Lay the verb on the ground and step back

There’s annoying, and then there’s these two verbs.

Language Log has had several posts about some American hack called Dick Cavett and the huge number of comments he got in response to his maiden blog post about the shocking state of the English language. (Start here for Language Log.) I wonder if Jehovah’s Witnesses or other religious cranks now turn up at the door and instead of saying, “Isn’t the state of the world terrible today?”, they say “Isn’t the state of English terrible today?”, at which point you’re meant to see how Jesus can save the grammar of English even although he spoke Aramaic.

Those two pernicious verbs “lie” and “lay”, which I believe I’ve mentioned before, have popped up again. There’s no answer to these two. I know perfectly well how to use them distinctively, but I find it easy to get them confused, especially when I’m using “lay” (as in the past tense of “lie”) and then start wanting a direct object when I shouldn’t. The Americans shouldn’t really have any problems since, as far as I can tell, they prefer “lay” in both functions, although it really grates on my ear.

Strunk and White recommend that the distinction between the two should be maintained, but even when they were ranting writing, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of America was using “lay”. Although Bill Bryson follows the same line in Troublesome Words, he also recommends avoiding “lie” and “lay” if you aren’t sure.

The usage in the Spectator largely agrees with mine, although in No. 7 (Thursday, March 7, 1711) “When I lay me down to sleep…” which, in my mind, sounds like something out of the King James Version rather than idiomatic English from the early 18th century. However, there’s also “…and pulling out his Purse offered to lay me ten Guineas…” from No. 145 (Thursday, August 16, 1711). Of the twenty-five times the boys laid something down, it was rules nine times and maxims three times.

From Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic Poesy I find

…they have bought more Editions of his Works then would serve to lay under all the Pies at the Lord Mayor’s Christmass.

The grammar of this one has me scratching my head. I’m inclining to the passive form of the infinitive “to be laid” because I’m looking for an agent and not finding one. It seems to me that Dryden’s infinitive is lacking a subject. Odd. Not a usage I’ve encountered before. Another curiosity comes from Bacon’s Essays (Of Simulation and Dissimulation):

The great advantages of simulation and dissimulation are three. First, to lay asleep opposition, and to surprise.

Not an idiom that’s still employed in English. It makes more sense to me if I turn “asleep” back into a prepositional phrase (which is the origin of the adverb).

Locke seems to have a mania for “lay by” meaning “put aside” or “ignore” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Time to lay down this entry.


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