Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Now I Lay (or Lie) Me Down to Sleep?

If you have an aversion to grammar lessons, then don't read this. But if you have always wondered about the "lay/lie" dilemma and want to start using these two devilish words correctly, then take a deep breath and continue reading.

Disclaimer: I am not a big bad grammar snob, in fact, I make all sorts of mistakes, especially when speaking to important people (or at least to people who thrust their importance at me). It's only because I have taught grammar for fifteen years to resistant teenagers that I feel entitled to offer, sacrificially, what I do know about this mean and scary subject.

So here it is, plain and simple.

means to place and must have a noun connected to it. Example:

The chicken lays an egg.

If you want to use it in the past tense, then simply change it to laid. Example:

Yesterday, the chicken laid an egg.

Other examples of lay used correctly:

The student lays her books on the table.

I need to lay this tile in the bathroom.

INCORRECT: (but this is how everyone says it...)

I need to lay down.

I laid down yesterday.

See, there's no specific thing to place anywhere?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Now, let's deal with lie, which means to recline. Example:

I must lie down.

Changing it to the PAST TENSE is where we all start to go astray. Example:

Yesterday, I lay down under the tree.

Last month, the protesters lay across the road.

If you listen carefully, you'll hear this grammar blunder in many popular songs, which always bums me out if I happen to like the song.

Bonnie Raitt did it: Lay down with me/tell me no lies/just hold me close/and don't patronize me...

Chasing Cars did it in their ethereal "Snow Patrol": If I lay here/If I just lay here/would you lie with me/and just forget the world? (notice lie is correct)

A few years ago, one brilliant student of mine posed the million-dollar question:

"What about the verb "to lie" when you're talking about telling a lie?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"In the past tense, we don't say, 'I lay about my age last weekend to get into an R-rated movie.'" He continued, "Shouldn't we then be able to say, 'I lied down under the mango tree last night'"?
"No," I answered."
"Why?" he persisted.
"I don't know...I just work here," I told him and moved on to a feisty rant about why English teachers are all nuts.

1 comment:

  1. The Snow Patrol song is grammatically correct. In that context, "lay" is the past subjunctive of "lie".