Monday, October 8, 2012

The Lies Have It

Recently the comic strip Pickles featured Opal complaining about things that really annoy her: web sight instead of website, low and behold instead of lo and behold. I’m right there with her. Homophones (words that sound alike) drive me crazy. This morning my local paper trumpeted my right to bare arms. Tank tops for all!
Opal also bemoaned the misuse of lay, as in “I’m going to lay down.” Of course, you all know that it should be “lie down.” What? You’re confused, too? Well, join the club. Lie and lay confuse a lot of people.
Here’s a simple chart I made to help clarify the issue:
Past Perfect
Lie (1)
To tell an untruth
Lie, lies
Lie (2)
To rest in or move into  a horizontal position
Lie, lies
To set down; to put in position
Lay, lays

I included Lie (1), “to tell an untruth,” for completeness. This “lie” is pretty straightforward with the exception of its participle, lying. The y replaces the ie in order to maintain the pronunciation. The same thing happens with the participle of Lie (2).
The difficulty arises with Lie (2) and Lay, specifically because the past tense of Lie is the same as the present tense of Lay. So you could say, “I lay on the sofa” and mean you did it yesterday or you’re doing it today. Except if you mean you’re doing it today, you’re using the wrong verb.
One good clue is in the last column of my chart. Lie is intransitive; Lay is transitive. I know, I know, geeky grammar words, but they’re pretty easy to understand. They contain “trans.” Think transportation, transit, transfer. A transitive verb transfers action from the subject to the object: I hold your hand. She loves you.
Lay is a transitive verb. It transfers action from the subject to the object: He lays his cards on the table. I laid my head on his shoulder. We have laid my father to rest. So whenever you are laying something, use Lay. Fortunately, it’s the easy one to remember—lay, laid, laid.
Lie, however, is intransitive. It describes an action, but doesn’t transfer the action from the subject to the object. “I lie on the sofa” describes what you are doing on the sofa, not what you are doing to the sofa. So when you need to describe an action, use Lie. His cards lie on the table. My head lay on his shoulder. My father has lain in peace for two years. If this seems hard to you, remember that the forms of Lie are harder to remember—lie, lay, lain.
Some folks believe that lie should be used with people, lay with things. This is an urban myth. A blanket can lie on the sofa just as easily as a person.
Got it? No? Check out Chicago Manual of Style for more info. Or a good dictionary.
(P.S.—Just to confuse the matter even more, my dictionary informs me that lie and lay were used interchangeably until about 200 years ago. There is even some discussion of returning to that interchangeability. However, most commentators frown on mixing up lie and lay.)