Skip directly to content

Ask Me--Lie or Lay?

Subscribe to Syndicate

When I was young, as part of her regular grammar corrections, my mother would say, "People lie, chickens lay eggs." Apparently people regularly lay eggs or the use of "to lie" in the sense of being in a horizontal position has all but disappeared. I almost never hear anything but "lay" when people mean "lie." E.g., "I was laying around yesterday" or "I'm laying on my bed." 

Unfortunately for me, this particular use (misuse) always makes me cringe, even as I try to be open to evolving language. It seems I'm either going to have to adjust or live with visions of humans laying eggs all about.  In British writing, I do see lie used correctly where U.S. writers would use lay. Based on this fact alone, I have contemplated emigrating to the UK! Do you have any thoughts on the usage of these two verbs?--Allison McNeill

Well, maybe "all but disappeared" is an exaggeration, but Allison is definitely right about the popularity of "lay" as present tense for the act of assuming a supine position. To give one example out of millions, The Oakland Tribune last week had this headline: "Girlfriend says Waterford man threatened to lay down on railroad track."

It's a little hard to precisely calculate the relative popularity of "lie" and "lay" in this context, since the latter has a lot of traditional present-tense transitive uses (not only what chickens do, but "lay down arms," "lay a carpet," "lay down the law," and a venerable off-color use, alluded to in a famous Dorothy Parker crack). To eliminate some of these, I set up a Google Fight for the phrases "to lay around" and "to lie around." "Lay" won by a more than 50 percent margin:

As Allison's mother's dictum suggests, this usage, and the dismay over it, have both been around a long time. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, predictably, shows that it's been used by well-respected authors including Byron ("there let him lay"), O.Henry ("he laid down on his side of the bed"), William Faulkner ("he knowed where that old soon of a gun would be laying"), Flannery O'Connor ("I'm letting it lay"), and Harry Truman ("I don't want anybody ... to lay down on the job"). But note that Truman was talking in an interview, the O'Connor quote is from a letter, and the O.Henry and Faulkner examples are from an untutotored narrator and character, respectively. The point being that this usage has long been quite common in speech and other informal uses. And clearly, far from disappearing, it is inexorably rising.

Allison is right on the U.K. thing--all of the writers mentioned are American (except for Byron, and Merriam-Webster's thinks he just used it for the sake of a rhyme with "spray" and "bay"). So, to answer your question, my main thought is that if you want be shielded from this, make sure your visa is in order.

Ask Me

Post new comment