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The Case of the Lay Flat Collar

In theory, advertising copy doesn't need to be elegant or even eloquent: its job is to make us pay attention and take action. But should it adhere to generally accepted rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax?

I've been pondering that question ever since I came across an ad campaign for "Lay Flat Collar Tees" from century-old apparel company Hanes. The product name incorporates two prominent usage errors: Lay instead of lie and no hyphen between lay and flat.

And how has the public responded? With a collective shrug, accompanied by a near-unanimous meh.

Well, as the film mogul Samuel Goldwyn used to say, include me out. Although I can relish an apt colloquialism in naming or copywriting, I remain enough of a prescriptivist—with a particular peeve about lay/lie errors—that the Hanes product name makes my head throb. The collars lie flat, I protest through gritted teeth. Back when parts of speech were taught in public schools, we all learned that lay is a transitive verb, the kind that takes an object (today the workers will lay carpet); and lie is intransitive (I'm going to lie on the carpet until this peevishness passes). (Lay is also the past tense of lie, which confuses a lot of people unless they commit it to memory. Today my collar lies flat; yesterday it lay at the bottom of the laundry basket.) We also learned that compound adjectives require hyphenation: a well-dressed man, the wine-dark sea.

And then I notice a third error, one of logic rather than usage: T-shirts don't have collars at all—by definition, they're collarless! So what's lying flat here? (Other than me, prostrate in grammar grief?)

Alas, Hanes has no sympathy for the likes of me. No, the company scorns me as a pitiable grammar geek. Check out this TV commercial in which a mild-mannered grammarian corrects the snarky, wrongheaded Hanes man:

Mr. Lay Flat has a snappy answer for Mr. Correct Grammar (who's wearing a T-shirt with a rumpled, non-Hanes "bacon neck"): "Michael Jordan didn't do lie-ups his whole career. He did layups." Gotcha!

Except . . . not. If Hanes had spared an additional five seconds, Mr. Correct Grammar could have had the last word: Yes, the basketball term is layup (or lay-up), but that's because lay is in fact transitive here. Something is being laid up, and that something is a ball. From the Dictionary of American Sports (1961): "On this type shot, the ball usually is banked off the backboard, but on occasion the player, on a straight run toward the basket, will 'lay' the ball up to the basket without using the backboard." Ha! Who's got the gotcha now?

The near-universal acceptance of the Lay Flat name seems to me an indication of how lax we've become about what used to be considered language errors. (You may replace tolerant or uninformed for lax, if you wish.) When I asked a sophisticated and well-educated friend for her response to Lay Flat, she said only that it seemed "descriptive." Another literate acquaintance got downright testy in a Twitter reply: "Call me a barbarian if you must, but I think it's time for lie/lay distinction to die. WHY can't both words mean both senses?"

Why indeed? Why bother with usage rules at all, as long as most of the people, most of the time, catch your drift? If no one's staging a boycott on grammatical grounds, is your gaffe a goof or a triumph?

Forbearance toward commercial language infractions is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the late 1990s, the Apple slogan "Think Different" provoked objections among people—average folks, not just language professionals—who insisted that the modifier should be an adverb, differently. (In fact, their indignation was misplaced: different here functions as a noun, parallel in function to "Think Pink," the facetious slogan in the 1957 Audrey Hepburn movie Funny Face, or "Think California," the name of an exhibit currently on view at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.)

For examples of real outrage over grammar-defying slogans, though, we need to go back to the Mad Men era. In 1954, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced the Winston brand with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," setting off a cultural skirmish, if not an actual war. Like, not as? Horrors! The poet Ogden Nash published a verse in The New Yorker that included the line "Like goes Madison Avenue, like goes the nation." Walter Cronkite, then the anchor of The Morning Show on CBS, took a principled stand, refusing to read such illiteracy on the air. An announcer filled in for him. (This was in the days when broadcast journalists routinely read ads as well as news, so Cronkite's principles were not exactly unsullied.)

Naturally, the uproar only increased public awareness of the new brand. Within months, according to Malcolm Gladwell's account in The Tipping Point, Winston vaulted to second place in the American market; by 1966—still using the "like a cigarette should" slogan—it had become the country's bestselling brand. Before retiring the slogan in 1972, Winston ran ads whose copy defiantly asked, "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?" The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, had come in 1961, when Merriam-Webster accepted "like" as a conjunction in its Third International Dictionary—and used the Winston slogan as an example. (For this and other sins, the New York Times called the dictionary "bolshevik.")

Not to be outdone, a rival brand, American Tobacco Company's Tareyton, in 1963 introduced its own ungrammatical slogan: "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!" Us as a subject was an intentional faux pas, meant to suggest the patois of an unschooled barroom brawler. Protests were milder this time around, although my brother reminds me that our father—a strict prescriptivist himself—procured a lapel button that depicted the slogan with the "us" crossed out and replaced with "we."

