Lay vs. Lie: What’s So Hard?

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A Google search for “lay lie” brings up 482,000,000 hits, most of them links to articles that explain the difference between these two verbs. You’ll find two of my own attempts at enlightenment in the DWT archives (here and here).

One of the most astonishing things about this pair of verbs is how long they have been in common use with more or less the same meaning. The earliest example given for lay in the OED is from a translation by Alfred the Great (849-899). The earliest for lie is from the Homilies of Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1010).

English speakers have been mixing up transitive lay with intransitive lie for a long time. All school textbooks and style guides printed during the past hundred years or so contain sections explaining the usage, but millions of English speakers continue to say,

Lay down Fido.
The body was laying in the alley.
I laid on the deck for an hour.

The most usual error is to use lay intransitively, but some poor conscientious souls–aware that lay is often the wrong choice–are falling into the error of using lie transitively:

‘You got him,’ said Tinker, lying the piece down. –Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood, a Phryne Fisher Mystery, Poisoned Pen Press, 2012, page 227.

The misuse of lay is not merely an issue that distresses English teachers. Advertisers are aware of it and some of them will go so far as to change their ads when the error is pointed out to them. I’m thinking of a Sleep Number ad in which a salesman in a blue shirt is telling how beds used to be sold. The first several times I saw the ad, the man said that customers were told, “Lay over there.” At some point, the soundtrack was changed. The man now says “Lie over there.” I suspect the agency received a lot of letters on the subject.

For my own part, I’ve become partially inured to the intransitive use of lay. I hardly notice it in the course of daily conversation. The alarm clangs only when I observe its use by teachers, broadcast journalists, advertisers, doctors, lawyers, and anyone else whose occupation requires the use of English for public communication.

I cringe when a medical practitioner tells me to “lay down.” When I’m given printed forms containing the error, I correct them in ink before giving them back.

Noblesse oblige. People who invest 12-20 years getting an education can be expected to master a standard form of their native tongue.

I’m aware that much of today’s standard usage was judged non-standard in previous generations. The verbs lay and lie may eventually become so intertwined that everyone will think of them as the same verb. Until that time comes and everyone has forgotten the distinction, “The body was laying in the alley” is nonstandard English.

Bottomline: Eventually it won’t matter to anyone, but for the present, if you have a professional persona to maintain, you may wish to avoid using lay intransitively when the intended meaning is “recline.”

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13 thoughts on “Lay vs. Lie: What’s So Hard?”

  1. Something that contributes to the confusion is probably the irregular conjugation of lie, the past tense of which is lay. This confuses the past tense form of the intransitive verb with the present tense form of the transitive verb, contributing to the use of the two words interchangeably. (Even as I write this, I’m reviewing them in my head to make sure I’ve got them right. Did I?)

  2. I don’t think that this is a problem among English speakers generally, but it a particular American confusion. I remember that it hit me between the eyes when I first went to the United States. I certainly have seldom heard lay used intransitively here in South Africa,

  3. There is a simple mnemonic that enables those for whom the lay-lie question is a conundrum:

    I lay (pLAce) the towel on the rack.

    I lie (recLIne) on the sofa.

    Now, distinguishing between the use of the present, past, and past participle of lay and lie (lay, laid, and laid, and lie, lay, lain, respectively) is even more daunting for many who didn’t pay attention to Sister GoodGod in the fourth grade. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate!

  4. I have to agree with John and Matt: tense is the real culprit. Matt’s mnemonic is great. That one has escaped me until now.

    And while this column is probably read by many professionals, it might have been a good idea to offer a brief explanation of “transitive” and “intransitive.”

  5. Thank you for every article about “lie” and “lay.”
    Problem 1: Teachers apparently no longer DRILL in into the students’ heads. If kids must memorize “lie, lay, lain” and “lay, laid, laid,” at least they may think before they write.

    Problem 2: In every day speech, the speaker is almost always wrong, and is modeling incorrect usage. We see “she had lain there for hours” only in books. Students probably think “lain” is some kind of Old English.

    Problem 3: Television, movies, and advertising. There is no excuse for misuse of “lie” and “lay” when an intelligent speaker is giving information. I’m happy to hear that advertisers are are getting feedback when they err.

  6. E.K. Sommer–
    I explain “transitive” and “intransitive” in this one:

    I can remember drilling irregular verbs in sixth grade. The teacher would give each student an infinitive and the student would respond by reciting the the principle parts.
    Teacher: to lie (recline)
    Student: lie, lay, have lain

    Drilling is an effective way to master skills and information. Why is it that football coaches seem to know this, but not elementary teachers?

  7. What’s the problem? Well to me it seems that the problem is that those that know (and value) the answer can’t explain it in words the rest of us understand. It’s no good explaining it in terms of transitive and intransitive verbs when most people have no idea what a transitive or intransitive verb is. If I might take myself as an example: I am seventy years old, had an intensive “three-Rs” education culminating in a quite respectable mark in “English language and literature” at university entrance level, and I think I’m considered quite a good writer amongst my peers (but then I’m a scientist). But I don’t have a clue about intransitive verbs. It reminds me of one of my English teachers who would always be saying things like “just remember it comes from the Latin word xxxx” when none of us knew any Latin.

    Give us a rule that we can understand and we’ll use it. Otherwise, the difference probably doesn’t matter.

  8. Baska,
    Your comment provides much food for thought. In my own experience with non-language-related subjects like mathematics and football, patient people have tried to explain concepts that I have never been able to understand. It may be that my brain is incapable of grasping certain concepts. It may be that I just don’t see the value of applying myself to learning some things. Either way, it’s something to think about.

  9. Hi Maeve, LTNS!

    I’m with Baska on this one! I have said so many times that although I consider that I had a good education (it certainly cost my mother enough!), I still can’t parse a sentence. Sad. And although I’m not quite as, um, venerable as Baska, I’m too old to learn new tricks without putting in a whole lot of time I don’t have. I have never had a problem with lay/lie but am of course familiar with everyone ELSE having the problem! And LOL @Nancy about lain being like some obsolete term! Stay strong, Maeve! This is a battle to be fought 🙂

  10. Thank you Maeve and Bluebird, especially for the “venerable”!

    And Maeve, your problem with football probably comes from some barbaric game played in the obscure backblocks of North America. If you watched real football, that is Australian Rules (AFL), I am sure you would have no trouble appreciating the pure poetry of the game.

  11. I shudder even when “lay” is used for “lie” in speech. But I agree with your foreshadowing: soon, at least in American English, “lie” will adopt “lay” as a secondary, acceptable meaning.

    And then the Brits will have yet another reason to blame us for ruining their language.

    PS – @Matt Gaffney – I like that pLAce/recLIne mnemonic!

    PPS – @Nancy Romness Can you really say “lain” without drawing a quizzical stare, or without feeling at least a little hypercorrect?

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