Wood on Words: 'Lie’ and ‘lay’ cause confusion

Barry Wood

Of the various forms of the vexing verbs “lay” and “lie,” the rarest is “lain.” So I was particularly disheartened to see this recently in the first third of a 64-word sentence: “much of the forest had been lain waste.”

The phrase meaning “to destroy; devastate; make desolate” is “lay waste.” “Lain” is not part of the “lay” family; it’s the past participle of “lie.” So it should have been “had been laid waste.”

And so it goes with this troublesome twosome.

I have been planning to write a book on these words — probably a relatively small book, even with outsize type. Perhaps this will get me started on it.

For the time being, I’m going to dig into them in the next few columns. In order to do it justice, I’m going to have to roll out some grammar terms, so consider yourselves warned. I’ll be borrowing liberally from “The Chicago Manual of Style” here.

“A verb has five properties: voice, mood, tense, person and number.” Today I’ll confine myself to the last three.

“Person” is determined by whether it’s “the person speaking” (first person), “the person spoken to” (second person) or “the person or thing spoken of” (third person).

“Number” simply reflects whether one person is involved (“singular”) or more than one (“plural”).

A typical conjugation of a verb would go like this: “I lie” (first-person singular), “you lie” (second-person singular and plural), “he, she or it lies” (third-person singular), “we lie” (first-person plural) and “they lie” (third-person plural).

This should all sound familiar from those dear old school days.

“Tense shows the time in which an act, state or condition occurs or occurred. The three major divisions of time are present, past and future.”

When we look up “lay” and “lie” in a dictionary, we find the following forms (listed in the order of present, past, past participle and present participle):

For “lay”: “lay,” “laid,” “laid,” “laying.”

For “lie”: “lie,” “lay,” “lain,” “lying.”

One potential problem we can spot right away is the crossover factor. The past tense of “lie” is “lay” — spelled and pronounced the same as the other “lay.” The guardians of language evolution never should have allowed this to happen.

It should help to realize, however, that “lays” cannot be a form of “lie,” because this special third-person singular variation (adding an “s”) is only for the present tense of verbs.

Examples:

“He lays the newspaper on the table with her morning coffee” (third-person present of “lay”).

“He laid the newspaper on the table and went to make coffee” (third-person past of “lay”).

“The newspaper lies on the table” (third-person present of “lie”).

“The newspaper lay on the table for hours” (third-person past of “lie”).

The newspaper never “lays” on the table.

Punctuation Station

Here’s an example of the difference a comma can make.

“I would like you to meet my two friends Stumpy and Moe.”

“I would like you to meet my two friends, Stumpy and Moe.”

In the first one, I’m introducing people who are two of my friends. In the second, I’m introducing the only two friends I have.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.