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.”