Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lay versus lie

Today's Garner's Usage Tip of the Day takes up a longstanding quandary: the distinction between lay and lie.

Very simply, "lie" (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive -- it can't take a direct object {he lies on his bed}.

But "lay" (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive -- it needs a direct object {please lay the book on my desk}.

The verbs are inflected "lay-laid-laid-laying" and "lie-lay-lain-lying."

Because "lie" is intransitive, it has only an active voice {lie down for a while}. And because "lay" is transitive, it may be either active {he laid the blanket over her} or passive {the blanket was laid over her}.

To use "lay" without a direct object, in the sense of "lie," is nonstandard {I want to lay down} {he was laying in the sun}. But this error is very common in speech -- from the illiterate to the highly educated [to Bob Dylan -- "Lay, lady lay. Lay across my big brass bed."].

In fact, some commentators believe that people make this mistake more often than any other in the English language. Others claim that it's no longer a mistake -- or even that it never was. But make no mistake: using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.

The most unusual of these inflected forms, of course, is "lain," but most writers have little difficulty getting it right -- e.g.: "Katrina Kuratli said she and her husband, Dan, had just lain down in their bedroom when the bomb went off around 10:45 p.m." Mack Reed, "Pipe Bomb Rips Car, Jolts Simi Neighborhood," L.A. Times, 30 Apr. 1994, at B9.

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1 comment:

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