Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with passion. Learn More

Misuse of “lay”

How widespread is the misuse of the word “lay”? I’m quite sure one “lies down” and does not “lay down” (except when laying down a carpet, the law or a challenge) This is prevalent in Australia, and I’ve recently found it to be very common in the USA. It irritates me no it in danger of becoming ‘accepted usage’?

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We could also add 'your arms' to your list. 'This gets a lot of attention in the States especially, where the difference between transitive 'lay' and intransitive 'lie' gets drummed into young people. The 'traditional' rule being that when you lay something down, you are using a transitive verb (a verb which takes an object) and when you lie down, you are using an intransitive verb (you can't lie anything down, only lie down).

Some people, again I think especially in the States, draw the conclusion from this that 'lie is for people and lay is for things', but then, of course, we have the classic children's bedtime prayer - 'Now I lay me down to sleep' - which follows the transitive rule, but not the 'lay is for people' rule.

There are a couple of problems here. Firstly, 'lay' is also the past form of 'lie', and that can confuse people, as is witnessed by the number of people on internet forums who think the line in Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars - 'If I lay here, would you lie with me and forget the world', is grammatically incorrect, something I disagree with -

The other thing is that 'lay' has been used intransitively for centuries, and apparently from about the 15th century till the 17th century, nobody bothered much. It was only when the prescriptivist grammarians started poking their noses everywhere that it became a problem - there's a good explanation at Merriam-Webster - look at the Usage discussion -

And of course it's been used by writers, poets and songwriters for years - Bob Dylan's 'Lay Lady Lay' - with the line 'Lay on my big brass bed' is only one of the more recent examples. Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Common Usage quotes Laurence Sterne (Sentimental Journey 1768) as having written 'But Maria laid in my bosom', which one critic attacked saying that readers must 'conclude that Maria was the name of a favourite pullet'!

MWDEU end(s) with a quote from Dwight L.Bolinger, author of 'Language - The Loaded Weapon':

'Many people use lay for lie, but certain others will judge you uncultured if you do. Decide for yourself what is best for you.'

And I would add 'and learn to relax about other people's usage'. These things are as much personal or regional as about correctness. For example, I introduced a sentence earlier with 'Firstly', which is quite standard in British English, but which people seem to frown on in the States. I seem to often prefer 'different to' to 'different from' (again quite standard in BrE) but it seems to annoy the hell out of some people. On the other hand you will never hear me use the word 'awesome' where no sense of awe is involved. That I confess does niggle me - it's mainly a generational and cultural thing (I'm pensioner-age British) - but I'm getting used to it. And as it is now the most common meaning, I would be stupid to think of it as somehow 'incorrect'. These are just personal foibles; we can all decide what language we prefer to use, but what other people say is their own business, not something for us to worry about too much. IMHO.

Warsaw Will Oct-02-2013

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Colin Hammond Oct-02-2013

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@Colin Hammond - Well, there's a blast from the past - from roughly the same period so does Melanie in Lay Down (candles In The Rain), although she does hedge her bets in the chorus - Lay down lay down, lay it all down -

There's also this compilation video with 'correct' and 'incorrect' uses of lay and lie in songs. It's quite good, but he doesn't seem to realise that 'lay' in Chasing Cars is the past of 'lie' being used in a hypothetical conditional, not the present of 'lay' -

Warsaw Will Oct-02-2013

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As usual, Warsaw Will lends to the topic his deep knowledge of English usage and his affirmation of the value of letting go of prescriptivist dicta. I agree with him as far as informal contexts go, but until dictionaries define "lie" and "lay" as being the same verb I will expect writers and speakers in formal contexts to show they know the difference.

A side note: With Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" I think there are two influences at work. One, popular songwriters frequently avoid grammatical correctness because it would seem out of place in their work (witness the frequent double negatives, as in "we don't need no education"). Second, "Lie Lady Lie" has alliteration but not the more pleasing alliteration Dylan used, where the L is joined by the long-A sound.

providencejim Oct-09-2013

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@ providencejim - totally agree with you about the sound of the words 'Lay Lady Lay'; 'Lie Lady Lie' just doesn't cut it. And as for the first part of your comment, I of course teach my students the standard differentiation. I just tell them not to get too bothered if they see the rule getting broken, especially in popular music.

Warsaw Will Oct-09-2013

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In short...

To set (an object) down:
Present tense: Lay
Past tense: Laid
Present participle (with am/is/are): Laying
Past participle (with has/have/had): Laid

To rest or recline
Present tense: Lie
Past tense: Lay
Present participle (with am/is/are): Lying
Past participle (with has/have/had): Lain

Riley Cox Oct-24-2013

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@Riley Cox - I presume you are talking about grammatical objects, not objects as things, as you can lay a person down as well:

When I lay me down to sleep - Joseph Addison, The Spectator 1711
Now I lay me down to sleep - The New England Primer 1790s
She laid the baby down gently on the bed - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

Warsaw Will Oct-25-2013

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