Another milestone in the ad-vs.-grammar wars occurred in 1966, when Raid insecticide launched an ad campaign with the slogan "Raid Kills Bugs Dead." (The slogan is often attributed to the Beat poet Lew Welch, who was employed as a Foote, Cone & Belding copywriter at the time, but the claim has never been verified.) Many critics pointed out, redundantly, that the slogan was redundant, but no less an authority than former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass has called the slogan a modern classic. Yes, it's probably redundant, he allowed, but "after all, the subject is overkill." Today, the Raid website's URL is www.killsbugsdead.com.

(Visual Thesaurus contributor Stan Carey, who lives in Ireland, informs me that beginning in the early 1950s the Domestos brand of cleanser in the U.K. used a similar slogan, "Kills all known germs dead." "Killed X dead," says Stan, is fairly common in Irish and Irish English; it's a close translation of the Irish idiom marbh gan anam—literally, "dead without a soul.")

When "bad" grammar contributes to marketing success, does that make it "good"? After all, the rule-flouting does grab our attention. But that's only if we recognize the infraction for what it is: intentional slumming on the wrong side of the tracks. Lately, I've wondered whether copywriters and brand managers are aware of the rules they're breaking. The erroneous substitution of  lay for lie is so common in conversation that it's no surprise to see it creeping into the written language—even into multimillion-dollar ad campaigns.

Of course, that's what editors are for. It's becoming tough to find one, but I found a glimmer of evidence that Hanes may have at least one editor on its payroll.

While I was paging through the Hanes Lay Flat Collar website I discovered that the T-shirt came with a guarantee. Here's how it's worded:

A collar that lies flat. A neckline free of scratchy tags. Guaranteed, or your money back.

A collar that lies flat. Ahhh. Someone at Hanes cares about us fussbudgets after all! Thank you, Hanes, for acknowledging that a few of us want good grammar and good-quality underwear. And yes, we'd rather fight than switch.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 29th 2010, 6:33 AM
Comment by: Barbara Z. (Norfolk, VA)
"Guaranteed, or you money back." Really? Not YOUR money back?

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Betje K.
Fun and informative piece, thanks! Congratulations on gaining Haynes attention. In advertising, isn't all publicity supposed to be good?

I had simply envisioned "lay flat" as a command directed at the collar of an indulged husband by a wife giving him a final check at close range before he walked out the door. Doting mothers (and perhaps wives) give children instructions indirectly by pretending to tell clothes how to behave. "[Collar,]lay flat" would provide a beloved man a more tactful reminder to pay attention than commanding "mind your collar."

Thanks for the thought-provoker.
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
I'm afraid I do not understand how the word different can be used as a noun.

For noun forms we have difference, differentiation and, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, differentness.

I wouldn't say, "I need to put some different in my exercise routine." Diversity statements don't advise us to "respect one another's differents."

How can it be correct to enjoin consumers to "think different"?


That's just a big old bowl of wrong. ;)
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Barbara Z: Good catch! The typo has been fixed.

Mark A.L.: On "different" functioning a noun, I defer to the mavens at Language Log. Here's a link: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004302.html
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
An earlier Language Log post by Eric Bakovic might also help:
First, it's not clear that different is supposed to be an adverb in this case. Apple started this ad campaign after Steve Jobs' return in 1997; he had been ousted from Apple some 12 years earlier. Those 12 years saw Apple hit its lowest point, with little in the way of the kind of successful product innovation it's now well-known for. Jobs was always a maverick-type, wanting to do what nobody else dared to do (and sometimes failing at it, of course). Different in this case could thus easily be interpreted as a kind of object of think, as if in answer to the question: "What is the one word you think of when you think of Apple and Steve Jobs?" The answer could be "Innovative", or "Awesome", or "Different" -- hence, Think Different.

(And for another example from advertising, consider AT&T's new campaign, " Rethink Possible," mentioned by Nancy here.)
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
The youtubed ad seems to demonstrate that the Hanes people were aware of the grammar issue and were consciously flouting it (yes, you could even say flaunting it). Otherwise, they would have just let it pass, instead of arguing in its defense. The comeback in the ad is of course silly, but it fits the profile of a muscular attitude toward language and life, unruffled by the niceties of nitpicky academics. That's probably what they were aiming for.

