To lay or not to lay… (or, remember the eggs!)

English: Brown chicken eggs

English: Brown chicken eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help it; “Lay Lady Lay” will always sound to me like someone talking to a chicken…

…a rather fancy, well brought up chicken, perhaps, but still a chicken.

That’s Bob Dylan being ungrammatical there with the chicken lady, and of course what I’m alluding to here is the whole “lie” versus “lay” debacle. This burning issue more or less divides the English-speaking population into two groups: those who have difficulty with these two words, and those who don’t. I’m one of the latter. I take no credit for that fact. It’s just that when I was acquiring language, the people I learned it from (my parents) used the two verbs correctly and so I learned to use them correctly. I’m sure this was reinforced by all the reading I did as a child. (I was an incorrigible bookworm.) While it has spared me a lot of grammatical grief over the years in my own writing, it also has the unfortunate consequence that whenever I read something written by someone else who has gotten it wrong, I notice. It hangs me up. It makes me pause and mentally insert the correction. I don’t like having to do that; it takes me out of the story. It spoils my enjoyment. I therefore have a very selfish interest in keeping lie and lay in their place at least in the writing that actually makes it to print.

There are lots of places to get explanations of lie and lay, but of course I just have to offer my two cents’ worth for anyone who may find it helpful.

Lie and lay are two completely different verbs with non-overlapping meanings.

Lie means to assume a recumbent orientation (generally on some more or less horizontal surface).

Lay means to place an object on a horizontal surface (one on which it will not slide or roll away).

Lay requires an object (something to be laid), while lie distinctly does not want one.

Since someone or something tends to end up resting on a horizontal surface in either case, it’s understandable that some confusion might arise. Add to this the fact that the past tense of lie is lay, and confusion becomes really quite forgivable. The most problematic tenses break down like this:

Lie, lay, lain

Lay, laid, laid

(In each case, that’s present tense, past tense, and past participle.)

The problem is simply that many people are mistakenly using lay for both meanings.

If the trend accelerates, we could be looking at language change here, in which English loses one verb (lie) while a second verb (lay) broadens its meaning and become less precise. Would this really be so bad? Well, probably not, since actual ambiguity or confusion of meaning rarely if ever occurs in this case.  I, however, would not be a happy camper. I would feel even more like a dinosaur than I do already, because I will probably keep doing it the way I learned to do it until I write my last word. The other way just feels too wrong.

So, everyone repeat after me:

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

I’ve put “eggs,” the object of lay, in red. If the action is being done to something or someone, then laying is what’s going on. (No sexual innuendo intended.) If the person or animal or thing is doing the action all by itself, it’s lying. So, remember the eggs! If you’re contemplating using some form of the verb “lay,” there had better be an egg-equivalent somewhere in sight.

But be careful; there are nuances. (In these examples, lie is in blue, lay is in green, and the object of lay is in red.)

Inanimate things can lie, or lay. So can things that are not concrete nouns.

The knife had lain so long in the weather that the blade was half rust.

The mist lay like a shroud over the fields. (past tense of lie)

I waited for night to lay its cloak across the land. (present tense of lay)

We never know what lies ahead.

What bounties had providence laid in store for us?

It is entirely possible to lay oneself, or parts of oneself.

Let me lay my head on your shoulder.

Lay your body next to mine. (Compare with: Come and lie down by my side.)

I laid myself down to rest in a little hollow among the leaves.

Now I lay me down to sleep…  (Yes, the object of lay can be an object pronoun: me, us, them, him, her, it, or you).

“Lie” can also mean to be in a place or in a given direction.

The village lies just over yonder.

The road lay straight before them. (past tense)

My heart lies beyond the sea.

Finally, the subject of the sentence can be implied rather than explicitly stated, which can be particularly confusing when “lay” is involved.

Please lie down. (The subject, “you,” is implied here and in the next two examples.)

Lay it down over there.

Lay the timbers straight.

The dead were laid in a common grave. (Someone had to do the laying. We’re not dealing with zombies.)

What about you? Would you be glad to see lie supplanted by lay, or would you become a dinosaur like me if that happened?

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8 Comments

  1. This blog post now LIES in my favorites file, so that I can refer to it in the future if I forget to LAY down the words properly. I don’t usually struggle with the various grammar issues, but this is one I could see myself struggling with. I hope I got it right in my first sentence (not that it was the greatest example). Thanks for some useful info!

    Reply
    • It was perfectly correct and a very good example, considering what you had to work with. And I’ve never seen anything to suggest that you need help with this -or anything else grammatical that I can think of. But thank you anyway.

      Reply
  2. G M Barlean

     /  May 22, 2012

    Grammar is haaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrd. I’m whining. I am creAtive. Whah.
    I’m so grateful for editors and people like you who know these things. I’m also grateful to spellcheck. 😉

    Reply
    • When it comes to spellcheck, I am sooooo very grateful too. And there’s a lot I don’t know about grammar – I’ll be grateful for an editor, as well. Anything I didn’t happen to learn during language acquisition IS hard! So I know what you mean.

      Reply
  3. Spell check is wonderful—to a point. It often misses correctly spelled words when they’re used incorrectly. Grammar check has a long way to go!

    Lay and lie is a tough one, and sometimes it’s just easier to choose a different verb to describe what’s going on! 🙂

    But this is a great reference to keep like Carrie said!

    Reply
    • Thanks for dropping in, oh harried writer – I just read your post about the recalcitrant characters all avoiding the revision process. Glad if my post helps, though can hardly believe you would need it.

      Reply
  4. Thanks Carol. This is one of those language glitches I’ve struggled with. Certain things weren’t learned correctly and still confuse me (like right and left). This helps so much!

    Reply
    • Glad if it helps, Kourtney. I’m surprised that more people are indicating that they have some trouble with this than I expected. It really is just a matter of what you were exposed to during that vulnerable period when you were learning to speak. Those patterns, once set, are hard to rearrange. As Gina pointed out, good editors are really important. (And we all need them, because none of us gets everything right.)

      Reply

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