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How the dead lie

A reader who has seen news articles about the late William Donald Schaefer “lying in repose” and “lying in state” wonders what the distinction is, and which is the more proper.

An article by Daniel Engber a few years back in explained that you lie in state if your coffin is displayed in the rotunda of U.S. Capitol and you are given a state funeral. A deceased president honored in the East Room of the White House or a senator in the Senate chamber would be said to lie in repose. That is a strict view—although Mr. Engber points out that outside Washington, the terms are often used interchangeably.

A somewhat more nuanced distinction was provided by David Gura at Mr. Gura consulted Donald A. Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office: “According to him, when a member of government dies, if his casket is on display in a government building — including the Capitol — he lies in state. If his casket is in any other building, he lies in repose. If the person is not a member of government, he lies in honor.”

Regrettably, our website had Mr. Schaefer “laying in repose,” prompting an email from a former editor that fairly shrieked. (We fixed it.) We might just be able to sort out state and repose, but I am very much afraid that we are destined never to have much luck with lie and lay.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:21 PM | | Comments (6)


John, I would point out that you know (or would have, if you were alive) that you've finally made it when you've been assassinated instead of murdered.

Yeah, but if it's covered by the NY Post, you'll have been "slain," no matter how you slice it.

I had an 8th grade English teacher who made sure that everyone who went through her class knew the difference betwenn lie and lay. Too bad that it is apparently too much to expect from the professionals at the Sun.

Further, in a quibble that transcends grammar or linguistics, I would maintain that it is the BODY of Governor Schaefer that lay in repose, not the Governor himself. The Governor "left the buliding" some time last week. His body -- and his memory -- are being honored now.

I liked the second, more nuanced distinction and thanks for finding it.

But question is: did they really know it - that is, do they never err now - or did they just memorize your example sentences and pass your test?

Anyway, the distinction is not half as useful as that between "rise" and "raise", and that one's never mentioned though it's going, too.

And anyway: I believe a number of those sentences - like "his body lays in state" - are really English middle constructions, which makes them perfectly fine.

Consider "she doesn't frighten easily". In it, "she" is not the semantic subject of "frighten", but its object. The sentence doesn't mean "she finds it difficult to frighten others" but rather "it is difficult to frighten her". Theme (object) becomes subject, verb remains 'active', no agent (subject) is (often can be) specified, and an adverbial adjunct is used.

"His body lays in state" = "his body was lain in state". Possible? Why not?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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