This is the third in a series of occasional articles on grammar and language.
A few facts to begin with: I own a Kindle. I am a cheapskate. Because I don’t like to spend money on books (I’m a faithful library patron), the Kindle books I read are mostly free ones. Free Kindle books are almost always self-published. Unfortunately, as a rule, self-published books are inadequately edited, making them painful reading for a copy editor.
It is not really surprising that an author who has no reasonable expectation of making any significant income from writing will be unwilling to pay for professional copy editing. The author’s acknowledgments often mention a relative or an English-teacher friend who “proofread” the book; some authors have a stable of “first readers” whom they rely on to catch errors. But I have read some books that appeared to have been written in a hurry and then never reread even once before seeing the light of day, and often some errors remain even in books whose authors cite a paid copy editor.
It is unfortunate that some of the world’s most creative people—people who think up plots faster than they can get them down on paper, people whose character development is convincing and whose dialogue sounds natural—are so prone to careless errors, but that is the sad truth, and that is why copy editors are needed.
The error that I find most annoying—to the point that I consider it a kind of shibboleth—is confusion of lie and lay. If an author cannot distinguish these two verbs, then it is highly likely that his or her book will also contain many more errors.
I am well aware that I am far from the first writer to address this issue. Indeed, writing on this subject is so common that I know I’m fighting a losing battle, but still I will take up the gauntlet. To speak meaningfully about lie and lay, we need to speak about some basic grammatical principles. One of these is conjugation of verbs. When you mention “conjugation,” you may find people muttering, “Amo, amas, amat.” This is a sure indication that sometime in the misty past they acquired a smattering of Latin.
Latin is an inflected language. In the case of verbs, this means that verb forms incorporate the personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). This can be seen in the conjugation of the present tense of the verb amare (to love):
||amo (I love)
||amamus (we love)
||amas (you love)
||amatis (you love)
||amat (he, she, it loves)
||amant (they love)
As can be seen from the translations, English does not change the form of the verb in the present tense except in the third person singular. In the past tense (loved), the form is the same in all instances.
In Latin, amare, like “to love” in English, is a regular verb. If you know that the infinitive is amare (which marks it as First Conjugation), you know how to construct all the other forms of the verb, in every person, tense, and mood. In English, it is much simpler: the third-person singular is formed by adding –s to the base form of the word (loves); the past tense is formed by adding –d or –ed (loved). That same form is also used as the past participle, the form used in the present perfect and past perfect tenses (he has loved, he had loved).
But Latin, like English, also has irregular verbs, which don’t obey those rules, so Latin dictionaries list the “principal parts” of the verb—the clues needed to construct all the forms of the verb. English dictionaries do the same thing. The principal parts of an English verb are the present (love), past (loved), past participle (loved), and present participle (loving). (The present participle is used in what are called progressive verbs, such as “I am going” or McDonald’s catch phrase “I’m lovin’ it.”) As noted above, for regular verbs, these are easily derived and present no problem. It’s the irregular verbs where people get into trouble.
Let’s start with an easy version of lie, the one that means “to tell an untruth.” This is a regular verb: I lie/will lie, I lied, I have/had/will have lied, I am/was/will be lying. Except for the vowel shift (lie to lying), there are no traps here.
Turning, however, to the verb lie that means “recline in a prone or supine position,” we find an irregular verb. The principal parts of this verb are lie, lay, lain, and lying. The present tense and present participle are the same as for the regular verb, but the past and past participle are irregular. So we get I lie/will lie, I lay, I have/had/will have lain, I am/was/will be lying.
Contrast the verb lay, meaning “to put [something] down.” Its principal parts are lay, laid, laid, and laying, hence I lay/will lay, I laid, I have/had/will have laid, I am/was/will be laying. The significant clue here is the “[something].” The verb lay is a transitive verb, which means that it requires a direct object. Lie is intransitive (doesn’t require—indeed, may not have—an object). You can lie around all day, but you have to lay something. A chicken lays an egg, for example. You may warn someone not to lay a hand on your property.
Here are a few correct examples, taken from well-known sources:
The first Nowell the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. [This is the past tense of lie.]
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth. [This is the present tense of lay.]
“Now I lay me down to sleep…” [This is the present tense of lay, and “lay me” is equivalent to “lie.”]
“The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head…” [This is the past tense of lay. Confusion caused by its being followed by “down” sometimes results in it being sung as “lay down.”]
The last three examples illustrate that compounds with lay, such as lay down, lay up, lay away, are conjugated the same.
Now a few horrible incorrect examples:
Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed. [Sadly, this is Bob Dylan, and, as much as I love the song, it still makes me cringe.]
The remaining examples are all taken from a single incredibly awful book:
We were told the disease could lay dormant for months or years…
I enjoyed laying with my back pressed on the earth…
I approached him from behind and lay my hand upon his shoulder.
We would need their love and recount it daily, for what lie ahead was a scary prospect.
I lay him down, propping him with pillows and pat his back repeatedly.
I walked towards her, jutting my large belly in front of her as she lie positioned upright on the porch.
I folded them [winter skirts] neatly and lay my shawls atop them…
This author has clearly been traumatized by some previous attempt to correct her use of lie and lay, to the point where she is sprinkling verbs at random on the page, apparently without any clue to the proper form. Let this not be you! You will be safe if you remember these critical points:
- The verb lie cannot have an object. The present tense is lie. The past tense is lay. The past participle (used with have, has, and had) is lain.
- The verb lay must have an object. The present tense is lay. The past tense is laid. The past participle is also laid.
If you find yourself writing “lay” and it is not past tense and does not have an object, then it is almost certainly wrong. [There is one very small technical exception. When I was in college, it used to bug me that my classmates would talk about “laying out” to get a suntan. This is doubtless Southern idiom that will never be corrected. But there is one correct use of “laying out” (without an object); that is doing a layout in jazz dance. Unless you are a dancer, you’re unlikely to need this phrase!]