Saturday, April 11, 2015

Lie vs. lay: It's so over

People who've mastered the use of the verbs lie and lay like to claim there's nothing to it, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In a post last year, John McIntyre said he had considered dropping the attempt to teach lie vs. lay to undergraduate editing students: “They do not hear the distinction."

And Geoff Pullum recently pointed out that lain – past participle of lie, as in I lie (down), I lay, I have lain – had become, in the words of his colleague, “the whom of verb morphology.” That is, like whom, the form lain confuses even educated writers and editors, and thus shows up as a hypercorrection. (Here’s one from P.D. James’s “A Taste for Death": "She had drawn off her black gloves and had lain them on her knee.” Yes, that should be laid.)

I made a similar point about lay vs. laid in a post last year, giving examples in which lay was subbed for laid:  “She lay it down on the counter,"  "he lay her down on the bed," and so on.

My latest example of the distinction's obsolescence comes from “Between You and Me,” Mary Norris's new book, wherein she explores the minutiae of copy editing as practiced at the New Yorker. Norris, I hasten to note, would not fumble lie and lay in real life. That's why I was fascinated to see her repeat, without comment, an example of Herman Melville getting it wrong, in “White-Jacket” (1850):
Often I have lain thus, when the fact, that if I laid much longer I would actually freeze to death, would come over me with such overpowering force as to break the icy spell, and starting to my feet, I would endeavour to go through the combined manual and pedal exercise to restore the circulation.”
“There are plenty of funky things going on in this sentence,” writes Norris, and I thought that use of laid would be at the top of her list. But no -- the subject is punctuation, not conjugation. As she explores the options, she quotes the opening of the sentence seven times (in four pages) without once noting that Melville should have written “if I lay much longer.”

Did Norris ignore it as off topic? (Me, I wouldn’t have been able to resist a parenthetical remark, if only from the ignoble motive of showing I hadn’t read past it.) Did she think readers wouldn’t notice? Did “laid” just sound OK in that particular narrator’s voice?

I’ll have to ask her. But whatever the answer, this looks like further evidence that conjugating lie and lay is more work than most English speakers are willing to do.  I have to agree with Pullum’s conclusion: When we tangle with intransitive lay and lain, “the wonder is that anybody ever gets any of it right. That’s what you should be surprised at.”


John Cowan said...

Well, I continue to wince at lied for either lay or lain.

John Lawler said...

As you say, conjugation of lie and lay and their ilk is much more complex than one might expect.

AimlessInLA said...

Though I'm with John Cowan, I admit that I worry about sounding overly pedantic when using "lie" in any conjugation.

That said, I think there are a number of factors that have contributed to the general level of confusion, with the ultimate result that a great many people simply use "lay" for everything.

First off, there's the children's prayer that begins, "Now I lay me down to sleep...". It's clearly about laying oneself down to bed, but it confuses people because we no longer use ordinary pronouns as reflexives, except in non-standard usage.

Secondly, it may be worth discussing whether "to lie (down)" evolved naturally in the language at all, or if it was rather a hyper-correction from the very beginning. "To lie", essentially, denotes a state of being rather than action, for example, "The jewelry district of Los Angeles lies hard by Pershing Square.", or "The cat is lying under the table. By contrast, "to lie down" implies the action of laying oneself down, thus implying not only movement or action, but also an unnamed direct object. Historically in the Germanic languages, the usage of regular or irregular conjugations in pairs of closely related verbs has hinged on transitivity, with the intransitive forms being irregular. So we have "The sun shone", but "I shined my flashlight into the bushes", and "The mother laid her kittens in the box", but "The kittens were lying in the box." (On reading that last sentence, I suspect that some people will be interested to know that kittens can speak at all, let alone come on with deliberate falsehoods.) Of course, "the sun shined" is probably equally acceptable in modern usage as "shone", but I assert that "I shone my flashlight..." would probably still sound wrong to most people. Or at least odd.

Finally, for now, is something else which I'll have to discuss in a follow-on comment, for I am running into problems with the comment form.

AimlessInLA said...

Continuing from my previous comment--

Finally, for now, there's the fact that we so often use auxiliary verb constructions that obviate the need to use any kind of past tense on the irregular main verb. We don't say that we have swum regularly for a number of years, but rather that we've been swimming regularly--Hah! A little joke--for so many years. Or, the kittens have been lying in the box where the mother put them. I can't help wonder if this is a factor in the trend of simplifying or regularizing many of the strong verbs. In verbs with three separate vowel gradations, like "to shrink" or "to stink", one rarely hears the preterit forms, which is why we have "Honey, I shrunk the kids!". I think it's a pity, because in my opinion "stank" is a grand and powerful word that seems to figuratively fill one's nostrils when spoken or heard. An exception is "to drink" / "drank" / "drunk" which seems far more resilient; this is probably explained by the healthy usage statistics of all three forms, plus the adjective "drunk". By contrast, in verbs where the participle is similar to the present tense, as in "to run" / "ran" / "run" or "to eat" / "ate" / "eaten", seem to confound increasingly many speakers who simply use the preterit form for the past perfect as well. Working in IT, I've grinned and borne it for many years when people have talked about jobs having "been ran". This sort of thing seems to have happened in the last generation or two. When I was in college I'd have been hard pressed to find anyone who would say "been ran", because that used to be considered the way five-year-olds talked. But now I hear it from college educated native speakers. With this type of verb, the subconscious logic at work may be that the past participle of an irregular verb is not allowed to have the same vowel as the present tense, so "been ran" or "has ran" must be correct. Similarly with "have ate", which I recently heard from the lips of a professional NPR interviewer and program host. I haven't heard "have came" yet, but I expect that I will.

Jo said...

Eh, not most English speakers, just US English speakers. It's not really an issue in Ireland.

AimlessInLA said...

Jo said:

"Eh, not most English speakers, just US English speakers. It's not really an issue in Ireland. "

Except apparently for P.D. James.

I'm rather surprised that P.D. James would have made that error though.

My assumption is that most professional writers and highly educated people in most fields thoroughly "get" the prescriptive grammar with regard to "lie" and "lay", as with "who" and "whom". The only uncertainty, for both situations, comes from the fact that we don't want to sound pedantic in a casual conversation. "Whom" is easier in this regard. I won't use it unless there's a preposition immediately following it, as in "The people to whom they sold the house". But in other contexts like at the beginning of the question it strikes me as pedantic, e.g. "Whom did they sell the house to?" In this case I might well avoid the issue by saying "Who bought the house?"

I think "lie" and "lain" are similar in this respect.