Wood on Words: The return of 'lie' vs. 'lay'

Barry Wood

“E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds used to grow sprouts, and they can lay dormant on the seeds for months.” — A microbiologist quoted in a recent Associated Press story.

Welcome to “lay” vs. “lie,” round 2.

In the above quotation, “lay” should have been “lie.” Why?

Because the bacteria were not doing anything except being on the seeds. “Lying” is one of those positions we put ourselves in. “Laying” is for putting something else into position.

In grammatical terms, we say that “lay” requires an object, something to be acted upon.

When I’m changing from being mostly vertical (standing or sitting) to mostly horizontal, I’m “lying” down, NOT “laying” down. I’m altering my own position, but I’m not taking anything else down with me.

So “lying” is like “sitting” or “standing.” “Laying” is like “placing” or “putting.”

Here are Webster’s principal definitions of “lie” and some usage examples (the attributed ones are from John Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations”):

“To be or put oneself in a reclining position along a relatively horizontal surface” (often with “down”).

“On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down.” — Woody Allen

“To be in a more or less horizontal position on some supporting surface (said of inanimate things).”

In William Shakespeare’s “King Henry the Fourth, Part II,” the title character says, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The title of a 1990 episode of the TV show “Columbo,” in which the detective matches wits with a dastardly dentist, pays homage to that quote: “Uneasy Lies the Crown.”

“To be or remain in a specified condition.”

“The analyst is trying to discover the motives that lie hidden.”

“To be situated.”

“Canada lies to the north of us, and Mexico lies to the south.”

“O! that way madness lies; let me shun that.” — from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

“To extend; stretch.”

“Now we can fully see the rocky road that lies before us.”

“To be; exist; be found.”

“The poet said he was inspired by the love that lies in her eyes.”

And “lie” can mean “not to be”: “To be buried or entombed.”

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; his soul’s marching on!”

In this sense, “lie” makes frequent appearances in epitaphs. The poet John Keats suggested this one for himself:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

And this one, composed by Robert Louis Stevenson, probably could work for many of us:

“Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much: — surely that may be his epitaph of which he need not be ashamed.”

Dog owners: If your pet just stares at you when you order it to “lay down,” try asking it to “lie down.”

OK, it’s unlikely to make a difference to the dog. But at least it would be correct.

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