The Grammarphobia Blog

Is using “lay” for “lie” a hanging offense?

Q: I see that back in 2007 you tackled the misuse of “lay” for “lie.” Today, the demise of “lie” seems complete in spoken English. Shall I just try to ignore this ignorant blunder as I do with gum-cracking?

A: Perhaps it’s time to revisit “lie” and “lay,” but we’ll start by saying we think our old post still holds up, four years later.

This is what we said then:

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) still continue to give the same old principal parts of ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ that our grandparents learned.”

And nothing’s changed in the interval.

Here’s a brief review of the subject, from Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

LIE (to recline): She lies quietly. Last night, she lay quietly. For years, she has lain quietly.

LAY (to place): She lays it there. Yesterday she laid it there. Many times she has laid it there. (When lay means ‘to place,’ it’s always followed by an object, the thing being placed.)”

Them’s the facts, ma’am. But here are a few more.

First, even people who bother to use these words correctly in writing may slip up in speech.

And second, mixing up “lie” and “lay” wasn’t always considered a mistake, though it’s now regarded as one of the classic boo-boos of English grammar.

“These verbs are one of the most popular subjects in the canons of usage,” says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Both words have long histories. They were first recorded in writing in the 800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Each has a prehistoric Germanic base in its ancestry: leg- for “lie” and lag- for “lay.” The relationship between the two is causative—to lay something is to cause it to lie.

“Lie” has always meant, more or less, to be in a recumbent position. It’s generally an intransitive verb, meaning that it needs no direct object (as in “Don’t lie there”).

“Lay” originally meant to place, set, or cast down. It’s generally a transitive verb, meaning that it needs a direct object (as in “Don’t lay your shoes there”).

When “lay” is used as an intransitive verb—as in “Don’t lay on the couch”—the OED says it’s “only dialectal or an illiterate substitute for lie.” But this apparently wasn’t considered a mistake in the 17th and 18th centuries, the dictionary adds.

What largely accounts for the confusion, in the opinion of many commentators, is that the words overlap in different tenses: the past tense of “lie” is “lay.”

So someone who says “I lay on the couch” could be correctly using the past tense of “lie” or incorrectly using the present tense of “lay.”

All standard dictionaries, the M-W usage guide says, “mark the intransitive lay for lie as nonstandard in one way or another.” Yet the mistake persists, particularly in speech.

“The conflict between oral use and school instruction,” Merriam-Webster’s says, “has resulted in the distinction between lay and lie becoming a social shibboleth—a marker of class and education.”

Despite the stigma, says M-W, even people who know the rules and follow them in formal situations may not bother in “informal, friendly circumstances.”

But as we’ve said before, speech is one thing and written English is another.

As Merriam-Webster’s acknowledges, “by far the largest part of our printed evidence follows the schoolbook rules.”

In summary, the old schoolbook distinction between “lie” and “lay” isn’t going away—at least not in writing.

So it’s worth knowing the difference and keeping them straight, especially when you write. But if you forget yourself when you talk, that’s not a hanging offense.

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