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My Lie-Lay Conundrum

I realize that one sign of impending codgerdom is the urge to rant – or even write a letter to the offending newspaper – when you spot an egregious grammatical error in print. Where have all the hawk-eyed copy editors of yore gone? Have English teachers given up on teaching the rules older generations learned by the seventh grade? What will become of Western civilization?

These thoughts occurred to me as I read a column by Charles H. Blow in the New York Times a week or two back. Blow, a columnist I respect, was writing about the flap Roland Martin, a CNN commentator, had gotten himself into through injudicious tweeting during the Super Bowl. In a column titled “Real Men and Pink Suits,” Blow wrote this:

Start with this fact: The truest measure of a man, indeed of a person, is not whom he lays down with but what he stands up for. If we must be judged, let it be in this way. And when we fall short, as we sometimes will, because humanity is fallible, let us greet each other with compassion and encouragement rather than ridicule and resentment.

Noble thoughts, Charles, nicely said – except for one word. “Lays” in the passage above clanks on my ear like a sonata by John Cage. What is positively shocking to me is that this usage appears in the New York Times, the sanctum sanctorum of what’s left of standards in the Webverse we inhabit. By now, a few of you readers may be wondering what so wrong about the phrase “whom he lays down with.”

Photo of N.Y. Times columnist Charles M. Blow.

N.Y. Times columnist Charles M. Blow.

First, we’ll give Charles points for appropriate use of “whom” in this passage. But back in the day you would always “lie down”; you would never “lay down” in the present tense. This is one of those points of language that used to separate the educated from the masses. But nowadays the default in radio and TV seems to be “lay” over “lie” in any reclining context, and I’ve seen the same usage countless times in various newspapers, blogs, and Web sites. I suspect that the old lie-lay distinction is fading away, undermined by the common usage of the common man.

So before it vanishes entirely, let’s go back to seventh grade and refresh our memories. I dug into an old-school source – my fat, yellowing Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition (1943). It offers 11 meanings of “lie” as a verb. Here’s definition number-one:

To have or assume a position as of rest extended on the ground, a bed, a bier, or any support; to be, or to put oneself, in a recumbent position; to be prostrate; to be stretched out; as to lie asleep, motionless, dead – often with down.

Love that word “bier.” They don’t make dictionaries like this any more. But in any case the same source provides a succinct definition for “lay” as a verb – “to put down.”

In a way, then, the old rule is simple. “To lie” is something you can do by yourself; “to lay” is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object. You always need to have on hand some thing to lay down. The Wonderful World of Editing site run by Malcolm Gibson, a journalism school professor at the University of Kansas, summarizes this distinction beautifully in the sentence: “You’ll lay an egg if you don’t lie down.”

What complicates matters is that when you conjugate these two verbs, you realize that the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Here’s the way they look conjugated, with examples:

Lie (present), lay (past), lain (past participle)

I lie on the bed today. I lay on the bed yesterday. I have lain on that bed many times.

Lay (present), laid (past), laid (past participle)

I lay my hat on the bed today. I laid my hat on the bed yesterday. I have laid my hat on the bed many times.

Photo of Grammar Girl

The blogger Grammar Girl, a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty.

The popular blogger known as Grammar Girl does a fine job in her fashion of explaining this lie-lay distinction and then adds:

Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember these right away. Practice will help, and truthfully, I still have to look them up every time I use them. It’s just important to know what you know, and what you don’t know, and to go to the trouble to look it up and get it right because these are hard-and-fast rules.

Well, Grammar Girl is right to say that when in doubt, look it up. But I’m shocked that Grammar Girl, apparently like Charles M. Blow, needs to “look them up every time I use them.” Didn’t their English teachers drill this into them early on?

One part of my mind knows that the vernacular usage of English is constantly subverting the standards the old-school grammarians and English teachers of the world want to uphold, and, in doing so, this process enriches our language. English evolves. I get that. Check out my post defending Mark Twain’s great narrator Huckleberry Finn, “When Bad Is English Is Good English.”

Here’s Huck in Chapter 41 using “lay” on one of the many occasions where “lie” would be standard:

I struck an idea, pretty soon. I says to myself, spos’n he can’t fix that leg just in three shakes of sheep’s tail, as the saying is? spos’n it takes three or four days? What are we going to do? – lay around there till he lets the cat out of the bag?

Huck’s language is often grammatically incorrect, but it bristles with life.

