Putting Lie and Lay to Bed

Aside from hate, grammar correction is the another thing that’s all the rage on internet forums. Read any story or blog post that allows reader responses, and you won’t get very far down the page before the grammar police show up.

“It’s its, not it’s” or “It’s you’re, not your”, the grammar police will post with a wry smile and a bit of hand-wringing, anonymous behind their computer screens (and most likely situated comfortably in their parents’ basement).

Two things are difficult to imagine here:

  • That people still make these grammar mistakes when posting to online forums (and a lot of times are reprimanding others for making similar mistakes).
  • That the grammar police are still trolling online forums to find others’ grammar mistakes.

I’m sure you can think of others.

We can all agree that – even with all of its (not “it’s”) rules – it’s (not “its”) often difficult to navigate the nuances of the English language. Take the verbs to lie and to lay, which trip up even the most persnickety linguists.

Due to the difficulty in choosing the right lie/lay verb for a particular situation, there really are not that many examples of them being used in popular culture. But let’s see if we can find a few examples to compare against our lie/lay infographic, which guides us on when to use one vs. the other.

First example? Lyrics from the song Lyin’ Eyes by the Eagles. “You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.” This represents a completely different meaning of the verb “to lie”. This “lie” is the one that made Pinocchio’s nose grow longer with each lie he told in the fictional story.

Another example comes from Sam Smith, the singer, who has a song titled “Lay Me Down”, which doesn’t actually use these words in the song lyrics. Even so, “lay me down” in the title is the correct usage of “lay” because it has a direct object of “me”. Very well done, Sam Smith. Five gold stars for correct usage of the verb “to lay”!

Next up is the well-known holiday song “Away in a Manger”. This one is bit more tricky because it uses lie/lay more than once. The first one is fairly simple. “The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head”. It helps to refer to our “Lie/Lay” infographic (below) to see that “laid” is the correct past tense form of the verb “lay”.

“The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay” is a little tricky because we use the past tense of the verb lie to get “He lay“. Confusing.

I used to be more rigid about proper use of the language, but over time have become more tolerant. One reason is that I recognize people are born with varying aptitudes for hard- and soft-skills. For instance, my friend John can solve almost any math problem, but really struggles to put his thoughts on paper.

Even more important to understand, in my opinion, is how language evolves over time.

Some recall the uproar that the word “ain’t” had back in the 1980’s when it was officially added to standard dictionaries. It took a long time for strict interpreters (now known as the grammar police!) of the language to accept this abomination as an official word and not just slang employed by the less educated.

However, nothing could prepare lexicon lovers with the hurricane of change that would bestow the language in the 90’s due to the Internet and related technology. Applet, emoticon, malware, and micro-lending are a few examples of completely new words added to the vocabulary.

Languages continue to evolve and many words we hope are temporary may very well end up as part of the lexicon. “OMG!”, you may (rightly) exclaim.

Perhaps with all of these new words entering the language, we should occasionally take a moment and think about putting to bed some of the old, stagnant words that don’t get used much due to the confusion they cause. Like the previously-discussed verbs lie and lay, which require a detailed infographic before one could hope to properly use them…







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I'm a rugged technology enthusiast, capable of churning out 140 special characters in a flash, resilient against those who would over-police my good grammar, and durable as the phone case covering the smartphone generating my blog posts. Climb a mountain? I'll get to that tomorrow...

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