Wilson Gray wrote (disapprovingly) on ADS-L this morning about someone who wrote “underlaying definitions in your assumptions” — with underlaying for standard underlying. This moderately common usage isn’t in Brians’s Common Errors (although Brians does have an entry for underlining instead of underlying). It goes beyond the usual lie – lay issues (intransitive lie vs. transitive-causative lay) in that it involves two semantically similar transitive verbs, underlie and underlay.

(For some sensible but pointed discussion of lie vs. lay, see Geoff Pullum’s postings “Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful advice”, here, and “Laying and lying: the alleged perfection of Australian English”, here.)

Here’s the relevant material from NOAD2 on the two under- verbs:

verb ( -lying; past -lay; past part. -lain) [ trans. ]

(esp. of a layer of rock or soil) lie or be situated under (something).

• be the cause or basis of (something) : the fundamental issue that underlies the conflict | [as adj. ] ( underlying) the underlying causes of poverty and drug addiction.

verb ( past and past part. -laid) [ trans. ] (usu. be underlaid)

place something under (something else), esp. to support or raise it : the green fields are underlaid with limestone | figurative a whine underlaid by an occasional choking

This reproduces the lie – lay distinction, but as a stative transitive vs. agentive transitive distinction rather than as a stative intransitive vs. agentive transitive distinction. Now the verbs are very close in meaning indeed.

What we see in the example Gray cited (and in the examples to come below) is the extension of the agentive transitive to stative uses. Some of the examples (like the first below) strike me as merely borderline, while others are jarring to me; but underlay with abstract subjects like concept, idea, definition, or assumption is pretty common.

Total Petroleum Systems Underlaying Northern Ohio, Appalachian Basin (link)

Photon Science blog
Primers explaining the underlaying concepts
These primers give you an overview of the theory behind research with synchrotron light. To understand most of them it would be useful, but not always necessary to have some university-level education in physics. (link)

Most of the studies cited in the bibliography and virtually all full-fledged message system analyses investigate the underlaying structure of message systems. Some also relate that structure to theories of the cultural functions of institutions and to theories of cultivation and media effects (link)

What could be underlaying cause for few erections in 9 yr old?
Erections are only few and really only are self made. He can make himself have an erection but normally doesn’t wake up with one. I am concerned as I am his mom. (link)

 Fundamental concept that underlays Piaget’s theory: (link)


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