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Lay your aching head on the pillow

I am just about thisclose to giving up on lie and lay forever in the classroom.

By now—I turned in semester grades today—I have taught editing to more than 500 Loyola undergraduates, and I can tell you that lie/lay is a lost cause.

This semester I explained painstakingly that the distinction has largely vanished from spoken American English but that it survives in formal written English. The distinction is explained in their textbook. I explained it in class. I tested them on it and explained it again and wrote out the permutations on the board and included it in exercises and explained it once more.

I warned them to expect it on the final examination. They were allowed to use the textbook and other references during the examination. And a handful of them still got it wrong. The traditional distinctions simply do not register with them. They do not hear them.

If there are any superintendents of schools out there reading this blog, I’d like to give you some advice: Require your English teachers to be certified in ESL. Formal written English may not be a foreign language, but it is a foreign dialect of English to my undergraduates, who appear never to have had adequate instruction in it during the dozen or more years of schooling before they had the misfortune to fall into my hands.

Those English-as-a-second-language people know their job, and they have the materials for presenting the subject. Mainstream them.

Now I think I have to lie down.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:14 PM | | Comments (20)


Perhaps you should say, "I think I will lay me down," perhaps even to rest.

Certainly, lay your burdens down.

But never, never lie.

Just tell them you're lying. Or that it's Opposite Day. That'll show 'em.

Lay/Lie is the one grammar rule that does not click with me, no matter how many explanations I read of it nor times it is explained to me. (This is not to say I have perfect grammar, but usually I at least understand the rules I've broken when I break them.)

For context, I'm a 25-y-o who has spent more time than most of my peers reading about grammar and writing for uses that expect the English language to be properly used.

Whatever it is about lay/lie/laid/lies/laying...I just don't get it.

This is what I said about lie/lay in a Johnson comment (

"The transitive forms of these verbs are usually causatives of the intransitive (like the two forms of hang). In cases like these, the derived verb (the causative in this case) is frequently regular in some way, while the original intransitive is irregular.
"Intransitive lie is irregular, which we already know, but transitive causative lay (= 'cause to lie') undergoes a slight vowel change and becomes regular, with the usual past tense postvocalic {-d} suffix.
"Similar remarks obtain for the irregular intransitive rise and the regular causative raise (= 'cause to rise'), among others.
"As for lie itself, a graphic may be helpful:"

John, I hope you mean that you're giving up teaching it, not that you're giving up the distinction entirely. Have you tried suggesting that your students substitute synonyms to test which word is correct? i.e., if "put," "place," or "prepare" makes sense, it's lay, and if "recline" or "be situated" makes sense, it's lie.

John, I hope you mean that you're giving up teaching it, not that you're giving up the distinction entirely. Have you tried suggesting that your students substitute synonyms to test which word is correct? i.e., if "put," "place," or "prepare" makes sense, it's lay, and if "recline" or "be situated" makes sense, it's lie.

When I was at prep school my American Literature teacher taught us that "laying is immoral." However, the best laid plans of mice and men oft gang agley. Not to boast, but the distinction never bothered me. I think, however, that the human brain has a certain capacity not to learn certain things. As well as I can spell, I almost always have to look up 'category.' If I don't, I spell it 'catagory.' I don't know the terminology, but there must be a word to describe this blind spot. Maybe it's blind spot? I don't think it's a matter of illiteracy or stupidity. Any ideas?

As a second- (actually third-) language learner of English, I've simply assumed that "lay" is transitive and "lie" is intransitive. No idea if that is the real difference but it seems to mostly keep me out of trouble.

It's possible that the average undergraduate's brain has a tendency not to remember certain things. This apparently becomes worse every new semester. Just keep your red pencil handy, along with a bottle of your favorite beverage.

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

John Lawler, your linked graphic was perfect. Cleared the whole thing right up for me.

"Away in a manger, no crib for his bed/The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.."


