‘Lay Down’: My Burden

This is not click bait! Miley Cyrus actually is relevant to this post!

This is not click bait! Miley Cyrus actually is relevant to this post!

Everybody seems to be writing open letters to Miley Cyrus, especially, it seems, pop musicians who aren’t nearly as successful as she is. The latest example is a one-time indie personage named Sufjan Stevens, who put this on his blog:

Dear Miley. I can’t stop listening to #GetItRight (great song, great message, great body), but maybe you need a quick grammar lesson. One particular line causes concern: “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Miley, technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING, an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. “I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.” Whatever. I’m not the best lyricist, but you know what I mean. #Get It Right The Next Time. But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up. We all make mistakes, and surely this isn’t your worst misdemeanor. …

Even leaving aside the total uncoolness of correcting someone’s grammar in public and the absurd notion that it’s necessary or even good for popular song lyrics to be follow standard usage (who can forget the classic tune “I Cannot Obtain Any Satisfaction”?), many things are very wrong in just the opening of this peroration. (I’ve cut it off at the halfway point because it’s just too tedious to continue.) The baffling designation of to lay as an irregular verb stands out. Then there’s the Faulkner link, which takes you to the “AMA Style Insider” Web site—and I know I always get my style advice from the American Medical Association. The anonymous insider who wrote the post there does a competent job of explaining that lie is intransitive and means “To be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position” while lay is transitive and means “To put or set [something] down.” But he or she does not claim that Faulkner made a mistake in his sentence “He lays his hands flat on Addie, rocking her a little” (he’s merely using the present tense of lay) or in the title of the novel in which that line appears, As I Lay Dying (past tense of lie). The takeaway for Sufjan: If you’re going to be pissy, at least make an effort to get your story straight.

The fact remains, it can indeed be difficult to sort out when to use lie and lay, each of which has considerably more connotations than I set out above, and which get even thornier when you bring in a second meaning of lie (to tell an untruth) and when you get into the past or past-participle tenses. Nearly 10 years ago, on Language Log, Lingua Franca’s own Geoffrey Pullum offered what he incorrectly called “Some Disastrously Unhelpful Guidance” on navigating the differences. But he was correct when he observed that it’s very hard to do so because of  “chaotic input.” For example, The Bible gives us, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” But the 17th-century New England Primer has, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” which is actually OK because lay is being used transitively (me being the object). “The situation isn’t going to get any better,” Geoff concluded, “so this merging of two verbs is likely to continue to spread.”

The merging he observed, and that has indeed spread, generally goes in one direction: using lay instead of lie, as Cyrus sang in her song, which is officially titled “#GETITRIGHT” and was written by Pharrell Williams. It’s not at all a new thing, it is or at least traditionally has been colloquial, and over the past couple of centuries, at least, it seems to have occurred mostly in the United States. Here are some examples, in reverse chronological order, culled from Language Log commenters, from my own investigations, and from the Oxford English Dictionary (which incidentally calls intransitive lay a “dialectal or an illiterate substitute for lie“):

  •  ”Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’ / I was layin’ in bed.”—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue,” 1975
  • “Come and lay down by my side.”—Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” 1970
  • “Lay, Lady, Lay”—song title, Bob Dylan, 1969
  • Mr. Dickerson. ‘That was in the day after the other man came off. He told me to lay on his bed. I said, “No; I don’t want to lay down on his bed, and I don’t want to lay on mine any more, not after he has been on it.’”—U.S. Senate Hearings, 1943
  • “… well, he got kind of mad because we wanted him to lay down on his stummick and be tied up, and he said he wouldn’t, because the floor was a little bit wet in there and he could feel it sort of squashy under his shoes.”—Booth Tarkington, Penrod and Sam, 1916
  • “The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before.”—Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884
  • “I determined to obey one of our backwoods sayings, ‘Lay low and keep dark stranger.’”—Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, 1833

Joan Didion’s 1970 novel is called Play It as It Lays. I’d always assumed the phrase came from golf, but Didion said in an interview that it was a gambling expression. Whatever, it was already used metaphorically in 1916, in a novel called The Hidden Spring, by Clarence Budington Kelland: “Keeth nodded. ‘Sha’n't I send a hurry call for the boys? We can git in forty or fifty by night.’ ‘No,’ said Keeth. ‘We’ll play it as it lays.’”

Intransitive lay has been around a long time, but based on what I hear around me, including Miley Cyrus songs, it’s more popular than ever and—among certain demographics—more popular than intransitive lie. If you’re belong to one of those demographics, it just sounds right, and a very powerful Changing Usage Impulse is spurring you on to use it. It’s mainly a spoken thing, and that’s very hard to track statistically, but even in print it’s on the upswing. A Google Ngrams search for “to lay down on” shows a more than 100-percent increase in frequency between 1980 and 2008,the most recent year for which figures are available. (It’s still far outstripped by “to lie down on,” however.)

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An example from 2008 is in a dog-training handbook: “In this case, the dog might first be taught to heel and to lay down on signal.”

So why is lay having its moment right now? Lots of colloquialisms pound on the door of mainstream usage, but this one, uniquely, has a handy halfway house, the way lay can gently slide from transitive to intransitive by eliding the object: “I’m going to lay [myself] down.” Beyond that, one can only speculate. Lay sounds more forceful than lie (in the manner of disinterested and uninterested), to the extent that it presents (to my ears) a slightly different meaning. When you’re lying in bed, well, you’re just lying there, while laying in bed seems more active–something you might want to comment on and maybe sing about. Finally, whereas you need to use a little Long Island Lockjaw to utter lie, you barely have to open your mouth for lay. Never underestimate laziness as a motivation for humans’ actions.

Whatever the reasons, when it comes to saying lay down, I’m sure the words to another Cyrus song apply:

This is our house
This is our rules
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop


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