linguistics and lexicography Love English

Laying down the lie of the land

© PHOTODISCA recent comment by Isobel on my post ‘Who’s the boss of English?’ raised the vexed question of lay vs. lie. I felt this would be worth a post in its own right – not so much to lay down the law as to give the lie to the idea that it’s a simple matter of people learning what’s correct. Incidentally, the noun in the phrase in the title shows dialectal variation: generally lie of the land in British English, lay of the land in American English.

For the verbs (and ignoring lie ‘tell a deliberate untruth’), Macmillan Dictionary’s usage note summarises the standard paradigm: lay means ‘put something in a particular place or position’: I always lay the pages on my desk; while lie means ‘to be in a particular place or position’: I like to lie on the floor. Lay’s past tense and past participle are both laid: he [had] laid the plates on the table. Those of lie are lay and lain, respectively: they lay / had lain awake for hours.



It seems ‘almost malignly confusing’, but only in some respects: no one talks about a hen lying eggs, for instance. In standard English lay is transitive; that is, it takes a direct object (certain idioms excepted). You don’t just lay – you lay something. But this is a relatively recent rule, and it is very often ignored, especially in speech and informal use, where people frequently talk about laying down, laying on the floor, and so on.

I once took to collecting examples of lay being used where grammarians prescribe lie. I soon stopped because the usage, though non-standard, is ubiquitous, and in fact has been around for over seven hundred years. Robert Burchfield, in his third edition of Fowler, writes that in the 17th and 18th centuries the two words’ alternation was not considered a mistake, even in literary text, but that nowadays it’s either taken as ‘evidence of imperfect education’ or ‘accepted in regional speech as being a deep-rooted survival from an earlier period’.

Veteran editor John McIntyre has written several times about the lie/lay problem, recently noting that although he teaches it to his journalism undergraduates, ‘they do not hear the distinction’. Indeed, Bryan Garner observes that American journalists ‘get it wrong as often as they get it right’. For many people lay meaning ‘lie’ isn’t wrong at all – it’s what comes naturally. But its use in edited prose invites criticism from those who learned the rule and want to see it observed as a mark of proper English. Like many contentious usage issues, it boils down to context and personal preference.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

7 Comments

  • also Melanie Safka on the album Candles in the Rain sings “Lay down, Lay it down, Lay it all down..”
    I tend to use the “ley of the land” which employs an Anglo Saxon term meaning a cleared stretch of land or a clearing, and is also the term used for ancient and as yet unexplained alignments on the landscape in the western part of Europe

  • Lionel: Intransitive lay shows up quite often in song titles and lyrics, as befits the informal register. Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ is perhaps the best known example.

  • Stan:

    I’ll write a lay,
    (But not today),
    If “lie” and “lay”
    Would go away

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