The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it the “lie” or the “lay” of the land?

Q: I frequently hear the phrase “lay of the land,” typically referring to a situation or condition that might affect some plan of action. I was taught the phrase should be “lie of the land,” as in how the land lies (a metaphorical reference to the landscape itself and its suitability for what one wanted to accomplish). Has wide common (mis)usage made “lay” acceptable or have I been wrong all along?

A: It depends on where you live. In American English, the idiomatic noun phrase used to describe topography or the state of affairs is “lay of the land.” In British English, it’s “lie of the land.”