the easiest verb in the English language. For that matter, neither is the verb “to lie” meaning “to tell a falsehood.” I sometimes see the present participle of both verbs spelled “lieing.”
Now either you were horrified by the title of this piece and thought Ranly has finally lost it completely, or you have come to accept the misuse of the verb. Is it really so bad? Doesn’t the language change? Shouldn’t we just accept that few people will use the verb correctly?
For more than three decades I tried to teach writing and editing at the Missouri School of Journalism, and even though I sometimes doubted that I could teach writing other than to encourage good writing when I saw it (“Hey, that’s good. Do some more of that!”), I always thought that I could teach editing. And all I tried to teach is what some call Standard American Written English.
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I have this story about a former professor here that is so good it just might be true. He was a fanatic about “lie, lay, lain,” and being around doctors and nurses who regularly told him to “lay back” nearly drove him out of his mind. Well, the story I tell is that he was literally on his deathbed when a nurse told him to “lay back.” He bolted straight up and shouted at the top of his voice, “Lie back!” and he lay back and died.
Another story that’s almost true that I love to tell my students is about my dog, Rosie, who will just look at you if you tell her to “lay down,” but she will recline immediately if you tell her to “lie down.”
People speak colorfully and certainly in ways that we would not find acceptable in accepted print publications. I was listening to a local talk show the other day, and an officer of a bank (I think he was the president) was discussing how quickly the new bank had been completed. “If you had drove past here just two weeks ago, you would have saw a lot of work still to do.” Now that’s just great. He may be a helluva banker, but should he speak in public?
Standard American Written English
I’ve been stewing about this “lie” verb for some time now, and then this past week I started reading a packet of articles sent to me by an absolutely outstanding young writer by the name of Justin Heckert. Justin was hired right out of undergraduate J-school here at Mizzou by ESPN The Magazine. Well, he just couldn’t stand it there because they wouldn’t really let him write. So he went to a magazine that would, an outstanding city magazine, Atlanta.
Now I’m reading this wonderful personal story of his, and I come upon this sentence: “The first day of tests I had to lay flat on my back while the doctors drew a sufficient amount of blood to test.” My student wrote that! (His mother is an English teacher.) And the editors, good editors, did not change it. Damn. Well, maybe the battle’s over.
But then I read another piece by Justin, and I came upon this sentence: “… Skip (Caray, the Atlanta Braves announcer) had just been sitting there, at the table, transfixed by all that lay outside the window… .” Damn again. They do know the verb! The least they can do is be consistent!
A couple of weeks ago, I read in the novel Higher Authority, by Stephen White: “Rachel’s corpse had been lain flat on its back on the worn wood deck.” Later, after a hot love scene, White writes: “He rolled off her onto his side, lay his head on her chest, and touched her gently on the soft skin beneath her ear.”
My granddaughter was four when I asked her what she did with the TV remote. She told me, “I lied it over there.” Seemingly she had heard me lecture enough about the use of “lie” not to ever use the word “lay” in any of its forms. But how do you tell a 4-year-old that “to lie” is intransitive; it cannot have an object. You meant, sweetheart, to say that you “laid” it over there because that’s the past tense of “to lay,” a transitive verb that requires an object. You see, transitive verbs do things to things. Intransitive verbs cannot do things to things. You cannot “lie” something.
But neither is the remote “laying” over there. It’s not doing anything to anything. It’s just “lying” there. Is that really so difficult?
Is the battle worth fighting? Shall we let sleeping dogs lay—or lie?
Don Ranly, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism where he taught for 32 years.
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If you are a reader who always uses “lie” and “lay” correctly, I salute you. If you want more explanation, read on.
Some people think that they can always be grammatically correct without knowing tenses, and voices, and moods, transitive or intransitive. How do you do that?
The past tense of “to lie,” meaning “to recline,” is “lay.” The past participle (we use past participles along with the helping verb “to have” to form the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses) is “lain.” So here’s how it works:
“At midnight I thought I would lie down. I lay there an hour before I turned off the TV. I had lain there another hour before I finally fell asleep. I don’t know how long my puppy was lying beside me.”
Now the past tense of “to lay,” meaning “to place down,” is “laid.” The past participle is also “laid.”
“I always lay the remote next to me on the bed. I’d swear I laid it there last night, but I couldn’t find it. I thought I remembered laying it there. Perhaps I had laid it on the stand by my bed.”
Remember. After I “lay” something down, it’s just “lying” there. It’s not doing anything to anything.