Saturday, June 2, 2012

Now I lay me down to sleep

The other night on twitter, I went on a mini-rant about the difference between fewer and less. There are quite a lot of commonly confused word pairs such as those, and almost instantly, people started asking for tips on how to remember other correct usages. Longtime friend of the blog Ian Healy asked for tips on lay and laid, but instead of tweeting it, I thought I'd better do a blog post. This one doesn't lend itself to 140.

Everyone mixes up lie/lay and lay/laid. Even the most meticulous authors can fumble this one from time to time, and the main reason for the confusion, I think, is that the past tense of "to lie" is lay, which is also, of course, the present of "to lay." So you have the same term used both transitively and intransitively in different tenses, and the meanings are so close as to be nearly indistinguishable. Yay, English! Good choice on that one!

Right. Let's break it down.

To Lie (intransitive - no object)
Present - Lie
Past - Lay

To Lay (transitive - object)
Present - Lay
Past - Laid

The main difference between the two is whether they take a direct object. This is where the children's prayer in the title of the post comes in handy.

Now I lay me down to sleep...

The three most important words here are now, lay, me.
Now -- it's the present tense.
Lay -- this is the confusing verb we're trying to sort out
Me -- the direct object.

So in the present tense (now), the verb lay takes a direct object.

If you used the other verb, it would have to be revised to:

Now I lie down to sleep...
(no object)

Two hours ago, I lay down to sleep...
(past tense, no object)

Two hours ago, I laid the baby down to sleep, and please God, make him quit crying...
(past tense with an object)

But that's not what the prayer says. Now I lay me down to sleep, etc. If you remember that, it will help you remember the difference between lie and lay. Even so, I have a grammar page bookmarked (the Purdue OWL, because, you know, Boiler Up! etc.) so that I can check it when I need a refresher.



Eilidh said...

Thank you for this post! Can I take from this that you feel the distinction between lie and lay is worth keeping?
I ask because no one around me uses lie (meaning recline) properly, and I've had authors unwilling to concede that anyone actually says "lie" anymore. It's not a real word to them or something.
I miss hearing it!

Edittorrent said...

Yes, I do think the distinction is worth preserving! The difference between a transitive action and an intransitive one might be subtle, but it's far from irrelevant!


Adrian said...

My ninth grade English teacher once said something like, "Chickens lay. People lie. People don't lay. Oh, but they can get laid."

Perhaps an inappropriate explanation given the age of the target audience, but I've never had a problem remembering the difference since.

Unknown said...

Nice post.

I can't think of a time when the misuse of lie/lay caused any real confusion in understanding. If it did, there would be more reason for everyone to get it right. It's a language change in process that will likely not go back in the "correct" direction of making the distinction.

English has other transitive/intransitive distinctions which are homonyms in ALL forms (not just one tense/aspect). No confusion there, either. One example of that would be "boil."