…lay across my big brass bed. ( Bob Dylan)
Do you know what’s wrong with these lyrics? (Besides the fact Bob stole them and many of his lyrics from earlier poets and song writers and got the Nobel Prize anyway. No wonder he had the good sense not to show up to accept it.) I’m no language expert and I try to stay open to how proper English evolves, but the misuse of the verb “to lay,” both in daily conversation and in the media rattles my cage. Just to be sure, I checked on the most recent rules. Guess what? They are the same as they were when some prissy schoolmarm hammered them into my brain in grade school.
I suspect most of you would consider my gripes about how people speak these days petty. For example, I experience actual physical discomfort when I hear declarative sentences spoken as though they ended with a question mark. “Uptalk,” once a satirical imitation of vacuous teenage girls went mainstream so quickly that it’s even common to hear it used by trained radio and TV reporters. It’s as though the speaker is implying that the listener is too ignorant to understand the completely self-evident meaning of their mundane utterances and they require confirmation of the validity of their every sentence. Once a guy called asking for my daughter and said, “This is Charles?” I couldn’t help myself. My reply was, “Are you sure?”
Lest you judge me as total language snob, observe how I used the gender neutral plurals, “they,” “them,” “their,” as singulars. Unlike many other language revisions, this convention came into usage for a good reason.
So… have you noticed how often people habitually start a sentence with “so” when the sentence is not conditional upon the previous one? Uptalk and “so” are both stylistic issues, fashions that came and will, one hopes, go. Why can’t I just lighten up when it comes to them? Dr. Freud would likely say these gripes are symptomatic of the tendency of the elderly to reject change. We old fogies naturally resent that the world goes on and changes as we wend our irrelevant ways toward oblivion.
But the misuse of “lay” lies in the realm of JUST PLAIN WRONG! Consequently, I shall not take its abuse, common as it is, lying down. Let me lay this out for you.
The most common mistake is the use of “lay” when the word should be “lie.” Dogs, being smarter than most humans, probably roll their eyes when ordered to “go lay down.” People are also likely to say “I’ll go lay down.” Or “I was laying in bed.” Perhaps confusion is understandable when the correct use of “lay” includes such phrases as “lay down the law” or “lay of the land” or ” I lay me down to sleep.” As most of you know, the rule is that when we place something down, we lay it down, but when we refer to the act of getting into or being in a supine position, we “lie” or are “lying” down. If you don’t want to insult your dog’s intelligence, please tell him (oops, I mean them) to “lie down.”
Of course that still leaves room for confusion when the declensions are irregular and overlap. Laid, lain, lie, lying, laying. I mean, the frippin’ past tense of “lie” is “lay.” As in “I went to my room to lie down, and as I lay there, in walks Rhianna, naked.” Let’s not even get into the other meaning of “lie” with respect to dishonesty. Then there’s the issue of Bob’s invitation to the lady. One wonders, assuming it was heeded, did he more properly get “laid” or”lain?”
Widespread misuse often leads to a change in the rules as exemplified by the case of “bring” and “take.” Once clearly differentiated, they are now considered interchangeable. Sigh. What’s a language curmudgeon to do?
In literature or poetry, stylistic considerations trump the rules. What sounds better, “Lay lady lay” or “Lie lady lie?” The long “A” sound in Lady goes better with “lay,” plus the song continues with “Stay lady, stay….until the break of day.” OK, but how about if Kris Kristofferson had written “come and lie down by my side, ’til the early morning light.” Does “lay,” which he used, sound better in this case? I’d say not. Is Kris just ignorant of the rule? Maybe, but many songs, are written intentionally from the point of view of everyman, not some Oxford don. The writer of a country song don’t want it to sound none too uppity.
I don’t really mind the artistic aspect of conflating “lay” with “lie,” but when my college educated friends habitually, and unawares, make the error in everyday conversation (“I was laying there reading my book”), though etiquette requires me to hold my tongue, fingernails run along my mental blackboard. I’d like to say, “How can someone as smart as you not know this? Kindly return your sheepskin to Harvard University.”
While I’m whining, I may as well get one more gripe off of my chest. It’s the common mistake of using the subjective after a preposition. Such incorrect usage is categorized as “overcorrection,” an effort to sound more intelligent that results in sounding less so. (Another overcorrection is when an adjective is inappropriately changed into an adverb. Such as, “I feel badly,” meaning the person does not feel bad, but, rather, their sense of touch is impaired.) Even some school teacher friends habitually say something like, “I felt badly since she couldn’t go to the concert with Mary and I.” AAARGH. Think of all the young minds lain waste in their classrooms. (Or should that be “laid” waste”?)
Lest you think I’m not aware of the fact that I’m throwing stones in my glass house, here’s a little joke to put this all in perspective:
A fellow walking around Boston approaches a dapper gentleman, “Say, can you tell me where Harvard Yard is at?” “My good man,” replies the gentleman, “it is improper to end a sentence with a preposition.” “Oh, excuse me,” says the man, “Can you tell me where Harvard Yard is at, asshole?”