Monday, December 2, 2013

Writing Lessons From An English Teacher #1: Lay vs. Lie

From a yahoo! news article about today's tragic train accident in NYC, we get this line:

Aerial photos taken above the scene showed several train cars laying on their sides, and one near the water along a bank of the Bronx River.

Unfortunately, the grammar here is also tragic.  Yes.  Reporting serious stuff should require care and good form, not carelessness and bad grammar.  Grammar mistakes can be cringeworthy in light-hearted writing, but in serious reporting such as this, they can be downright disrespectful.

Those train cars aren't laying anything; they're lying on their sides.
This is 7th grade grammar, people.  If you're a writer of any kind, you need to learn this.

Lay = to place or to put.  It's a transitive verb, and it takes an object.  You have to lay something; you cannot just lay in the present tense or in the participle form.

A hen lays eggs.  I can lay the new carpet.  Henry was laying the silverware out on the table.

The past tense is laid; it is NOT "layed," as there is no such word.

The hen laid eggs.  I laid the new carpet.  Henry laid the silverware out on the table.

The past participle (the one that requires a helping verb) is also laid.

The hen has laid many eggs.  I have laid the new carpet already.  Henry has always laid the silverware out on the table.

Lie, when it doesn't mean telling a falsehood, means to rest or to recline.  It is an intransitive verb, which means (for those of you who never listened in your English or foreign language classes) that it has no object (like eggs, carpet, or silverware in the above examples).

The dog lies in the sun.  The train cars are lying on their sides.  I want to lie down and rest.

Where it gets complicated is the past tense, which is "lay."  You have to think about this one to keep from confusing it with the lay which means "to put."

The dog lay in the sun yesterday.  The train cars lay on their sides after the wreck.  I lay down to rest after working all day.

The past participle is also irregular: lain.

The dog has lain in the sun all morning.  The train cars have lain on their sides ever since the wreck.  I have often lain down to rest after working hard.

There you go, folks.  Yes, these two verbs can be confusing.  Stop whining and learn them.  When you misuse these verbs, you automatically announce your ignorance to the world, and people wonder why you're writing when you clearly don't know grammar rules.

No one is perfect; typos will happen.  But very often it's not a typo with lay and lie; most folks haven't ever bothered to learn the difference.
I see these verbs misused so frequently by writers that I thought it was time I gave a lesson.  Maybe someone will read it and learn.

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