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:




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 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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