Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Lying liers are losing the lay/lie battle

Last week John McIntyre was wondering whether it was time to abandon teaching the difference between lay and lie. His editing students, he said, simply “do not hear the distinction”:
No matter how many times I review it, they still get it wrong, because laid as past tense and past participle of lie is what sounds natural to them, what sounds like English.
That past-tense laid for lay – “she laid down for a nap” – isn't always audible, but present-tense lay for lie – “I need to lay down” – is easy to hear, and heard everywhere.

That's not because we're a nation of semiliterate texting addicts;  lay and lie have never been easy to distinguish.  In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the verbs were not well differentiated until the 18th-century usage juggernaut got rolling. From 1300 to 1800, “the usage was unmarked: Sir Francis Bacon used [lay for lie] in the final and most polished edition of his essays in 1625.”

But lay for lie is only part of the story. My suspicion that lie is a goner comes from the opposite direction: I’ve been spotting substitutions of lie for lay in the past tense – as in "she lay it down" instead of "laid it down" – even in decently edited books. My most recent example – the fourth, I think, though I haven’t saved cites – comes from Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel “The Interestings”: “He lay her down on their bed.”

That should be laid, of course. I can understand how a writer might decide that “he lay her down” (in a tasteful married-couple sex scene) sounds more genteel, but a Google Books search finds “he lay her down” in bodice-ripping fiction too – along with other uses of lay for laid. A sampling:
As she expected, he lay her down on the bed. (“Twist,” 2013)
She lay it down by the fireplace and walked over to her bed and lay down. She was very tired. (The Wishing Well,” 2002.)
Folding the magazine closed, she lay it down. Afterward she got under the covers and lay relaxing on her back. (“Storms Before the Calm,” 2012)
She lay it down on the counter, a perfect little treasure, white on black. Then she got her special cup down from the cupboard. (“The Red Boots,” 2005)
After a few minutes, she lay it down on a large flat rock next to her, and joined Ellen for breakfast. (“Lemon Creek Chronicle,” 2013)
She lay it down in front of Violet, and began to talk at her. (“Stifle,” 2011)
I even found a high school journalism style guide, trying to codify rules for the students, that lists the mistaken usage as correct: The past tense of lay, it instructs, is "I lay it (down), You lay it (down), He lay it (down)," etc.

Presumably these are hypercorrections, the product of an educated aversion to intransitive laid (“We laid in the sun all day”). But whatever their motivation, they add to the confusion surrounding lay and lie. So I won’t be at all surprised if someday we end up with one verb – lay, laying, laid, laid – for both transitive and intransitive uses. And if I'm around to see it, you won’t hear me complaining.

4 comments:

vp said...

In the UK, I think the trend is (at least partly) in the opposite direction: use of "lie" for both transitive and intransitive verbs, with "lay" restricted to certain fossilized phrases such as "lay an egg" and "lay the table".

Bluue Skyy said...

This slippage into usage rather than dictum is the beauty of English. As a proofreader dealing with these changes I find it difficult to substantiate a particular stance when it comes to usage such as lay/laid. My final arbiter is "does the reader know what is meant?". Corrections cost and when drawing a line between cases like this I err on he side of usage.

Warsaw Will said...

They do seem to be a bit confused at that high school journalism style guide - this is their table for the present progressive of lay:

I am laying it (down)
You are lying it (down)
He is lying it (down)
We are lying it (down)
They are lying it (down)

Charles Shere said...

I think it quite useful to have different forms for transitive and intransitive use. "Lie" and "lay" are no more difficult to keep straight than "sit" and "set."
Such distinctions — another that comes to mind is "less" and "fewer" — keep the mind sharp.