Yesterday, writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker offered a delightful lesson on the perils of learning grammar from rock and roll lyrics. Among the grammatical malefactors are Bob Dylan, whose song "Lay, Lady, Lay" uses the verb lay in an intransitive fashion instead of lie. Likewise, Dylan sang "If not for you, babe, I'd lay awake all night," and "I wanna lay right down and die." But he should get points for using lay in the transitive too, as in: "Lay down your weary tune," or using lay as the proper past-tense form of lie: "I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay." Still, if the foremost bard of American popular music can't be consistent on this point, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The erstwhile Robert Zimmerman is hardly alone in his lie/lay confusion. A commenter on Margaret's piece mentions Kris Kristofferson's song "For the Good Times" as an example of correct transitive lay: "Lay your head upon my pillow." But Kristofferson has another song, "Help Me Make it Through the Night," that goes:

Take the ribbon from your hair, shake it loose and let it fall,
Lay it soft upon my skin, like the shadows on the wall.
Come and lay down by my side till the early morning light
All I'm takin' is your time, help me make it through the night.

(That's one transitive lay, followed by one intransitive lay in the very next line, for those keeping score at home.)

Long before the era of folk-rock singer-songwriters, the verb lay showed ambiguity between transitive and intransitive, even among the best writers. Thomas Lounsbury, in his laudably level-headed 1908 book The Standard of Usage in English, points to numerous examples of intransitive lay in the 17th through 19th centuries, appearing in the work of everyone from Francis Bacon ("nature will lay buried a great time") to Anthony Trollope ("What's the use ... of laying in bed when one has had enough to sleep?"). In fact, the whole idea that lay should only be used transitively and lie intransitively didn't begin to emerge until some time in the latter half of the 18th century. Lounsbury claims that when Laurence Sterne (a serial lay/lie conflater) published A Sentimental Journey in 1768, a leading reviewer of the day critiqued his "vulgarism":

"But Maria laid in my bosom," wrote Sterne. "Our readers," remarked the irate reviewer, "may possibly conclude that Maria was the name of a favorite pullet."

Flash-forward to 2009, and Margaret Hundley Parker muses: "All these rocker guys want their women to lay down, but the question is, lay what? An egg?" Three and a half centuries of crying fowl (excuse the pun), and still the critics of intransitive lay don't seem to be making any headway!

The sources of confusion are many. In standard English, lie and lay have irregular verbal paradigms that can be hard for even native speakers to keep straight:

 

lie
(intransitive)

lay
(transitive)

present tense
lie lay
past tense
lay laid
present participle
lying laying
past participle
lain laid

Note that the past-tense form of lie is lay, as in Dylan's "I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay." So that's one factor muddying the picture. Another is the phonetic similarity between past-tense phrasal verbs "lay down" and "laid down"; since they sound pretty much the same in regular conversation, those two forms are rendered practically interchangeable for most speakers. And then there's the curious fact that lay once could actually mean "lie" when used with a reflexive pronoun, as in the prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep." If the reflexive pronoun dropped out of this construction over time, it may have influenced subsequent generations to opt for intransitive lay ("Now I lay down to sleep").

Finally, there are certain set idioms where intransitive lay seems preferable, despite the grammar books. One such idiom is "play it as it lays," an expression from golf that has been extended metaphorically, as in Joan Didion's 1971 novel of that title. Supreme grammar grouch Dick Cavett wrote on his New York Times blog, "Try playing it as it lies. It works just as well." But does it? That sounds unidiomatic to my ear. Similarly, if Dylan had sung "Lie, Lady, Lie," I don't think it would have had the same lyrical impact. Perhaps in these cases there's a poetic force at work: lay rhymes with play in "play it as it lays," while in "Lay, Lady, Lay," the word lady has the sound of lay in its first syllable.

In Language: The Loaded Weapon (1980), Dwight Bolinger sums up the matter: "Many people use lay for lie, but certain others will judge you uncultured if you do. Decide for yourself what is best for you." In other words, play it as it lays, grammar-wise.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 17th 2009, 2:07 AM
Comment by: Libby H. (Sydney Australia)
So 'lay down you arms anbd surrender to mine'is okay?
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 2:14 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
"Uncultured!", screams the label from where it has lain across my shoulders. The cultered judgment of others has been laid upon my being.
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Libby H, that's fine. "Lay down your arms and lie a while in mine." would be a grammatical reference point for all other songwriters. (I think!)
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
I believe there's a case for saying that the 'ay' sound is intrinsically more attractive than the 'eye' sound.

bay, day, fey, gay, hay, jay, Kay, lay, may, nay, okay, pay, pray, ray (of sunshine), say, stay, they, way, is a list of positive or neutral words spoiled mainly by the negative 'nay'.

by, buy, cry, die, dry, fry, guy, Hi, high, lie, my, nigh, pi, pie, pry, rye, wry, awry, sigh, tie, try, vye, why is a list of not-so-positive or neutral words lightened mainly by the greeting 'Hi' and the thought of a piece of 'pie' washed down by a whisky 'rye'!

So a sensitive soul like Kristofferson presumably uses 'lay' in all circumstances because it has a feel-good factor, so important in the song you quoted, Ben.

