Do you see a basic but common grammatical error in the following newspaper passage?
“If nothing else, it lay the groundwork for a family-led public relations campaign to humanize Kenneth Lay.”
That sentence concerned an interview with Linda Lay, wife of former Enron chief Kenneth Lay. You probably immediately spotted the problem in “it lay the groundwork” — an unintentionally amusing lie-lay error in a story about a man named Lay.
That sentence shows that the irregular verbs lie and lay can cause even careful writers and editors to lay an egg. But no need to lie low — the verbs aren’t complicated, despite their frequent misuse. It helps to remember that TO LIE means to rest or recline, and TO LAY means to place or put something somewhere. (We’ll ignore the forms of lie that mean to fib — that’s a different word and causes no confusion.)
To clarify: The verb TO LIE includes lie, lying, lay, have lain. The verb TO LAY is even simpler: lay, laying, laid, have laid. The verb TO LAY has an object (place or put something): I’ll lay the papers on the desk. The verb TO LIE does not have an object: The papers lie on the desk. The two verbs share a word, unhappily, which probably helps muddy the water. That shared word is lay, and it functions as the past tense of TO LIE (rest or recline) as well as the present tense of TO LAY (place or put). For example:
TO LIE (rest or recline): We will lie down today. We lay down yesterday. We have lain down every day this week.
TO LAY (place or put an object): We will lay bricks today. We laid bricks yesterday. We have laid bricks every day this week.
So back to that newspaper passage: The phrasing “it lay the groundwork” should have been “it laid the groundwork.” It’s a simple past-tense sentence using the verb TO LAY, meaning to place or put. (If the sentence were in present tense, it would read: “It lays the groundwork.” Or, if the subject were plural, “They lay the groundwork.”)
That’s about as complicated as it gets. But before we lay this matter to rest — or let it lie — we should consider several other small hitches in the correct use of lie and lay. There is no laid in the verb to lie. (And no “layed” at all – ever — despite that nonword’s popularity.) So it is always wrong to say we “laid down” yesterday when we mean that we rested or reclined or lay down yesterday. One of the reasons this error is so common is that, in speech, a vowel preceding a consonant usually takes on the sound of the consonant. That means that even when we correctly say “lay down,” it sounds the same as “laid down” because of the silent Y — the sounds merge, and “lay down” becomes “laiDown.” Most blending or elision of sound causes few problems, and can even amuse. For example, “Did you eat yet?” can sound like “Jeet yet?” But in the case of “lay down,” the merging of sound just happens to mimic a grammatical error.
Another problem is that we can become confused by such structures as “I’m going to lay my weary head on the pillow.” We might be tempted to use lie because it seems we’re talking about lying down. But in this sentence’s logic, my head is a direct object — I’m going to place or put it somewhere, same as I would a brick or a block of wood. (No jokes, please!)
A final note: Don’t trust your computer’s grammar or spell checker to catch lie and lay errors. Believe me, it doesn’t have a clue. Throughout this column, my grammar checker made insane suggestions concerning the use of lie or lay — suggestions that would have made the work ungrammatical. Wonderful as such software is, it’s a machine, and machines can’t handle certain intricacies of language. That’s one limit of artificial intelligence. Sometimes we need the real thing.
Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.