To Lay or To Lie … That is the question …

In an attempt to tackle the eternally confused situation of “lie” and “lay,” I am taking on two of the most confused and misused verbs in the English language. It would seem that the verb ‘to lie’–as in to put one’s body in a horizontal position on a bed, the floor, or other surface–has become extinct. This is very sad news, and I am not ready to take it LYING down.

Then there is the verb “to lay”–which means to put down or to put in place–as in ‘I am LAYING the book on the table’, or as the British sometimes say, “she LAYS (meaning “sets”) the table every day”…or the simple fact that “hens LAY eggs.”  All of these three examples are in the present tense.

Things are already confusing enough and few are those who know that they LIE down on their beds as well as command their dogs to LIE down. Somebody needs to inform exercise class instructors everywhere–I have heard only one of them in years of listening, although, granted, I have not heard them all, use the correct verb when instructing people to LIE down on the floor…you know what they say, I need not repeat it here.

But there is further cause for confusion. The very bad news is that the past tense of the verb “to lie”–the one meaning to put one’s body in a horizontal position is–are you ready?—LAY.  I warned you this was bad news.So if you want to say that yesterday (necessitating the past tense) you “put your body in a horizontal position” on your bed to take a nap, but you want to use the correct three-letter verb beginning with “l,” you will say correctly that yesterday you LAY down on your bed to take a nap….not “laid .” You can, however, say that “yesterday our hen LAID three eggs.”  That’s the past tense of TO LAY. I admit it’s confusing.

For starters, I would feel ever so much better if we could at least just get the present tense right.You are probably wondering, who cares about all of this anyway? I, for one, care a lot about the rather desperate state of our language. If we just ignore all of the rules, and everyone just starts making up his/her own and saying whatever comes into his/her head, in no time at all we will have little to no idea of what it is that others are trying to say to us in the first place. Anarchy has rarely led to clarity.

When we learn a new language, it helps to have some idea of the grammar rules. Have you ever spoken to someone from another country who is just starting to learn English? If they don’t have a grip on the basic grammar rules, their sentences are often incomprehensible. That’s the way we will all become if we don’t start paying attention now. We need to either learn to say it right, or risk not being understood or, worse yet, appearing to be more ignorant than we would like to. (And do we want to appear ignorant at all?)

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I find that non-native speakers find it most disconcerting to hear incorrect English used by newscasters on TV, or to read it written in newspapers. These are places where one would expect to find correct usage. What they hear in the everyday world that surrounds them is something else again and is additional cause for confusion. But at least they recognize the mistakes–I often wonder how many native speakers do. Perhaps it’s time to branch out and start teaching the natives.


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