The difference between 'pray' and 'pry' sums it up really.

And anyway, 'lie' is stymied by its association with telling untruths. I would much rather my lover whispered ungrammatically to me, "Lay down next to me," than, "Lie down next to me," which is correct but sounds almost clinical!
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Ben wrote:

"Similarly, if Dylan had sung "Lie, Lady, Lie," I don't think it would have had the same lyrical impact."

Indeed. Especially when we remember that "lie" has another meaning entirely. Somehow, all the romance and lyricism dissipates at the thought that Dylan - had he been grammatical - could have been heard to be pleading for his lover to deliver falsehoods across his big brass bed.

To my ear and mind, the ungrammatical "lay" seems far preferable to the incongruity of the ambiguous "lie".
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Jim B. (Brandon, FL)
Dylan had to let the listener know he wasn't just offering a lady a resting spot. This is the clearest, best-sounding verb available, so he used it. The lesson is in communication, not grammar.
Maybe a new meaning is evolving, an expansion of a definition of the verb "lay" mentioned in Brewer's Phrase & Fable: "to strike out lustily on all sides."
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Regarding "Nature will lay buried a long time...". Isn't that the same as "A valley lay before us when we reached the peak."

I think there is such a use for 'lay'. And since the golfing term is 'lay of the ball', 'lay' would be more appropriate there.

My mind is working over that Nature lay line. I'll be thinking about it while I'm having needles sticking out of me for acupuncture later this morning! Sigh!
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
"Nature will lie buried for a long time..." seems to have a different meaning. Double Sigh!
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane B: Regarding "Nature will lay buried a long time...". Isn't that the same as "A valley lay before us when we reached the peak."

Nope, because in "A valley lay before us," lay is just the past-tense form of lie. There's no way lay could be past tense in the Bacon quotation.
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Here's more of what Bacon wrote. Maybe someone can help me sort it out.

Quoting:

Neither is the ancient rule amiss, to bend nature, as a wand, to a contrary extreme, whereby to set it right, understanding it, where the contrary extreme is no vice. Let not a man force a habit upon himself, with a perpetual continuance, but with some intermission. For both the pause reinforceth the new onset; and if a man that is not perfect, be ever in practice, he shall as well practise his errors, as his abilities, and induce one habit of both; and there is no means to help this, but by seasonable intermissions. But let not a man trust his victory over his nature, too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive, upon the occasion or temptation. Like as it was with AEsop’s damsel, turned from a cat to a woman, who sat very demutely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her.
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
That's what my husband just told me, Ben. I think of that 'valley lay' as a different version (meaning) of 'lay', that is, 'spread out'.

Bacon's 'nature' was the abstract nature, nature of a person rather than of 'Mother nature', but still, there's something that seems better about his way of writing that than if he used 'lie'.

I admit to being wrong in this. I'll say what students so often do: It sounds better!
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
All this talk of Bacon has made me hungry, so here is an apt recipe:

Bake three sponge cakes - two chocolate and one vanilla. Lay one of the chocolate sponges on a large plate and smother with butter cream. Now lay the vanilla sponge on top of the chocolate sponge and smother with butter cream. Lay the remaining chocolate sponge cake on top of the vanilla sponge cake and smother it with whatever you have handy.

You now have a delicious layer cake - enjoy! Proving that the verb 'lay' has more important uses than in soppy romantic songs!
Tuesday March 17th 2009, 11:58 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
Bacon = meat candy.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 5:47 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
You should post more articles like this, this was really interesting!
Tuesday May 24th 2011, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It seems likely to me that Dylan/Zimmerman used folk-ish constructions to achieve a particular voice, which is all over his lyrics. He's not exactly an uncultured man, as this from "Tangled Up in Blue" suggests:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

Or this from "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go":

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
Tuesday May 24th 2011, 3:59 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey J. (Dover, NH)
This an interesting article, but the title, and the part where you talk about golf, bother me a bit. I've never seen "play the ball as it lays" until this article. I went on an internet search and could find nothing definitively saying you have it correct. I did, however, find references at USGA's website in their rulebook that used the term "lies". I'm going to have to say that in golfing parlance, "play the ball as it lies" is likely correct.
Sunday August 21st 2011, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
The difficulties that lie / lay present for the average English user are complicated by the fact that lie also means "to not tell the truth" with a third conjugation and further by the indifference of the average user to the difference between the meanings of the transitive and intransitive (i.e., to put at rest or to be at rest) as it is almost always completely obvious from the context. I would just pick one of the two, lay, and one conjugation for both transitive and intransitive and move on. Fixed.
Monday August 22nd 2011, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Oh please, will you stop it ? You don't have to be a genius to learn these three verbs and their conjugations:

lie-lay-lain
lay-laid-laid
lie-lied-lied

If I can use them correctly, it must surely be easier for a native speaker.
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 7:13 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
Not necessarily. And for many reasons. The biggest reason would be Americans are bombarded from birth by mixed up lies and lays coming from all the other native speakers running around who have decided it doesn't really matter. It is not that I do not know how to use the words correctly, I am just advocating for a way to make it easier for all (American) English users.

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