In any case, I do agree with your friend that we should just drop the lie/lay distinction and get over the headaches it has caused. People should be aware of the intended audience, though: if someone is writing a proposal that will be judged by conservative grammarians, then the writer should be extra careful to get it right. In any case, the "bolshevik" (quote-unquote) dictionary's current Collegiate edition has the following usage note under the entry lay: "LAY has been used intransitively in the sense of 'lie' since the 14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since. Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in familiar speech and is a bit more common in general prose than one might suspect. Much of the problem lies in the confusing similarity of the principal parts of the two words. Another influence may be a folk belief that lie is for people and lay is for things. Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in learning to keep lie and lay distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary).
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
For further thoughts on the lay vs. lie distinction, see these two articles from last year: " It's Only Rock and Roll" and " Play It As It Lays."
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Sharon D. (Topeka, KS)
If Shakespeare had lived in twenty-first century America, he would have named his play "Like You Like It."
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Sharon: The creators of this musical are way ahead of you!
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Barbara A. (Granada Hills, CA)
Could it simply be the advertisers didn't want to associate their brand with the word lie? In branding and copywriting word choice is key to establishing the product. My guess is they didn't want Hanes and Lie together.
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 1:14 PM
Comment by: Sharon D. (Topeka, KS)
Ben, my first encounter with that quote predates the musical. In fact, from the looks of it, my first encounter with that quote predates the birth of everyone connected with the musical.
Tuesday June 29th 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
No, Barbara. I suspect that like so many others, they wrote what came to mind most easily -- what was heard so much more often. That way, their brand name would be remembered.

Lie and Lay are bones of my contention, too! I strangle on them when listening to American and Canadian football games, what with all the players strewn around the field doing who knows what! They are laying there...

Laying what, I want to know. I won't be so crass as to wonder another 'w'!

But Nancy, re:
Other than me, prostrate in grammar grief?
At least you weren't prostATE with grief!
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 2:55 AM
Comment by: Eve S. (Beaverton, OR)
Could it be that a Lay Flat Collar is the opposite of a Clerical Stand-up Collar?
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 4:32 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Eve S.: Fabulous. Wish I'd thought of it!
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 8:47 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'd say that "to lie" in the sense of being prone occupies about the same position in ordinary English that "whom" does -- appropriate for contexts in which language precision is deemed critical, and confusing to the vast majority of speakers.* (When's the last time you heard someone spontaneously say "lain" as the past participle, golly?)

I think it's safe to say that if the "correct" use of a construction requires schooling -- i.e., you would not learn it simply by interacting with native speakers -- it's effectively defunct in the vulgate. It can live on for a while in the written language, but if that's the only place you encounter it, it's on its way to becoming something that's only a few steps from mastering arcana like "Op. cit".


* On that topic ... someone asked me once whether she should use "whom" in emails. It wasn't as easy to answer that question as I might have imagined. [ http://mikepope.com/blog/DisplayBlog.aspx?permalink=1761]
Thursday July 1st 2010, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
About 'Think different!' as a slogan. I can see the grammatic sense to that without it functioning as a noun. There's an omitted 'of it as' in there in my head. But then my head is rather strange! LOL It is certainly catchy, and far less offensive to my ear than 'differentness' would have been. Nor does it seem to be so blatant a transgression as the 'Lay flat' slogan which lays an egg in my mind. And I don't want my eggs there!

'Think pink' had another advantage in that it rhymed, which may be why it was accepted back in a more formal day.

I remember the Winston ad, and the follow up that had a character in an not too well fitting black professorial robe with a cock-eyed cap and tassel. He'd written the slogan on the blackboard, but crossed out the 'like' and put 'as'. Either way, the controversy only helped Winston sell cigerettes!
Wednesday July 21st 2010, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Pocono Pat (PA)
This is my first day, first post, and I could not resist responding to this article. Here are a few observations:
Language changes over time to coincide with the culture; in a word, it is "living" in order to be relevant. Should we call each other thee and thou?
Grammar is rarely taught in schools today. I have seen writing by teachers and instructors that leaves much to be desired; I'm glad they are not teaching grammar/spelling, etc. to my children.
Advertising is meant to get your attention -- in any legal manner! I'm sure many people learned for the first time that there are correct and incorrect ways to use "lay" and "lie." Look at it as a teaching moment.
Wednesday October 19th 2011, 11:57 AM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Mike P: Just saw this now, but here's an example of "lain": "Someone threw it in the corner, and it has lain there ever since." It doesn't sound archaic to me, but maybe I'm archaic myself!
Friday December 30th 2011, 2:44 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
All I can say is that I would probably wear a lapel badge with US crossed out and WE written in. That ad would drive me bonkers every time it aired. But then again, there's an article on VT featuring puns, and puns and intentional grammatical errors are actually a wee bit related. Intentional grammatical errors do catch the public eye, regardless how annoyed some of us get with the improper use.
Ben Zimmer, I saw the site for that musical LIKE YOU LIKE IT, and it brings back a memory of when I was helping cart around some tweens to their houses after a huge pool party at our community pool and every time a tween got caught saying, "And I was, like, 'Woah, dude!'" some fully awake adult would say, "You weren't 'like' anything, young man/woman!!"
I had to cough several times to cover my laughter so feelings wouldn't be hurt, but, yes; it was that funny.

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