Here lies ...
A complaint from a reader of The Sun.
Headline: MARC train strikes and kills man laying on the tracks
The headline should conclude with "lying on the tracks." It's correct in the article.
Grrrrrr. There are a number of galling things about this error. First, it is so elementary. Second, the correct word was right there in the first paragraph of the article. Third, and most discouraging, that headline went through the hands of the copy editor who wrote it, the copy editor who checked the electronic version and the copy editor who saw it on a page proof.
But it should come as no particular surprise. My students at Loyola, mainly juniors and seniors in journalism or English, pretty much look blank when I start carrying on about lie and lay. They are accustomed to hearing people say that they were laying down, and the usage is equally familiar to them in print.
The lengthy entry on the subject in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that lay and lie were used interchangeably as intransitives well into the 18th century but that a distinction was then codified in textbooks, to limited success. "If the grammarians and the schoolmasters and the schoolmarms and the usage writers have succeeded in largely establishing the transitive-intransitive distinction between lay and lie in standard discursive prose, they have not done so well in speech." As noted.
Merriam-Webster’s continues to say bluntly that the distinction has become "a social shibboleth — a marker of class and education." But if educated people —and I am not about to get into a discussion of whether the students who are awarded degrees at the school where I teach can be called educated — no longer observe the distinction, then its utility even as a social shibboleth is compromised.
We may well be close to the point at which the two-century-old distinction, which has been eroding in common usage, is finally effaced. But there is still that remnant of English speakers on whom laying for lying grates, and copy editors are expected to be aware of their preferences.