Following up on your Simon and Garfunkel '60's classic nod, I figured a memorable lyric line from the great Minnesota-born tunesmith, the former Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan), might be fitting, as well.

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.

"Lay" definitely worked for me way back then, when my teenage hormones were admittedly working overtime, w/ that now signature plaintive, moaning wail of the young Dylan taking us impressionable teens to erogenous, dangerous zones, and sensual places we had only dreamed of; that now somehow seemed within our grasp, lead on by this amazing songster/ poet's mesmerizing musings.

Let's face it, "lie, lady, lie", just wouldn't work for this engaging song, where 'getting laid', (if I may put it so crudely) was almost a right-of-passage for most post-pubescent, sex-obsessed, '60s era, early 'boomer' males

As those zany Monty Python mock-BBC announcers would say, "now for something completely different" .......... yet appropriately, still grammar-related.

A couple of evenings back I was watching our local L.A. nightly news on, I believe, Channel 9/ KTLA, and a disturbing field report came up re/ a very sad multiple domestic murder/ suicide incident from earlier that day. The on-scene reporter proceeded to interview a young Hispanic gal, probably 16-17 years of age, allegedly a close apartment neighbor of the family who had been brutally murdered.

At one point in the interview the young neighbor said something to the effect of, "he shouldn't have tooken their lives.", rather than, of course, ".... taken their lives".(Easy for ME to say. HA!)

Frankly, I immediately cringed in dismay. This young woman was likely close to graduating from LAUSD w/ her high-school diploma in hand......... or maybe not, if this little piece of fractured grammar is any indicator. She may have been one of the thousands of minority (soon to be majority) L.A. Latino, and African-American youth who are sadly dropping out of high-school in droves these days, barely literate, and likely destined to lives of struggle, low-rung employment, and continued generational inertia. Sad, but true.

Oh well, Eve. Now (like Prof. McI.) I think i have to 'lie' down, and 'took' a nap. HA!


A few weeks ago at work, I had an argument with a new coworker about lay and lie. He started by asking about the forms of lie, but he didn't believe me when I laid it all out for him and kept insisting that it looked wrong.

This is a guy who is graduating with a bachelor's in English language with a minor in editing. He's had classes in grammar and usage and a few in copyediting, and he still didn't get it.

Grammar girl has a good chart to explain it:

That's an argument that is almost worse than the "then/than" one. I think it's almost a lost cause because of how lapsed our language is. With languages like Arabic, Chinese, etc. there is a strict standard. However, with English and Spanish, it's a little more relaxed which is why I think we struggle so much with word-usage.

In Britain I don't get the impression that confusion is as widespread as it seems to be in the US on this (though it's certainly not absent). I'm in my early 30s and have no problem with the distinction - nor any memory of having ever been formally taught it. My partner of a similar age but more London-dialect speech than my fairly Standard British English will naturally say things like "I'm going to lay down" in casual speech but is aware that it's 'non-standard' and would accurately use the standard forms in anything but the most informal writing, without having to look anything up (I'm pretty sure - maybe I should set up a test...)

That link to Grammar Girl is interesting, Brittney - partly because even someone calling herself 'Grammar Girl' on the internet finds it hard and habitually uses memory tricks and checks books to get it right, and partly because of the palpable confusion (about all kinds of grammatical terminology, not simply the verbs in question) of many of the commenters, who seem to have been the victims of attempted sticklerism by ineffective teachers.

Janne, you're right in the transitive/intransitive thing - that is 'the real difference'! But matters get confused because 'lie' is irregular and 'lay' is regular (in phonology if not in orthography) and the form 'lay' appears in both verbs. (Chickens lay eggs [present, transitive]; I lay on the beach all day [past, intransitive].)

Have no problem with either pair.
However, I've never seen thisclose before. It's beautiful, and it made my evening. Thank you.

Thank you for your kind words about ESL teachers, John.

One of your SC counterparts pounded the present-tense distinction in my head, and that has stuck. It's the other tenses that I've completely forgotten since graduation.

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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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