>"You lie!"

>No, this isn’t about Joe Wilson’s rude outburst during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress. It’s about one of my many pet peeves (imagine that, a house full of peeves running around, crying for attention, making a mess everywhere) – the verb “to lie.”

My students get this wrong all the time and they groan in frustration whenever I bring it up, because (a) they don’t get it, and (b) they don’t understand why it matters. Actually, lots of people don’t understand why it matters, but for writers I don’t understand how you could not aspire to write with precision. Precision means clarity, clarity means understanding, and anything else is sloppy. I know I frequently make mistakes on this blog, although I try to avoid them, but that’s the hazard of writing quickly and without an editor. Still, my errors tend to the typographical, I think, rather than the grammatical, and there’s a difference.

What prompts this mini-rant is an article that ran in today’s Staunton News Leader, our local daily newspaper. I see frequent errors in this paper, and those disturb me, but I know that the paper has a tiny staff of young writers, and I give it some leeway. But this article, about Tiger Woods’s automobile accident yesterday, was an Associated Press story, and AP should know better. It reads in part: “Windermere police chief Daniel Saylor told The Associated Press that officers found the 33-year-old PGA star laying in the street with his wife, Elin hovering over him.” Laying what, you are entitled to ask.

I am about half way through Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, a book that I intend to finish but am not enjoying. (I put it down to read several other books, but I will get back to it.) On page 2 is this sentence: “They went in the front room and Doc laid down on the couch and Shasta stayed on her feet and sort of drifted around the place.” Laid what down?

The verb “to lay” is a transitive verb. The past tense is “laid” and the past participle is also “laid.” I lay the book on the table, I am laying the book on the table, yesterday I laid the book on the table, I had laid the book on the table. Given the sexual connotation of “lay” and “laid” you’d think people would remember that it’s a transitive verb (but then, that would require them to know what a transitive verb is). The verb “to lie” (meaning to place oneself in a horizontal position) on the other hand, is intransitive. No doubt people get confused because of the past tense of “to lie” but it just isn’t that hard to get it right: I lie down, I am lying down, yesterday I lay down, I had just lain down when the phone rang.

Bryan Garner in Modern American Usage has this to say about the distinction between lie and lay: “Very simply, lie is intransitive—it can’t take a direct object. But lay is always transitive—it needs a direct object . . . To use lay without a direct object, in the sense of lie, is nonstandard.” He goes on to say that the error is common in speech, but that “using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.” I don’t know that “refinement” is something we necessarily need to aspire to, and in spoken English I’m not too worried about these words, but I expect writers, in writing, to get it right.


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  1. >I've lived for many years in the US and the UK and Joe Wilson's "You lie!" sounds ungrammatical to me. Surely what Wilson meant is "You're lying!". "You lie!" would only have been correct if he intended to remark that Obama had a general tendency to lie. If he intended to say that, it had no relevance to Obama's particular point.

    This is a characteristic mistake made by Chinese speakers, but I would have hoped for better grammar from US politicians.

    As Bush would say "Is our children learning such wrong grammar?"

    Paul Epstein

  2. >Actually, I think Wilson's full comment was lost in the hubbub. What he really said was a silly retort most of us grew out of when we were kids: "You lie like a rug!"

  3. >As our current president would say, "You make a important point." I hope you'll write about others, such as "farther/further," "effect/affect," "awhile/a while," and maybe "raise/rise." As for Joe Wilson's outburst, I think his use of "You lie!" was a form of street lingo that we all use from time to time, taking something like "You're a liar!" and shortening it to "You lie!"

  4. >Oh, believe me, Kevin, I've got a long list, as anyone who teaches Freshman composition must. The one that bugs me even more than lie/lay is the pronoun/antecedent disagreement. "One of the students dropped their book on the floor." Unless that was a jointly owned book, that's wrong. (I know a lot of people who don't care about this one; those people shouldn't enroll in my class.)

  5. >"One of the students dropped their book on the floor."

    How would you render this in correct English? "His or her" sounds clunky. Replacing "their" by "a" loses the fact that the dropped book belonged to the student.

    What is your solution?

    Paul Epstein

  6. >If possession is important to the telling, the gender of the student is likely known and I'd use it. "One of the students dropped his book on the floor." If possession isn't important–simply because the speaker doesn't know who dropped the book or whose book it was–the fix you suggest works fine: "One of the students dropped a book on the floor."

    Although changing to a plural antecedent doesn't work in this example, that's often the best way to fix this problem while still avoiding picking a gender for the pronoun. I agree that in the singular "his or her" is clunky often, so I will often alternate for balance.

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