Lay, goosie, lay

Liz Climo’s cartoon for today, 12/30, the 6th day of Christmas (“Six geese a-laying” — that is, laying eggs):


Prescriptively incorrect, but extraordinarily widespread, lay down (in an imperative to the geese to lie down).

Geoff Pullum on Language Log, 5/10/04 (“Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful guidance”) takes off from this Partially Clips cartoon —


— to lay out the facts:

There are three relevant verbs, one transitive and two intransitive, two regular and one irregular; and they share certain shapes for certain parts of their paradigms. The verbs are lie “deliberately speak falsehoods with intent to deceive” (intransitive; fully regular), lie “be recumbent or prone or in horizontal rather than upright position” (intransitive; irregular), and lay “deposit, set down, or cause to be recumbent or prone or in horizontal rather than upright position” (transitive; fully regular in phonetics, irregular in written form).

… The general assumption is that the problem here is confusing the two verbs — simply not knowing one from the other. But that’s not quite what’s going on. Everyone knows the difference between them, at least in some uses. For a phrase like The island of Madagascar lies several hundred miles off the east coast of southern Africa, no one is tempted to say lays. For a phrase like This hen lays a minimum of seven eggs a week, no one is tempted to say lies. For You are lying in your teeth, you lying bastard no one is tempted to say laying. For I got laid last night no one is tempted to say lain (it’s a special idiom, of course, but the point is that the idiom is based on the verb lay, and we are intuitively aware of that). We know how to tell these verbs apart to at least some extent.

Nonetheless, it is true that the intransitive verb meaning “be recumbent” and the transitive verb meaning “deposit” (which is essentially the causative of the first one: it means “cause to lie”) are beginning to share some of each other’s uses in a way that is not fully accepted as standard yet. In fact the pool of relevant data is beginning to be (from the purist’s point of view) highly polluted.

… If hardly anyone achieves error-free learning of the standard pattern from [the] chaotic input, it’s not surprising. … The situation isn’t going to get any better, so this merging of two verbs is likely to continue to spread. Sometimes you’ve got to play it as it lays (incorrect).

4 Responses to “Lay, goosie, lay”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The strangest variant I’ve seen is the occasional (but still all-too-frequent, in my Prescriptivist opinion) use of sentences such as “He lay his hand on my knee”, which seems like it’s either an avoidance of the sexual implications of laid or hyper-correction by someone who’s been scolded for saying/writing something like “I laid down”.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    The description on Language Log says the fib kind of lie is fully regular, and lay is irregular in written form, presumably because the y/i adjustments for “laid” instead of “layed” are not predictable.

    I’m not sure why “lying” counts as fully regular, compared to skied/skiing, or getting lei’d/leid/leied in Hawaii, or clayey soil getting clayier and gluier. It seems like y/i spellings are all compromises between ugly and uglier.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      Well, die , tie and vie all form their present participles with -ying. Seems pretty “regular” to me.Ski is different, because the base verb has no e. The only other one-syllable verbs with -ie that I can think of are hie and (a relatively recent use of) pie, and I can’t recall seeing a present-participle form of either of them.

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