John McIntyre

The lay of the land | COMMENTARY

In a comment on Twitter my colleague Jan Freeman, formerly a columnist on language and usage for the Boston Globe, remarked, “I tend to agree with Geoff Pullum and @johnemcintyre that ‘lay/lie’ conjugations are just too complex for most human brains.” Let me explain.

Jeremy Butterfield in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage remarks of lay and lie that “these two words cause confusion even to native speakers of English.”


And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that no one even made much of a distinction before the second half of the eighteenth century, when grammarians began in earnest their efforts to whip English into shape. The record shows that the distinction has been tenuous ever since, kept on life support by grammarians, schoolteachers, and editors.

I learned the distinction in elementary school and have never, to my knowledge, failed to observe the distinction, but I was an obsessive teacher’s pet who had to be correct in every instance. (Once in the eighth grade, I made a silly, inattentive error on a quiz in English class, and the teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, announced it to the class. I protested mildly that other students had made errors on the quiz, and she answered, “When you make a mistake, it’s notable.”) Don’t take me for a template.


The evidence of my twenty-five years of teaching editing at Loyola University Maryland is that the lie/lay distinction was not present in my students’ idiolects. They either had never been taught the distinction or the teaching had not stuck. For them, a normal and unexceptional English sentence would be “I laid down for a nap after a heavy lunch.” My solution, that they have the principal parts of lie and lay tattooed on their wrists, was facetious.

There are still people for whom the distinction is an important shibboleth, or, as Bryan Garner says in Garner’s Modern English Usage, “a mark of refinement.” But without hawk-eyed schoolteachers and a corps of battle-hardened copy editors, two decimated populations, it’s hard to imagine that that mark of refinement, already largely gone in speech, will survive in print.

Projections of change in English usage are notoriously unreliable, but I am willing to put down cash money that the change is irreversible, that in time laid and laying will be widely acceptable as standard among the principal parts of to lie.

If I’m mistaken, I don’t expect that I will be alive for you to collect.