Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lay, Lady, Lay

This essay first appeared in print at The Writer's Lounge.

Lay, Lady, Lay

"Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed." So sang Bob Dylan, and with those words condemned a generation of writers to confusion where "lay" and "lie" are concerned. I can't tell you how often I see the question come up in the various writing groups I belong to online and off. Sometimes the question is followed by a confident, "I'm pretty sure I know which one, but I just want to double-check." This is frequently followed by, "I was wrong!" and much forehead slapping.

However, this is one that I am very confident on (running for my McGraw Hill grammar reference schoolbook from the '60's and flipping to page 120). The biggest part of the confusion, as I see it, is that the simple past form of "lie" is "lay", and that throws our minds for a loop. We want simplicity in our language. Being a writer is hard enough without the present tense of one word doubling as the past tense for another. It borders on the downright rude. How can you find just the right word when it's running off and taking on new meanings? Let's sort it out.

Do you remember studying grammar in school? Remember learning the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs? Yes? No? Not sure? Here's a quick summing up: a transitive verb takes an object. For instance: I threw the ball. The word "I" is the subject of the verb and "ball" is the direct object; the thing being acted on. An intransitive verb does not require an object: I walked. Some verbs switch back and forth, but we're not going there today.

No, instead, we're going to have a refresher on tenses. I know you know them, but it never hurts to go over them again. The main tenses are present, past and future. These are the nice, simple ones: I am, I was, I will be. Then there are the perfect tenses: present perfect, past perfect and future perfect: I have been, I had been, I will have been. These are samples of the indicative mood, active voice, simple form. There is also the progressive form (I am driving), passive voice (I am driven) and imperative (Drive!) and subjunctive moods (if I drive), but we're not going there, either. Have a cup of tea and absorb this information dump. When you're ready, we'll move on.

To make all the tenses, we have to have all the parts of a verb: the present, past and past participle. It's okay, really. Take a deep breath and check them out.

Past Participle

Okay, you're all refreshed on transitive and intransitive and the tenses. Are you ready for what's next? Here we go: "Lie" is an INtransitive verb. I lie on the bed. You lie on the couch. He lies on the rug. They lie down. Notice that no one is doing anything to anything else. We're all just lying around. Past tense: I lay on the bed. You lay on the couch. He lay on the rug. They lay down. Past participle: I have lain on the bed. You have lain on the couch. He has lain on the rug. They have lain down. Again, no one has done anything to an object. We have lain around long enough. On to "lay".

"Lay" is a transitive verb, so it needs an object. I lay the keys on the table. You are laying the plates on the counter. He lays the rug on the floor. (Presumably before he lies down on it.) Past and past participle tenses: I laid the keys on the table. You laid the plates on the counter. He has laid the rug on the floor and is now lying on it.

See? It's really very simple. Just remember the three parts of the verbs and which one takes an object. Maybe Bob Dylan's song will help, after all. Cut this article out, lay it down where you can see it, then lie down and sing to yourself, "Lie, lady, lie. Lie across my big brass bed."

© 2000 C.E. Barrett

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