Yet there remains within my old-school heart something that wants to hang onto lie-lay the way it’s always been. In search of more guidance I turned to that trusty trove of current usage, the Urban Dictionary. It’s packed with many usages of lie and lay I’d never dreamed of. Here’s a fine one from a site contributor named Schtee:

Lay Lie – A lie told in order to bed a target the subject is courting.

Jamie totally told that chick the “you know what they say about guys with big feet” line…as soon as she travels south she’ll see he fed her a lay lie.

Now there is a useful addition to English.

Photo of Webster's International Dictionary

My trusty authority, Webster's, Second.

As I was writing this post, I checked the Times Web site to cut-and-paste the passage from Blow’s column, and what do you know? In the online version, the offending sentence now reads:

The truest measure of a man, indeed of a person, is not whom he lies down with but what he stands up for.

My guess is that angry print readers of the Times deluged the paper, calling attention to Blow’s outrageous original usage, and the Times’ editors fixed the problem. That’s one advantage of digital publication over print on paper. Errors are fixable. So justice triumphs. Happy ending. My mind is at ease – for the time being.

Note: Thanks to the Nancy Way Blog, which has another fine old-school explanation of the lie-lay distinction, for use of that opening image of the PC with Post It notes.

11 Responses to My Lie-Lay Conundrum

  1. George, I am so with you on this issue, which is one the Washington Post and so many other publications have tossed out the window. When I taught effective (State Department) writing for FSNs a while back, I spent a lot of time on lay/lie, which was a hard concept for them to grasp. And I knew when they went back to their posts, they would find many of their supervisors would be using lay and lie incorrectly anyway. They may be among those words that are destined to change with time. In another 20 years will there be anyone left who cares? People like you and me, I suppose, crying out fromm our rockers in the nursing home…. Ah well.

    • I wish I’d been able to join you for that State Dept writing course, Susan. I’d have been a lie/lay enforcer. What’s odd for me is the psychology of why I cling to this particular usage distinction. I don’t quite understand it. In the largest sense I think of language evolution as a good thing. And yet something like ” I’m going to lay down” will always be wrong for me.

  2. It wasn’t my grammar teacher that beat the lay/lie into me but I do recall my mother correcting me on the proper usage many, many times during my childhood. I think sometimes I would use it incorrectly just to see if she was paying attention! Although despite her best efforts, I am sure that I didn’t turn out to be the grammar expert she had hoped I would become. But I do strive to be better and am pleased with myself when I am the one that can pick out the error that a “hawk eyed editor” missed!

    • Good to hear, Suzanne, that there are still mothers out there correcting their children’s language. Come to think of it – my mother, not a highly educated woman, did the same for me.

  3. I’ll bet Mr. Blow was focused on the who/whom issue instead. His formulation–”is not whom he lays down with but what he stands up for” reminds me of Winston Churchill’s dictum about ending a sentence with a preposition: it was the kind of bloody nonsense up with which he would not put.

    • You may be onto something, WB. Who/whom is a tough one, requiring considerable concentration. But it seems that usage fetishes are highly individual-dependent. I’m big on lie/lay and who/whom, but long ago accepted split infinitives, prepositions as sentence-enders, and beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction – all of which were once sins in my book.

  4. I think what we’re seeing is the dynamics of language – I agree with Susan Clyde on this issue. I grit my teeth whenever a TV talking head uses “impact” as a verb (which, in my field, indicates an imminent medical problem requiring a VERY strong laxative) and the guests on talk shows referring to a government action as “disincentivizing.”
    Alas, I too will be shaking my cane at the TV screen from my bed in the nursing home.

    • We all have our little trigger points, Luddite. One place where I find I’ve loosened up as a blogger is in using nouns as verbs. It’s just fun to coin a new usage. So I often feel incentivized, at least subconsciously, to metamorphose parts of speech.

  5. Being one of the above Grammar Fanatic Gang above, I feel like swimming across the great pond and hugging you, RasoirJ. Two big kisses on both cheeks for this post and GOOD SHOW for correcting Mr. Blow. Shame on him!
    Being an editor, the lay/lie and who/whom regularly make me climb the wall and become rather ‘unfriendly’, especially to young writers.

    • This post, RDR, seems to have tapped into something vital for certain people of a certain age. It even got a retweet from a 30-something. Rest assured: your spot is reserved in the Grammar Nut wing of that nursing home.

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