On Wednesday I made a fast, huge adjective out of a series of words (lay-you-somnolent-and-ill-at-ease-in-a-webbed-hammock), which is of nearly insignificant import, except that, in reading over the post for errors after it went up that morning, I started thinking about the key verb in that vast, hyphenated phrase: “lay.” And therein lay (heh heh) the seed for another post.
It has been a long time since I last developed a grammatical post, although the so-called proper usage of our language is a subject dear to my (onetime) English-teaching heart. I have even had a note to myself to write on the tormented and tormenting subject of lie and lay for a few months now. Finally, I guess, the day has arrived. Previously I have pontificated (with no more assurance of infallibility than I had when I preached thus as a teacher) on the issues of then/than, “couldnʼt care less,” the proper spellings of “definitely” and “a lot,” gobbledygook jargon (and I am far from finished on the issues of garp, let me tell you), less/fewer and like/as. With smaller side steps into such usage cowpies as ending a clause with a preposition (a casualism of which I am still not fond, but I had better get used to — Insanely clever just previously there, huh? Covering both sides in one compound sentence?), semantics and linguistics (lots more to be said there), and the identity linguistically of journal and diary. But letʼs lay all that aside for now, as todayʼs subject still lies ahead of us to tackle.
The English language has two verbs that cause tremendous confusion for speakers and writers: lie and lay, using the infinitive/present tense form of each. Lie has a twin which means to tell falsehoods, by the way, and those two verbs are truly twins in all the forms I am about to discuss, differing only in meaning. But back to the two verbs weʼre actually discussing. Lie means “to recline,” while lay means “to place something down.”
If you know your grammatical principles, itʼs easy to tell lie and lay apart (okay, fairly easy if you already know and understand the difference). You just need to examine the important various forms each verb can take — present and past tenses and the past participle. Lie in past tense becomes lay (the source of all the confusion, I believe), as talk in past tense changes to talked. And the past participle form of lie (the form used after the helping verb have, to create perfect tenses, just to titillate us grammatical geeks) is lain. Thus the principle parts of the verb lie are: lie, lay, lain. “Today I lie in the sun, yesterday I lay in the sun, and I have lain in the sun so long that my skin has burned.”
On the other hand, lay in past tense is laid, while its past participle is also laid. So the principle parts of lay are: lay, laid, laid. For examples: “I lay the book on the desk, where I also laid my pencil yesterday and where I have laid things often.” Notice that the meaning for the forms of lie (even the past-tense one that looks exactly like the present tense of lay) all refer to me reclining, while the various tenses of lay all indicate placing something (a book, a pencil, other things).
Both verbs do indicate creation of a state of recumbency or rest, the significant difference being that one is intransitive and the other a transitive verb. Ah, yes, the words that baffled every sophomore whom I reminded of this vital distinction annually in our (excessively brief) English II grammar review (mostly a quick introduction to the antique science of sentence analysis by diagramming). So a quick, inaccurate review: we have two kinds of verbs in English — the ones that have a direct object after them (transitive) and the ones that donʼt (intransitive — clever that little “in-” prefix meaning “not” for “not taking a direct object”).* Of course, my bit of definition only makes sense if we know what a direct object is: a noun (or pronoun, because anything a noun can do a pronoun thinks it can do better — I was always fond of personifying my parts of speech) that comes after the verb (in English sentence-order grammar) and receives the action stated by the verb. Letʼs repeat — a direct object is a noun or pronoun that comes after the verb and gets the verb done to it. At this point on the fifth or sixth day of school each fall, it was time for a little bit of acting, masochistic acting.
I would write a sentence on the board, such as “The teacher screamed,” and then scream loudly (always good fun in the uptight environs of school and easily done by one trained to use his diaphragm and project). That screamed is an intransitive verb. Then I would ask a student to come to the front of the class (always a volunteer) and provide him or her with a yardstick (actually, in these enlightened days, a meter stick — my father would have been pleased). And I asked the student to smack me with the meter stick (a safe enough ploy in the hidebound, rule-ridden environs of a school building, except for that one year when a tiny, little girl — one of the drama and speech participants — swatted me with such unselfconscious enthusiasm that I had no problem emitting the requisite scream to enact the intransitive sentence, and she left a red mark, later a bruise that persisted sorely for over a week; and before anyone arises in my defense, I did ask for it). The new sentence on the board was: “The student hit the teacher.” And the “teacher,” recipient of the hitting, is the direct object of the transitive verb “hit.” Witnessing the scene made it pretty clear that the “teacher” had gotten the verb done to him.
Now back on track to lie and lay. Lie is intransitive: you cannot ever lie something. Lay is transitive, meaning that verb in any form, is always followed by a direct object, the thing that got laid. So, the classic wrong construction (“Itʼs a sunny day, so I am going to lay out”) is wrong. It should be “lie out” (although you can legitimately say “Yesterday I lay out,” since that sentence requires past tense). Similarly, one cannot/should not “lay low” when trouble is brewing; it should be “lie low” (unless you want to get picky and introduce lying low in the past, of course). On the other hand, you always must lay something, which is another way of explaining why “lay out” is incorrect — my wicked brain always turning that mistake into a question about who got laid there by whom.
Since I usually write to amuse myself for the blog, I will provide a couple of other sites that explain the concept more briefly and directly — here and here — in case anyone actually wants to understand the distinction. And thatʼs my grammatical lesson (and trip down memory lane) for today.
*The grammar textbook that we used at Andrew, beginning in 1984 through perhaps even yet today, two teachers after my own tenure in the tiny town, insisted on a more accurate (but even more confusing) pair of definitions. Intransitive verbs are those in which the action is contained within the subject (“John screamed”), while the action expressed by a transitive verb carries over from the subject to another noun or pronoun in the sentence (“John screamed obscenities” or “The student hit the teacher”) — that other noun or pronoun being the direct object. For diagramming, I used to just tell the kids to ask “Subject verbed what?” to find if there was a direct object (and thus a transitive verb).
By the way, since knowing that the direct object must come after the verb in English, a sentence-order language, getting the meter stick back from the student, while asking him or her to linger in front, and then writing the sentence “The teacher hit the student” on the board (without following with the acting) could usually make very clear the importance of what order the words come, as seldom did anyone miss the significance of who was going to be receiving the action in the new sentence.