I need a lie-down

September 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

One of the fascinating things about living in a different country where the people ostensibly speak my mother tongue is seeing how different the common language mistakes are. Certain spelling mistakes that are common among English schoolchildren could never be made by Canadian children, and vice versa.

What really gets my goat, though, is that Canadians could care less (ok, I had to get a dig in at that nonsensical corruption of the real phrase, couldn’t care less) about the difference between lying and laying. I’ve just read a book by a big press with two incorrect uses of the verb “to lay.” How many people gave that book their professional attention and didn’t notice the error? Actually, the more intriguing thing is not why the mistake is so common as to be almost universal in Canada (is it also in the US?), but why it isn’t entirely universal. A few people do get it right, both in conversation and in writing. Why is that?

I don’t know whether Canadian Oxford or Gage have given in to the pressure of usage, or whether they uphold traditional values, but here’s a handy little guide to correct usage.

To LIE means both to tell an untruth and to be in, or get into, a horizontal position (also to “lie in ruins” or to “lie ten miles outside London” etc). It’s the horizontal one that causes the problems. Telling an untruth is I lie (present), I lied (past), I was lying (past), I will lie, but being horizontal is I lie, I lay, I was lying, I will lie. The difference is only in the simple past.

To LAY means to put. The thing about lay is that it’s transitive, which means it must take a direct object, which means that you must lay SOMETHING. It might not be so confusing if we weren’t also laying things on horizontal surfaces, just as we are when we lie. But anyway, it’s I lay, I laid, I was laying, I will lay. You can’t say “I was laying in bed one night…”

Sometimes I lie in bed at night thinking about that time last month when I lay awake until five in the morning.

When I was lying on the beach, a woman came along and laid her baby down next to me.

I lay my baby down every night and then I lie down next to her while she goes to sleep.

Just as I was laying out the cards for a game of patience, my wife called up the stairs to say she was going to lie on the couch for a bit.

So the rule is, if you’re putting yourself horizontal, you LIE. If you’re putting something or someone horizontal, you LAY. Clear as mud, right?


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